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The perils of Pakistan-India peace


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As an observer of South Asia, I am constantly barraged by bad news — from corruption cases and natural disasters to sectarian violence and grinding poverty.

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 author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at



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.

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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (34) Closed

ip Oct 26, 2012 06:43am
A rather naive comment, considering that India and Pakistan were formed in 1947, while the British East India Company effectively began ruling what was then the Indian subcontinent in the mid-1700s. One understands where you are coming from, but your knowledge of history probably needs to be upgraded. Pakistan-India hostility could have been nipped in the bud, after the tragedy of the partition. It could have been avoided perhaps if in 1947 Pakistani obsession with redrawing borders in Kashmir did not result in the Pakistani attack, it could have been avoided perhaps if yet again in 1965 Pakistani obsession with redrawing borders prevented their attack with the so-called 'Operation Gibraltar', it could have been avoided perhaps if the Pakistani Army did not cause the genocide in Bangladesh in 1971, and perhaps, most foolishly, it could have been avoided had Musharraf's Pakistan not embarked on the Kargil adventure in 1999, and then of course, the Kandahar hijack, the sheltering of Massod Azhar, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the rise of LeT, the uncountable terrorist attacks all leading back to the land-of-the-pure, Mumbai 1993, the sheltering of Dawood Ibrahim, Parliament 2001, the sheltering of LeT, Mumbai 2008, the sheltering of Hafiz Saeed...need one go on? The problem, dear Nasah, is not any 'historic animosity' dating from the times of the Britsh Raj. The problem is much closer to home, only if Pakistanis were willing to put their egos aside and open their eyes.
Feroz Oct 26, 2012 06:28am
The issues between the two countries do look intractable currently. Many Pakistani citizens are too engrossed in their problems to recognize the country is in the throes of a civil war that can lead only to disintegration. India sees no dividends in making concessions to a country run effectively by an Establishment steeped in a regressive Jihadi ideology. India will make no moves till it sees the balance of power shifting in favour of peoples representatives. Till then it will keep increasing its Defense budget knowing Pakistan will be forced to match it and bankrupt itself sooner or later.
bhukh Oct 26, 2012 06:24am
So true, this is a great thought and eye opener for those who spread hatered.I know wind is taking a turn,new generation on both sides will learn to live in harmony.
Pradip Oct 26, 2012 06:11am
What a load of crap (the politest word I could think of). It is views such as expressed by this so called intelligent correspondent that are behind ongoing bickering between India and Pakistan. Thinktanks such as Wilson Center do not wish peace in the subcontinent and keep provoking one side or the other. Why? There is lot of money to be made through selling defense arsenal - provided by the west.
noman Oct 26, 2012 02:34am
India should abandon its hegemonic role in the region, which is unbearable to Pakistan and resolve an issue of Kashmir according to the wishes of those people, that is an issue which also remains bone of contention between both of countries. Therefore India must fathom otherwise it would be real loss of India if it continues to remain in a foolish paradise of South Asian pusillanimous tiger!!
Chaman Oct 26, 2012 12:41pm
Well put ip but we have to move past that stage. Past mistakes can not be undone but the renewed policies of engagement and reconstruction can pave path for progress of both the nations. We have to get past the illusion of thousand year wars and redrawing the borders. We have done enough of destruction through ill concieved strategies, petty politics and hostility towards each other. If we take a deep breath and understand what the past policies have yielded so far, we will in a second realize the futility of hostility. Nuclear arsenal is not going to build nations but peaceful approach and mutual respect will carry us a long way. The people in both the countries realize that. Let s give peace a chance.
jssidhoo Oct 26, 2012 01:13am
When we permit free trade we create a lobby whose livelihood depends on peace. This lobby will be a counter to the hawks.
Zak Oct 26, 2012 04:11am
No Umesh, it is the Indian army that has prevented several Indian goats from withdrawing troops from the front and Kashmir
VIVEK Oct 26, 2012 12:28pm
well said.
Labad Oct 26, 2012 01:45pm
The partition was an abomination inflicted by a power-hungry political elite on a hapless population that only wanted to live together in peace. The result was a million deaths and continuing conflict today. Those so-called freedom fighters have done more to damage this region than all the colonial rulers combined. But who wants to hear the truth? We still glorify Nehru and Jinnah.
hitesh Oct 26, 2012 05:25am
Till the Text-book indoctrination of children at younger age is not renounced, effective and ever lasting peace couldn't be achieved. If Hindu-Muslim couldn't live peacefully within their own country, it will be wishful thinking to seek peace between Hindustan and Muslimstan.
