The origins of the current impasse in India-Pakistan relations are generally dated back to 2016 and since that year the relationship has descended progressively to even lower plateaus. The milestones of the process are well known. One dimension was major terrorist attacks such as at Uri (2016) and Pulwama (2019). Indian Counter Terrorism responses included a shallow cross LOC raid termed as a ‘surgical strike’ in Pakistan-controlled territory and a deeper air strike into Pakistan—the Balakot strike. The latter episode led to an aerial conflict for the first time since 1971 and marked one more occasion when a path to escalation seemed inevitable but after tottering on the brink, both countries stepped back.
There have been other dimensions to the India-Pakistan downturn—terrorist attacks and kinetic responses are not the only thread in the post 2016 chronology. Legislative changes (August 2019) pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir—the bifurcation of the State and its reconstitution into two Union Territories and the virtual demise of Article 370—are the most significant. To many in Pakistan these measures meant an ‘annexation’ of a hitherto disputed territory. This led to what appeared, on the surface at least, a disproportionate Pakistan reaction with a down-grading of diplomatic relations and a cluster of other measures that usually suggest a state of war or near war. Stepping back from the rhetoric of the import of these legislative changes, it is possible to discern a consensus in both countries on what the precise meaning of these changes is. For most Indians the step amounted to a questioning and debunking of what has been a sense of entitlement in Pakistan with regard to J&K issues. In Pakistan too, the assessment is similar—this was Indian unilateralism aimed at marginalizing Pakistan’s role in a bilateral dispute.
This chronology is not without its contrarian milestones. The opening of the Kartarpur Sahib visa free corridor in November 2019—i.e., post the Balakot air strike and post the legislative changes in J&K—is one. This bilateral agreement would have been unusual at any time in the seven decades and more of India-Pakistan relations. That it should happen at a particularly bad phase of the relationship made it even more unusual. Another contrarian development was the reiteration of the 2003 ceasefire in February 2021 which brought to an end some five years or longer of intensified tactical skirmishing and firings on the LOC. That this happened in the midst of a heightened India-China border tension and on a stand-alone basis, without an overt political or diplomatic supportive process made this unusual. Equally so was the situation which arose earlier this year following the accidental launch of a Brahmos missile which actually went into Pakistani territory but thankfully did not cause any casualties. The response to this potentially dangerous development was uncharacteristic, given the general trend in India Pakistan relations. The Pakistani response was mature and measured—perhaps to a greater extent than public opinion in India has recognized. Both sides in fact handled the situation with greater forbearance and maturity than is generally attributed to India-Pakistan diplomacy.
Yet notwithstanding these unusual positives, it would be a fair assessment that the period since 2016 has been a stark and pessimistic one in India-Pakistan relations. The absence of High Commissioners in respective capitals, the virtually zero political, diplomatic or even sporting and cultural exchanges, almost a complete closure of bilateral trade and finally, the absence of any passenger movements, all point to a dangerously fraught situation. Heightened polemical and rhetorical exchanges further encouraged by the freedom which social media provides to encourage the worse kind of toxicity, provide a good perspective of just where the relationship is today. One incident can again lead to a climbing up the escalatory ladder.
This long impasse has also a wider global context. The pandemic and its crippling social and economic impact stand out, but there are other features also. There has been a progressive deterioration in India’s relations with China simultaneously with a further ratchetting up of the US-China contestation as also a more comprehensive assertion of Chinese power across the entire region. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan in August 2021 also means a new situation. There are semblances to the situation in 1989 when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan coincided with a larger global reordering with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. The present context is also of global change and reordering—but in the opposite direction with the Ukraine War providing one more element of evidence of the cementing of new global divides.
How does this phase of numerous negatives alongside some stray positives compare with a longer span of India-Pakistan relations? In that broader context there is much that is familiar. The mould of an adversarial relationship had set in very quickly after August 1947. Disputed accessions of the Princely States of Junagadh, Jammu and Kashmir, Kalat and Hyderabad contributed but it was the ‘K’ factor which led to the first India-Pakistan War in 1948. This had coincided with both governments struggling to deal with one of the largest known human displacements following Partition. The bitterness caused by widespread communal massacres and ethnic cleansing quickly congealed with this territorial cum ideological dispute.
As the fifties progressed with both India and Pakistan now sovereign entities, their disputes acquired also a regional and international character with alignments in the United Nations and the influences generated by the Cold War all playing a role. Yet notwithstanding this new context, India-Pakistan contestations had through the 1950s a familiar tone to them with the Congress and the legatees of the Muslim League in power in the respective countries. Their mutual debates and acrimony resembled the polemics of the late 1930s and the 1940s when the two protagonists had failed to find a modus vivendi that could have prevented Partition.
But even at that early stage there were nuances, contradictions and counter trends in an already basically adversarial relationship. Alongside a friction-ridden and fractious mould, people-to-people contacts, pilgrimages, sporting events were significant. There was also regular and intense inter-governmental contact—principally to resolve and soften the numerous jagged edges that Partition had left behind. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 was certainly a landmark achievement of that phase. The demarcation and harmonization on the ground of the Radcliffe line over most—but not all—of the India-West Pakistan border was another, and it removed a cause of numerous local cross-border frictions. The parts that could not be demarcated—parts of the Kutch Sindh boundary—erupted into military skirmishes in early 1965 and would only be settled by international mediation. The coastal part of the Kutch-Sindh boundary was not addressed then, and the Sir Creek issue remains an unsettled part of the 1947 territorial demarcation. This is among the reasons for the absence of the larger demarcation of an India-Pakistan maritime boundary—an issue which will continue to have consequences as the naval domain acquires greater salience both bilaterally and regionally.
