Perhaps owing to a subconscious desire to escape this incessant gloom, I often write about the lighter and brighter side of the region — hence my satirical “Ug Lee American” ramblings, my pleas for engaging untapped sources of cooperation, and my depictions of the US-based Pakistani diaspora as a potential elixir for the troubled US-Pakistan relationship.
This all suggests I should be delighted about the encouraging developments in Pakistan-India relations. In less than two years, high-level peace talks have resumed, trade ties have tightened, and, most recently, a landmark visa agreement was inked.
On unofficial levels, links are even stronger — as they have been for a number of years. The Aman ki Asha media initiative has institutionalised cooperation in a sector that, in both countries, is known for promoting messages of peace. Academia and civil society often host conferences — such as the recent social media mela in Karachi — that bring both nations together. And bilateral business exchanges are a regular occurrence.
Such news is certainly welcome, and I hope more of it is forthcoming. I fear, however, that the euphoria surrounding the current thaw in Pakistan-India ties masks the intractable obstacles to peace that remain — and the problems that could arise if peace is in fact attained.
First, the underlying sources of tension remain. Many thought the tragic Siachen avalanche earlier this year would motivate the two sides to return to the negotiating table to discuss territorial issues. Nearly one year later, nothing has happened. Meanwhile, India remains upset that Pakistan has not taken legal action against those responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks — particularly with Hafiz Saeed parading around Pakistan from his prominent perch atop the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, which wastes no opportunity to spout anti-India rhetoric.
Then there’s public opinion. For sure, many Indians and Pakistanis are fervent supporters of reconciliation. Many more harbor no ill-will toward each other. In fact, with so many of them mired in poverty and focused on daily survival, apathy, not anger, is likely the most prevalent sentiment.
However, a recent Pew poll tells a disturbing story. It finds that nearly 60 per cent of Indians view Pakistan unfavorably, with 72 per cent of Pakistanis feeling that way about India. Particularly striking is the survey’s revelation that Indians view the Pakistani state as more of a threat than they do China or the Lashkar-e-Taiba. Indian officials often insist — and I have been similarly informed by Indian analysts — that these entities, and not Pakistan itself, are India’s greatest sources of concern.
Meanwhile, Pakistani hostility and mistrust toward India, fed by those decades-old, media-propagated anti-India narratives, certainly remain strong. Only days after the announcement of the visa accord, a Pakistani media commentary declared that mere trade ties — a far cry from full reconciliation — “could allow our enemy to shatter and scatter the very foundations of our country.”
There’s also the issue of post-peace blowback. Observers rarely speculate about this possibility, but they really should — because peace could well usher in a new era of Subcontinental strife. In Pakistan, militant anti-India opponents of peace — such as the LeT — could respond violently, perhaps even declaring an anti-government insurgency that enables them to target former security establishment patrons. This is, after all, what other extremists did back in 2001, after Pervez Musharraf’s agreement with Washington obliged him to renounce ties with them. Pakistan struggles enough to contain the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s anti-government campaign; if the LeT were to launch its own rebellion — or join forces with the TTP — the situation could grow quite dire indeed.
I don’t mean to underplay the genuine and unprecedented potential for lasting peace. Normalised trade relations could well provide momentum to both sides to tackle the more bedeviling territorial issues. Islamabad truly seems interested in improving regional relations — not just with India, but also with Russia and Iran, and even with Afghanistan. Both sides have demonstrated impressive restraint during recent periods of crisis. Last year, after terrorists again attacked Mumbai, New Delhi vowed not to retaliate against Islamabad, but instead to work with it to find the perpetrators. Several weeks later, when an Indian military helicopter accidentally drifted into Pakistani airspace, Islamabad allowed the aircraft to land and (after a brief period of detention) sent its crew home unharmed.
This should all be celebrated. Yet, we mustn’t let this happy talk obscure the fact that peace is far from inevitable. Ultimately, the potential for peace comes down to leadership (so much else in the region does as well). Are those in power fully prepared to take the politically unpalatable steps to attain an elusive peace? Given still-formidable obstructionist forces and looming national elections in both countries, the answer may be: Not just yet.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.