K Shankar Bajpai. Foreign Affairs. Volume 82, Issue 3. May/June 2003.
Ever On the Brink
As one of the world’s longest-suffering victims of terrorism, India had high hopes for the U.S.-led campaign against global terrorists that emerged in the wake of the September 11 attacks. But well into the second year of this “war,” and despite full support for U.S. actions, India finds itself harder put to counter the violence inflicted on it. At the same time, the source of that violence, Pakistan, seems better placed to get away with it.
This bizarre situation arises from the importance of Pakistan to the ongoing effort to secure Afghanistan. Pakistan joined the campaign against the Taliban, its erstwhile client, in part due to international pressure but also in part because Afghan extremists were swiftly becoming a threat to Pakistan’s own security. It is of course an old Wild West custom for the sheriff to co-opt the gunslinger in hunting bigger outlaws—and the Afghan campaign resembles nothing so much as a Wild West manhunt writ large. But problems arise when he who helps the good guys also keeps his ties with the bad ones. The military government of General Pervez Musharraf doubtless confronts severe obstacles in any effort to root out Islamic extremism on its own soil. Islamists carry weight in the country and are said to be beyond government control. In addition, the army feels an irresistible temptation to use terrorists in its campaign against India in the state of Jammu and Kashmir (referred to hereafter as Kashmir). As a result, Pakistan has sought to let what India calls cross-border terrorism in Kashmir continue, as though exempt from the international war against terror.
Whether with Islamabad’s connivance or tacit approval or despite its genuine willingness to stop them, groups directly linked to Pakistan-based extremists have perpetrated ever more intolerable attacks against India, resulting in the crisis that almost led to war last year. The first outrage followed so hard on the heels of the attacks in the United States that it seemed almost a show of defiance against the new international coalition. On October 1, 2001, groups trained and financed by Pakistan, Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed (which were soon designated as terrorist organizations by the United States), organized a brazen assault on the Kashmir state legislature. Then, on December 13, came an even bolder attack on the Indian Parliament, which triggered the deployment of Indian forces to the border with Pakistan. After intense pressure from Washington, Musharraf delivered his now famous January 12 speech asserting the cessation of all further terrorist activity from Pakistani territory. Although all attacks were formally disowned by Islamabad, non-Kashmiri militants based in and backed by Pakistan continued their lesser daily mischief and in May 2002 organized another audacious assault on families at the Kaluchak army base in Kashmir. Again officially denied, this outrage led to India’s outright threat of war. The crisis was defused only by a flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity. And despite Pakistan’s assurances of a crackdown, terrorist incidents continue, including the recent massacre of 24 Kashmiri Hindus by militants disguised as Indian soldiers.
Although war was avoided last year, public pronouncements from both sides about the conflict are not encouraging. They consist largely of each side’s claims that it got the better of the other because it possessed the nuclear deterrent. Was India bluffing, and did Pakistan get off the hook by making empty promises? Or was India ready to face nuclear damage, and did it extract promises that, even if Pakistan now denies them, were firm commitments made to and confirmed by the United States? No one can be sure which view is true, but misplaced confidence on both sides continues to make the conflict extremely volatile.
The two sides’ brinkmanship has also led to two profoundly alarming developments: the United States has made it clear that it cannot exercise any greater pressure on Pakistan to give up cross-border terrorism, and Pakistan has persuaded itself that India can go no further militarily. Both factors encourage militancy against India. Worse still for India, international attention is shifting from pressing Islamabad to crack down harder on terror to urging New Delhi to “do something” to make it worth Pakistan’s while to end terrorism. Before any such trends complicate a dangerous situation further, it is necessary to look again at the real nature of the issues involved and the realistic possibilities for resolving them.
Since the confrontation between India and Pakistan is widely seen as arising from their differences over Kashmir, international attention has focused on coming up with some agreement on the state’s status. This approach misses the basic fact that there can be no such solution to the Kashmir issue, and no improvement in Indo-Pakistani relations, under existing circumstances. The sooner all concerned—India, Pakistan, and potential outside players (especially the United States)—accept this fact, the better the chances for easing tensions and working out an acceptable solution.
Victims of Circumstance
Current circumstances are unpromising, even alarming, in several important ways. First, there are no positive pressures whatsoever in Indo-Pakistani relations, no effective sense of common benefits from cooperation, no mutual trust, and, of course, no dialogue. Perhaps the only thing that kept the two from going to war in their recent standoff was the apprehension that much harm might be done without much advantage being gained.