The area where lack of progress was more evident was Jammu and Kashmir. Here the foundational and ideological issues prevented any meeting of minds as they have ever since too. The 1965 Pakistani aggression into J&K was premised on the presumption that the dispute could be ring-fenced from the rest of the India-Pakistan relationship. The Indian response expanded a Kashmir war across the entire interface; in brief, its answer was that J&K could not be so ring-fenced and responses to actions or provocations on Kashmir would not be geographically limited. We see the continuities in this Indian approach down to the Balakot air strike deep inside Pakistan in response to a terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir.
New factors had however emerged in the India-Pakistan bilateral interface. The breakdown in India-China relations in 1962 was one which inevitably led to a greater proximity between Pakistan and China. The Cold War meant that the US-Soviet rivalry would assume progressively greater heft in South Asia. The 1965 conflict had in addition two almost unintended consequences. The first was that the borders became tighter, people-to-people exchanges more regulated than they had been, and trust levels deteriorated. The second was even more unexpected and was of intensifying federal tensions in Pakistan between its East and West wings. The fact that East Pakistan was left largely undefended in 1965 on the premise that it was in the West that the critical issues lay, meant that the existing alienation on ethnic, economic and linguistic grounds acquired further ballast.
All these factors came to a head in 1971. East Pakistan was now at the intersection of a changed ether of bilateral, regional and international rivalries. A China-US concert was facilitated by Pakistan, but then it found itself checkmated by one between India and the Soviet Union—in the process but also consequently, the dreams of a united Muslim homeland in South Asia sank in the Bay of Bengal.
The emergence of Bangladesh, and the India-Pakistan Agreement at Simla was a recognition of this new reality but very quickly the pace of developments would create other new situations. Possibly within a narrow prism of India-Pakistan relations, things may well have stabilized in the aftermath of 1971. With the cutting down to size of the Pakistan military, it may have appeared to many that grounds now existed for a more harmonious India-Pakistan relationship since the principal driver of animosity was now less influential than ever before.
Regardless of its merits or otherwise, there was just not enough time and space for this thesis to be tested. By the end of the decade, a cluster of changes altered the landscape of the relationship: the revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were two of these which impacted most directly on South Asia. 1979 saw also an autonomous but not entirely unrelated development—the judicial assassination of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—perhaps a blow from which democratic forces in Pakistan are yet to recover. The larger point is that the external environment, something which both India and Pakistan had limited capacity to alter, was now going to impact on India-Pakistan relations to a progressively greater extent.
By 1989, the end of the decade which followed, these trends had further matured and consolidated. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and the fall of the Berlin Wall both impacted South Asia. The former bred a sense of triumphalism in Pakistan that the Kashmir impasse could be finally ended using the template of a religiously inspired military resistance that it had developed in Afghanistan. This idea of an externally sponsored Jihad combined well with the changes taking place in Europe where the fall of the Berlin Wall showed that the post-World War II cartography could be changed. It is not therefore surprising that the beginnings of insurgency in Kashmir date to this time, adding a new intensity to India-Pakistan contestations which have continued since.
It is not as if in the three decades post Simla, positive bilateral developments and positives were totally absent—they were not. 1977 to 1980 saw a significant easing and it appeared to some at least that perhaps, the negatives of the past could be addressed constructively even if not quickly surmounted. But these fade given the negative pressures that built up, especially from the mid-1980s as evidence mounted in India that in its border provinces of Punjab and J&K, the Pakistanis were fermenting terrorist activities. Momentarily the late 1990s again suggested that with a half century having passed since their emergence as separate entities, perhaps the corner would have been turned. That both India and Pakistan became declared nuclear weapon states in May 1998 gave to this possibility an added impetus. Initiatives such as those taken by Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif opened up the terrain of India-Pakistan diplomacy, but the start was to remain just that—only a start. Pakistan’s internal civil military ghosts intervened leading to a border war, then a military coup and another plateau of high tensions and low intensity conflict.
However, that an impulse to stabilize, even improve, was not entirely lost, was brought out after 2004 when for a period of three to four years India and Pakistan traversed a genuinely creative phase of diplomacy when efforts were made to bridge truly irreconcilable national positions on Kashmir. As is well known, these efforts stalled as the hourglass flipped for President Musharraf and then the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 put an unbearable burden on public support in India for any rapprochement with Pakistan. It would not be the only time that Pakistan’s curious domestic dynamic and the impact of terrorist attacks would jeopardize the prospects of stability in bilateral relations. Yet, notwithstanding the frustrations of the slide back post 2009 from the gains of the past four years and the cynicism generated by the Mumbai terrorist attack, there were takeaways that remained. The intense India-Pakistan engagement of 2004-2008 revealed for the first time the blurred outline of what may, repeat may, be the elements of a mutually acceptable arrangement on Jammu and Kashmir without prejudice to their formal stated and legal positions. This remains as a possible template, for a more cooperative and stable relationship, howsoever distant it may be, for both countries if other conditions turn conducive for political initiatives to be taken.
How likely is that situation given the current impasse in India Pakistan relations? Nobody possibly has that answer for there are too many moving parts to the equation and too many imponderables. The forces at work extend beyond the domestic or bilateral dynamic and include factors such as the impact of China on South Asia and the wider region, how the situation in Afghanistan evolves and, finally, wider trends in the global geo-politics and economy. What is however clear is that no India-Pakistan impasse extends indefinitely and each ended consequent to political initiatives that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and on the surface were unpredictable and unanticipated. The question, therefore, is not if political initiatives will emerge again to try and steer the relationship to stabler pastures, but when.
TCA Raghavan is former High Commissioner to Pakistan.