Improving India-Pakistan relations 2 October 2013

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Improving India-Pakistan relations                                            2 October 2013

Initially, I had a question mark at the end of the above heading. I had been asking myself if, given the recent Manmohan Singh-Nawaz Sharif talks in New York, India-Pakistan relations were, indeed, improving. After further thought, I removed the question mark and converted the heading into a statement. For me, the question is not whether India-Pakistan relations are improving, but how to improve India-Pakistan relations.

Overall, prospects are not fantastic. Despite both nations and their peoples having so much in common—shared history, geography, ethnicities, religions, cultures, development issues, even aspirations—India-Pakistan relations since 1947 have fluctuated from being very poor to freezing. To some extent, this is not surprising. Even before the dominions of India and Pakistan came into being on 15 August 1947, there was significant antipathy between their prospective leaders that foreshadowed future poor relations. The violence, mayhem and upheaval of the partition process also ‘encouraged’ feelings of hatred for the ‘other nation’ and its people. So too did some serious post-British issues over the distribution of money and assets, the accession of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, and water.

The 1965 India-Pakistan war entrenched a mentality—and a physical actuality—of separation and separateness among Indians and Pakistanis. The 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in Pakistan losing ‘its’ eastern wing of East Pakistan/Bangladesh consolidated this silo mentality. Since 1971, there has been little physical contact between ‘average’ Indians and Pakistanis. This is extraordinary, given both nations’ populations and shared geography. Nevertheless, there is only one land crossing between India and Pakistan, two rail crossings (the second of which seemingly only operates one day a week), minimal flights to limited locations, and no ferry service. All of these facilities also are subjected to being suspended by downturns in India-Pakistan relations. For example, the Lahore-Delhi bus service was suspended in December 2001 following a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament. Services resumed two years later. A ferry between Bombay/Mumbai and Karachi has not operated since 1965.

Conversely, elite Indians and Pakistanis increasingly have connected with each other since 1965 through first and second-track diplomatic efforts, trade and travel, and sporting contests, including cricket. However, these people are atypical Indians and Pakistanis who generally are relatively affluent, plus they are well acquainted with, and may benefit from, the prestige and perquisites of international travel and international engagements. Unlike family reunions, their visit to the other nation is not necessarily anything special or enduring. Also, because their business is official or demi-official, such elites often avoid having to undertake the arduous task of obtaining a visa for/from the other nation. By comparison, many ‘average’ Indians or Pakistanis, who often are poor, must trek to New Delhi or Islamabad and beg, plea or suffer bureaucratic difficulties and/or delays in order to obtain a visa for the other nation. Indians and Pakistanis do not make it easy for perceived antagonists to visit.

While all of this sounds difficult and detrimental, poor-to-abysmal relations do not appear to have impacted significantly on either nation. Since 1947 and despite their militarily- and bureaucratically-enforced separateness, India and Pakistan have managed to function and develop reasonably well. Closer relations would have helped, but there has never been any great imperative, compulsion or need for Indian and Pakistani leaders to improve, let alone normalise, diabolical India-Pakistan relations. Indeed, there are hardline political and/or military forces in both nations that severely mistrust the other nation and oppose the development of such relations.

Similarly, and significantly, poor India-Pakistan relations have rarely directly impacted on ‘average’ Indians and Pakistanis. They generally do not suffer from deprivations, dislocations and death (unlike the people of J&K) because they cannot easily access the other nation and its people. This may explain why Indians and Pakistanis have rarely, if ever, developed ‘compelling constituencies’ that have mounted sustained political activities to force their leaders to fix the severely broken India-Pakistan relationship. Compare this with Bengalis/East Pakistanis/Bangladeshis’ response to being suppressed by West Pakistanis in 1970-1971. Other examples not involving the use of arms and force worth emulating are the anti-Vietnam war protests mounted by United Stated and Australian citizens in the late 1960s and early 1970s or the physical and political movement of East Europeans in the late 1980s that ended the Cold War and ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union. Significant people power movements work in resolving an issue about which people feel passionate, dislocated or embittered. However, we don’t see any such ‘bottom-up’ movements in India and Pakistan on the (passionless) issue of improving bilateral relations.

So, why would India-Pakistan relations improve now? There are still no compelling reasons for this to happen—or for this to need to happen. Yes, elite Indians and Pakistanis think that normalised relations would be nice. So too do world and South Asian leaders, and possibly many Indians and Pakistanis. But, as suggested above, improving India-Pakistan relations is not a vital issue. Additionally, the whole ‘top-down’ process is being pushed by each nation’s prime minister who himself is subjected to political processes and personalities. Thus, Nawaz Sharif, with the Pakistan Army breathing down his neck, may be waiting to see who will be India’s prime minister after next year’s Indian elections. India’s incumbent, Manmohan Singh, is subjected to opposition taunts that, in relation to Pakistan, he is weak, soft, ineffectual, complicit, or compromising Indian interests and security, etc. As the larger nation, India could be magnanimous and make a unilateral gesture that might encourage Pakistan, such as reinstituting the stalled Composite Dialogue process with ‘full vigour’. Conversely, Mr Sharif could grant India the long-discussed ‘most favoured nation’ status that would normalise trade relations. Neither gesture seems forthcoming in the short term—nor do improved India-Pakistan relations.

Christopher Snedden
2 October 2013


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