Even this source of restraint may dry up because both sides believe that they can sooner or later achieve their goals by persisting in their present approaches. India hopes to contain and ultimately defeat outside militancy by using its superior military might—so far without crossing into Pakistan. Pakistan for its part feels it can force India into negotiations aimed at giving up Kashmir by persisting in its low-cost instigation of violence. Since neither side has been able to achieve its objective for nearly two decades, it would be logical to rethink the basic approaches. Instead, Pakistan behaves as though India will have no option but to cave in if kept on the run long enough. An increasingly frustrated India, unable to develop any graduated responses to Pakistan’s challenges, feels driven to apply the ultimate sanction of full-scale war.
The extent to which unrest in Kashmir is rooted in Pakistan’s actions or indigenous Kashmiri resentments is endlessly argued, but two facts are indisputable: Pakistan could not have sustained the current level of violence in Kashmir if there were not substantial local resentment to exploit. India, however, could at least contain, and most probably overcome, challenges within Kashmir if there were no Pakistani support for the militancy. Both facts encourage Pakistan to carry on provoking trouble in Kashmir. Although indigenous opposition to India within the state has been almost wholly overtaken by outsiders, Pakistan continues to exploit enough residual dissatisfaction to keep the levels of violence up—again leaving India with no response short of threatening war.
For India’s containment approach to succeed, there must be a new arrangement between New Delhi and the Kashmiri people that would address the dissatisfactions that facilitated the growth of militancy. Last year’s elections in Kashmir have undoubtedly produced a great opportunity for progress, but for that very reason Pakistan will renew its efforts to undermine any settlement and prolong instability.
In sum, the dangers of another slide to the brink remain alarmingly higher than either the slim and hardly reassuring possibility that the conflict will just continue to simmer or any hope that it will ease up. The only new factor that could make a difference is the United States’ improved relationship with both countries. But if Washington is to be a force for the better, its policies must take into account the full nature of the conflict. The absence of dialogue is hardly the only obstacle. Such a limited focus ignores the compelling lesson of history: when circumstances do not permit of a solution, do not try to find one—try instead to change the circumstances.
Forget Kashmir, For Now
How can India and Pakistan change the circumstances between them? They must start by breaking the chicken-and-egg cycle that prevents even a starting point for discussions. Pakistan says, “Settle Kashmir and normal cooperative relations will follow”; sometimes this position is softened to, “Start settling Kashmir and we can start toward normalization.” India responds, “Start normalizing relations, and options regarding Kashmir, unthinkable today, can become feasible.”
Here India’s experience with China is instructive. For decades after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, New Delhi refused to consider normalizing relations unless Beijing withdrew from the territories it had occupied. The Chinese said any boundary settlement would obviously take time, and that meanwhile India should also be ready to improve relations in other fields. It was when India accepted the inevitability of this approach that the present Sino-Indian detente became possible. Of course, the example is not brightly promising: relations have had several setbacks and still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, the basic approach has been beneficial to both sides.
Pakistanis retort that the Sino-Indian dispute did not involve a restive population, like the Kashmiri people, and, moreover, that it cannot compare to the Kashmir conflict in the public emotion it arouses. No Pakistani leader could be seen as yielding even an iota on Kashmir without courting domestic political disaster. That public emotions have been deliberately kept at fever pitch does not help matters—nor does pointing it out. Some Pakistani public opinion polls have recently suggested that only a very small percentage of Pakistanis consider Kashmir to be the country’s number one problem; the overwhelming majority place it way below a whole host of bread-and-butter issues. Similar polls would be similarly misleading about India. Such readings of public opinion do not allow for the fact that political forces can rapidly inflame public opinion. Even those who may not care much today would be screaming blue murder if they were told that their leaders were “selling out”—or if they thought something drastically wrong was happening on the ground (as has indeed been the case in India after all these years of terror). But this is surely a matter of leadership. Leaders can neither ignore public opinion nor be led by it—they have to try and change it.
But if it is domestically difficult for a Pakistani leader to be seen as slackening in the struggle for Kashmir, it is no less difficult for an Indian leader to be seen as slackening in the struggle against terrorism. This serious challenge has undermined the very idea of starting talks. Nobody can doubt that the two sides must ultimately start negotiating, but India has solid reasons for being cautious. Pakistan says it does not expect talks to succeed overnight, only that they should seriously address Kashmir. And it sounds very logical and practical to urge discussions about both issues: Kashmir and normalizing relations. India, however, has not only already accepted but proffered this principle—in the almost forgotten Simla Accord of 1972, in the framework evolved at Lahore in 1999, and at the Agra summit in 2001. But Pakistan’s present leaders have repeatedly and bluntly dismissed the first two efforts and were largely responsible for the breakdown of the third. India’s doubt therefore remains: if Pakistan’s leaders sneer at past negotiations, how credible is their supposed willingness to talk at any place at any time?
