Pakistan and India came to the brink of war in February this year when their air-forces clashed following a deadly suicide attack in Indian Kashmir’s Pulwama district. This was frightening because the only rational way forward for these two nuclear armed rivals must be peace and not war.
This is the point that Tarun Basu makes in his article for last month’s South Asia Monitor in which he advises that both countries need to acknowledge their mistakes and act in the best interest of the 1.9 billion people living in South Asia. The problem is this is much easier said than done.
That’s because nationalism frequently trumps logic and collaborative negotiations. As Tarun Basu notes, “Apart from the irrational rhetoric and flag-waving self-righteousness that marked the February exchanges between both countries, what stands out from the media discourse on both sides is the denial of truth on the side of Pakistan and the shortsightedness in India to see beyond the manufactured triumphalism of its cross-border air strikes”.
Fortunately, there is some evidence that both countries have begun to move away from the February flashpoint. Indian Prime Minister Modi sent a letter to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on 23rd March, saying both must work together for peace and prosperity in the region. Imran Khan indicated that he had received the letter and disclosed its contents on social media.
Despite this, New Delhi has postponed talks on the Kartarpur corridor- a visa-free corridor in Pakistan where Indian Sikh pilgrims come to visit one of their most sacred places known as Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib. This is an indication that the ice has not yet begun to melt between the two countries.
There are myriad reasons to melt the ice. The overriding one is avoiding the potential annihilation of large segments of the populations of both nations. Other reasons are more positive in that a state of peaceful co-existence establishes the platform for India and Pakistan to work on prosperity for their people.
“Time is of the essence. After the Pulwama incident, the world’s top powers including the United States and China, whose diplomats scrambled from Beijing to Vietnam to de-escalate the situation. There is no guarantee they will be able to do so in the future.”
For India, peace would ensure, among other things, that: The focus remains on sustaining the high growth rate required to become a major economic and political power in the world. Work can be done to reduce the widening gap between the rich and poor and the urban- rural divide. The needs of millions of young Indians who are entering the job market each year creating a major employment challenge can be addressed.
For Pakistan, peace would ensure, among other things: The potential to reduce its India-specific defense spending substantially. The opportunity to focus on human capital development through education, training and skill development – most especially for Pakistan’s huge youth population. These are compelling reasons. But, to date, there has been little progress on the peace front.
India has been reluctant to resume a composite dialogue with Pakistan, a peace process which was started decades ago but stopped after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. On the other hand, Pakistan has offered to hold broad-based talks with India on the nagging issues between the two countries including the issue of terrorism. Pakistan has also promised to meet the targets set for it by the global watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force, related to confronting the militant organizations within its borders that are threatening peace in the region.
All of this is taking place as India is in its national election season. The polls suggest that Prime Minister Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) has a slight lead. No matter who wins, it will be essential for the winner to embrace peace rather than war.
As Tarun Basu asserts in his South Asian Monitor article, “The new government in India, whether BJP or Congress led, will have to find a fresh new approach to resolving the implacable hostility and diplomatic impasse between India and Pakistan that has impeded the region’s integration and held back its collective progress. Likewise, Prime Minister Khan and his leadership team will have to step up to the plate and advocate for peace as well.
Time is of the essence. After the Pulwama incident, the world’s top powers including the United States and China whose diplomats scrambled from Beijing to Vietnam to de-escalate the situation. There is no guarantee they will be able to do so in the future.
The ball is squarely in the hands of the leadership of India and Pakistan. War should not be an option. To borrow a phrase from a well-known song, what they shouldbe saying to each other is “give peace a chance.” This is what their citizens deserve and what this Southeast region and the world needs.