Sanjay Saksena Oct 26, 2012 05:18am
I agree entirely with the veiws expressed by the author. The current bonhomie represents a triumph of hope over experience. A terrorist attack by Jihadi mongrels based in pakistan will blow apart whatever hopes of durable peace that are being entertained by the do gooders of the peace variety.
Venky Oct 26, 2012 05:09am
There were no Pakistanis when the British East India Company (not soldiers) came to India to trade.
Gulshan Oct 26, 2012 04:45am
Umesh, you forgot to mention the third power center i.e. The Mullah Brigade.
brahmin Oct 26, 2012 10:42am
Let india and pakistan first stop showing their bravery against each others fishermen.Let both release them without any further ado.
Sauron Oct 25, 2012 02:12pm
FYI----No Pakistanis or Pakistan those days.
Sultan Oct 26, 2012 01:55pm
Amazing insight! And what may I ask helped the Mughal (read Muslim) rulers of India to rule over almost all of the same supposedly hateful, divided population for roughly 400 years?
shahidmasud12 Oct 27, 2012 12:07pm
You are so right.
Krish Chennai Oct 26, 2012 03:47pm
Before we come to a conclusion on this, the real question we should ask ourselves, have the poor and underprivileged got what they deserved,by this division ? Would their condition have been better off, had this not transpired over 60 years ago ?
Lalit Oct 26, 2012 09:43pm
Every Pakistani should read this. We don't grow hating Pakistan, even if we do grow up hating Pakistan(from a cricket match point of view) we certainly don't learn to hate other religions as we grow up with them, play them and learn with them.
aviratam Oct 26, 2012 08:23am
Add to that list the creations of the ISI and the army - the sundry terror outfits, so-called "assets" and you have a witches' cauldron that would stymie any forward movement by the two countries,.
Umesh Oct 25, 2012 02:57pm
The main power centers in Pakistan are ISI and the military. Since they have no incentives to make peace with India but have all incentives to keep the hostilities alive, India and Pakistan will never have peace in the foreseeable future. That is the truth whether one likes to accept it or not.
NASAH (USA) Oct 25, 2012 01:54pm
Mr. Kugelman -- perhaps you are not familiar with the contempt and hatred the Pakistanis and the Indians treat each other historically -- it is is ingrained and inbrained into their psyche -- contempt for their own and awe for the foreigners. If it were not so -- the British with only 5 thousand white soldiers -- traveling by the the steamships that took one month to arrive from England to India -- would not been able to rule 300 million Indians and Pakistanis for 150 years -- 7 thousands miles away from an island half the size of some of the the provinces of India or Pakistan.
Sudhir Das Oct 26, 2012 04:17pm
Until and unless a strong civilian government takes over Pakistan's polity and rids the country from the all pervasive influence of the Army and the Mullah (the Jihadi forces) there cannot be lasting peace between India and Pakistan. Trade pact, people to people contact, cultural exchanges are fine, but their effectiveness will be very limited if not supported by a strong political will. Will the army in Pakistan allow it to happen? Chances are very remote.
vijay, chennai, India Oct 27, 2012 06:00am
Pakistan should resolve the Balochistan issue according to the wishes of the baloch people
ROHIT PANDEY Oct 27, 2012 11:55am
which is willing***
Neo Oct 26, 2012 11:30am
well said mate...
AHA Oct 26, 2012 11:36am
You got the bull's eye. Excellent post.
vjjjjjjjjjjj Oct 25, 2012 10:01pm
I diagree with your statement "........contempt and hatred the Pakistanis and the Indians treat each other historically
humane Oct 26, 2012 09:12am
India Pakistan relations are based on burden of history, distrust and hatred....we should not expect anything concrete
james Oct 26, 2012 11:09am
media could play a very useful role to improve the situation, like The Hindu in India and Dawn in Pak. while on an international UN mission a middle officer of Pak govt made some comments which was totally biased and anti hindu and anti India. i asked him what sorts of news paper he read. he said mainly urdu. even statical info was totally wrong. all based on low leve local language media. the situation could go a long way if the print and visual media make a better effort for the same
Vikrant Oct 25, 2012 05:23pm
Another "white man" with his pontifications... albeit well meant (if that is indeed so, only he knows for sure) -- but he is living in a Fools Paradise...
Caz Oct 25, 2012 05:21pm
Mr Kugelman , what you need to realise is that pakistan has no valid basis to exist, nor is it politically and economically viable. Pakistan will have to bite the bullet of its miscreation in order for options to be considered that will lead to peace. An excellent first step would be for pakistan to become a fully autonomous state within the Union of India leading to a pragmatic reconnect over time. Pakistani.
walkerjay Oct 26, 2012 09:38am
More exchanges of visits among Indians and Pakistanis would help dispel some of the negativity. Going by the accounts of the very large numbers of Indians who have visited Pakistan -- albeit mostly journalists, academics, civil servants and the like -- hardly anyone has come away without being showered immense warmth and affection not only by their hosts but by people on the streets of Pakistan. With further cultural exchanges quite a bit of mutual animosity could well wither