Even more disturbing for India are two other problems with Pakistan’s position: how to reconcile its consistent animosity with any genuine interest in a settlement, and what that settlement could add up to. For talks to become possible, India will have to see an end to, or at least a major decrease in, terrorism. Pakistan, however, feels it cannot let go of the most effective weapon it has ever found to pressure India, without which it fears India will not discuss Kashmir. But for India, this use of terror is not just an attempt to wrest away Kashmir but an expression of unremitting antagonism: Pakistan’s real aim, in this view, lies beyond Kashmir in the destabilization of India as a whole.
The Pakistani position that Kashmir is the basic problem in Indo-Pakistani relations really needs a thorough evaluation. Musharraf himself, in a speech in April 2000, provided the realistic assessment that animosity between India and Pakistan would persist even if the Kashmir problem were solved. Indians would reject his reasoning—that India, by nature and policy, seeks regional hegemony. But they would agree sadly with his conclusion because they see animosity toward India as inherent in Pakistan’s power structure. The army has sought permanent primacy in Pakistan, and the rallying cry of “the nation in danger” has been essential to securing that primacy.
Furthermore, one must consider what Pakistan demands of India. Pakistan is seeking a drastic change in the status quo, whereas India sees the sanctification of the status quo as the maximum concession it can make. Pakistan’s rejection of current conditions is summed up by Musharraf’s comment that if the status quo were the solution, what has Pakistan been fighting for? Hard as it is for the Pakistanis to accept, can there be any real answer except that what they have been fighting for is no longer feasible? However wrapped up in the language of morality or principle or human rights, what Pakistan demands of India is what only a country defeated in war—and pretty badly defeated at that—could ever be expected to surrender. For that simple reason alone, holding Indo-Pakistani relations hostage to Kashmir is deeply unproductive.
To understand the vast gap between India and Pakistan—and to assess what can be done about it—one needs to understand the history behind their emergence as independent states. That history is extremely complex, but one should start with a fundamental fact: there is no parallel in history to the modern Indian state. Never have so many diverse groups—linguistic, racial, regional, and religious—in such huge numbers, been encompassed within a democratic framework. Because no such state had ever existed, many said India could not succeed. In particular, those demanding Pakistan’s creation claimed that the Muslims of India were a separate “nation” and could live only in a state in which Muslims were the majority. (They also demanded that Muslim-majority areas should be part of Pakistan; hence their claim to Kashmir.) Opposing this was the nationalist belief that Indians were all one people, whose varying faiths and practices enriched a common culture. We must recall that initial difference because it persists in a baleful new form: Pakistan alleges that India is not reconciled to the two countries’ partition in 1947 and is still seeking to undo it, whereas India increasingly believes that Pakistan’s use of terrorism is actually part of an effort to destabilize India as a whole.
Working out Hindu-Muslim relations has been the greatest challenge facing India’s social equilibrium since its independence. Tensions between members of the two communities have erupted too often in violence, so Indians are very conscious that their record is blemished. But efforts to improve relations and progress in doing so are surely manifest. Pakistan, however, not only derides India’s efforts and condemns its secular aims as hypocrisy, but officially propagates the teaching of the most awful depiction of Hindus. The point is made not in any polemical sense but to bring out the fact that Hindu-Muslim tensions in India are to no small degree exacerbated by the nature of Indo-Pakistani relations. The days are long gone since each country recognized, through such measures as the 1950 pact between Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, that they had a common responsibility to calm communal tensions. Now, as established sovereign states, they consider such problems domestic and beyond any outsiders’ purview. The issue is further complicated by being one-sided. At the time of Partition, there were some 11 million-15 million Hindus and Sikhs in what is now Pakistan, and about 30 million-35 million Muslims in what was left of India. Today, India’s Muslims number about 140 million (more than Pakistan has), whereas in Pakistan virtually no Hindus or Sikhs remain. This simple fact reveals the two states’ differing approaches toward minorities.
Not having India’s problem of solidifying a nationhood that includes a major minority—if indeed 140 million people can be considered a minority in any sense other than the purely mathematical—Pakistan takes no account of the pressures facing India. The constant insistence that Muslims are a separate people and, worse, the terrorist onslaughts in the name of Islam strike at the heart of India’s social order. Indeed, these actions persuade many Indians that at least some Pakistani policymakers encourage Hindu-Muslim disharmony as a way to undermine their vastly larger neighbor.
Pakistan sees such possibilites because, although Indians are loath to admit it, India’s secularism faces grave threats. What happened in Gujarat last year is a painful illustration of how past dangers can resurface. Most outside observers view the rioting, which claimed as many as 2,000 lives, as a manifestation of Hindu extremism and a frightening weakening of secularism in India. Indians are conscious of this danger and of its role in Gujarat. But what is relevant here is that the unspeakable horrors would have been unthinkable before Pakistan’s terrorism in the name of Islam had spread its poison. It has not been noted internationally that, like Kashmir, Gujarat is a frontier state and as such keenly feels the effects of Pakistani terrorism. The animosity stoked by Indo-Pakistani tensions thus spilled over into Hindu-Muslim violence. Still, the fact that the outrages were contained within a single state shows the strength of secularism in India as a whole. The violence in Gujarat must be taken as a warning of how vulnerable India’s considerable success in building its unique nationhood is to Pakistan’s terrorist campaign. But India’s reaction to the riots also underlines both the strength of its secular pluralism and the absolute importance of guarding it.
Pakistanis often say Kashmir is the unfinished business of Partition and that it should be settled on the same principle: Muslims are a separate nation and Muslim-majority areas of the subcontinent ought to constitute Pakistan. Apart from the impossibility of a country with 140 million Muslims ever accepting such a “principle,” this argument overlooks the dreadful accompaniments of Partition: unprecedented massacres and migration as people crossed new borders. Altering India’s sovereignty over Kashmir (as opposed to giving greater autonomy to the Kashmiris) would run the risk of sparking new violence and bringing Hindu-Muslim tensions to a boil. The Indian position is that Partition, although a wrenching change, is now a fact, and everyone must adjust to it. What Pakistan is trying to do regarding Kashmir is not to adjust to past change but to bring about a new change. Islamabad must consider, however, the huge risks of any such shift, for even before September 11, 2001, they stood to affect Pakistan as much as India. If the Pakistani government is genuinely committed to its current promise to curb terrorism, it has a new reason for needing communal harmony in India, just as India’s efforts to strengthen such harmony would benefit enormously from the growth of moderation in Pakistan.
Fifty years of trying to pry Kashmir out of Indian hands has led Pakistan to use terrorism as its instrument of choice. This policy has served to strengthen within Pakistan forces that threaten that country’s stability as much as India’s. It is for Pakistan to decide if the game is worth the candle—and for those who wish to see a solution to help Pakistan reach the right decision.
Quids and Quos
And what of India? With Pakistan feeling that it is being asked to give up virtually all its aims regarding Kashmir, is India simply to be left alone? Having suffered all these years from what it sees as Pakistani efforts to undermine it, India could well take the position that it owes nothing in return for being left in peace. In fact, the compensation for Pakistan is its own salvation: there is simply no getting away from the reality that the country’s support for terrorism has fueled a destabilizing domestic extremism. But realistically there has to be a quid pro quo for Islamabad.
The Pakistani government will not be able to “sell” the abandonment of terror just by urging its people to believe it is good for the country. It must be able to say that India too has made a substantial concession. Most policymakers in New Delhi understand this need, but the challenge is to devise a package of reciprocal measures that includes a sufficiently large obligation on India’s part. Fortunately, that would not be too hard to put together. Two major changes in India’s present position, advisable in their own right, add up to a demonstrably significant concession. First, New Delhi can step back from its insistence that talks commence only when terrorism is stopped altogether—a substantial reduction in attacks, which alas has yet to materialize, should be sufficient. Second, India should openly accept the United States as a facilitator of serious Indo-Pakistani dialogue, something that Pakistan has long sought and India has long opposed. Such a move would be as much a concession to reality as to Pakistan. U.S. involvement in the conflict has been an indisputable fact, and indeed lately a useful one. If India accepts that the United States will remain actively involved and that it is best to try and shape that involvement, it can bow gracefully without losing anything. Other steps could also add weight to the package, such as restoring ambassador-level relations, if Islamabad demonstrates serious progress against terrorism.
The greatest misfortune stemming from Kashmir’s grip on the bilateral agenda between India and Pakistan is the absence of qualities in the relationship that could bring about a fundamental change in the political climate. If, for example, the two countries had developed a strong economic interaction, there would be powerful vested interests at work in both countries to keep tensions from getting out of hand. Once such interests—and the wide-ranging contacts that flow from them—take hold, solutions regarding Kashmir that neither side would even look at under present circumstances could become thinkable. Analysts often cite the example of France and Germany coming together after far longer enmity than India and Pakistan have endured. Putting aside other weaknesses of that comparison, what helped in the Franco-German case was the specter of a common external threat and the catalytic role of U.S. economic and military aid, both of which are hardly conceivable in the Indo-Pakistani situation. But it is also true that Franco-German cooperation became possible only because far-sighted leaders in both countries recognized the harm caused by historic animosity. And that has to be the starting point for India and Pakistan as well.
Huge—and hugely difficult—changes for the two countries are admittedly involved: realizing that current policies are not only futile but pernicious; facing down the domestic political forces that would seek to exploit new approaches; and throwing away the stifling baggage of some 60 profoundly divisive years. Fortunately, the blueprints for change are ready at hand: the agenda for reconciliation was spelled out realistically at the three summits already mentioned (Simla, Lahore, and Agra) and in two less remembered but even more specific agreements signed at Male in 1997 and Lahore in 1998 between the two nations’ foreign secretaries. The agenda created at these various meetings recognizes the importance of Kashmir and proposes also to tackle other, more manageable disputes (such as those over the Siachen Glacier, the Sir Creek maritime boundary, or the Tulbul navigation project). The two sides also envisaged positive steps such as increasing trade and investment, ending offensive propaganda, promoting cultural and human contacts, and, not least, discussing nuclear issues. (Today, one could add non-bilateral matters such as Afghanistan; India and Pakistan both have obvious interests in that country’s stabilization.) In sum, the way forward is clear enough; only the will to proceed is missing. A convincing commitment by Pakistan to end its support for terrorism should then oblige India to resume a constructive dialogue.
The American Connection
A final point to consider is the role of the United States. This role, of course, is not entirely new, as Washington has often influenced events between India and Pakistan. That influence has been seen in India as hardening Pakistani antagonism, and these misgivings linger. Ever since Pakistan’s original 1954 alliance with the United States, India has been able to breathe more freely about Kashmir only at times when Washington has distanced itself from Pakistan. This distancing has largely been U.S. policy since 1965, although there have been exceptions such as the pro-Pakistan “tilt” during the 1971 Bangladesh war or the use of Pakistan to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. The growing, if still nascent, Indo-American relationship of the 1990s has also seen U.S. involvement in South Asia that has been actually helpful to India—for instance, when India and Pakistan faced off in 1999 at Kargil. As at Kargil, the combination of India’s military posture and U.S. diplomacy persuaded Pakistan to draw back during last year’s confrontation and enabled New Delhi to start cooling things from the Indian side. The lull in the wake of the standoff became possible not because Islamabad and New Delhi reached any new understanding, but because both sides made promises of restraint to Washington, which the United States in turn promised to enforce. Although Indian suspicions about outside involvement in Kashmir have not been removed, India continues working with the United States to try and defuse regional tensions further.
Of course, New Delhi denies agreeing to anything more than having Washington act as a channel of communication, but that is precisely how the United States can contribute most usefully. Whatever name Washington’s role might be given, it has become a crucial player and will remain so. What distinguishes the U.S. role today is the virtual impossibility of seeing any lasting Indo-Pakistani tranquility without Washington’s efforts. The United States can provide no magic solution—and should not try to—but it is an important new element that can help change the circumstances between India and Pakistan.
Each of the three governments faces very difficult decisions. New Delhi must first accept that it can make Pakistan yield its presently successful strategy of proxy war against India only by either resorting to outright war or learning to get the best it can by working with the United States. Islamabad must understand both that it cannot wrest Kashmir from India and that destabilizing India is as dangerous to itself as it is to India. And Washington must accept that to achieve long-term stability in the subcontinent, it may have to side with either India or Pakistan on specific issues, and it must understand that its actions will be viewed in the region in this zero-sum manner.
Washington must make long-term stability the focus of its South Asia policy, and talks on Kashmir are a natural starting place. But Washington’s approach can work only if it bears in mind exactly what talks are meant to facilitate: a new approach between the two sides. India and Pakistan are currently in a dead end, and the only way out of a dead end is to backtrack. But if India is to back away from its present refusal to talk until terrorism ends completely, it needs some credible assurance that it will not be trapped again by impossible demands regarding Kashmir. Pakistan is correct to expect that Kashmir will be the prime focus of discussions. But the least India and outside players can expect from Pakistan is a genuine attempt to ease the other difficulties in the relationship. Washington’s potential to help lies not in trying to invent, much less enforce, a Kashmir solution, but in nudging the two sides into a joint search for positive relations. If U.S. encouragement can stimulate bilateral progress in improving ties, a solution to Kashmir will eventually become possible. The ultimate responsibility, however, lies with the two neighbors themselves. India and Pakistan both face a common enemy in the form of terrorism; only a new effort at cooperation will rid the region of this scourge.