India-Pakistan Engagement Set Back by Border Dispute

Indian soldiers on the border with Pakistan at Wagah, November 23, 2008

Indian soldiers on the border with Pakistan at Wagah, November 23, 2008 (Dainis Matisons)

In modern international relations, states are expected to act rationally and responsibly. Looking into the behavior of South Asia’s great powers, however, it can hardly be said that the two act rationally and certainly not responsibly.

The region is in turmoil. The United States are preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. The Taliban are hoping to return to power there. But instead of trying to meet those challenges, India and Pakistan were at it again in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.

The arguments are familiar. Pakistan wants the United Nations to look into an alleged breach of the ceasefire agreement. India does not. While the present standoff may not lead to another war, it does affect the pace of bilateral engagement between the two countries.

Trying to lay responsibility for the recent fray is like asking which came first, the chicken or the egg? Certainly on both sides of the border there are stakeholders who benefit from perpetuating the enmity between the two nations. As happened in the past, whenever there was a chance of engagement or a peace deal, some untoward incident derailed the frontier.

After Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan signed the Lahore Declaration in 1999 to stabilize relations between their countries after a series of nuclear weapons tests, the Pakistani army and the Islamist militant group Al-Badr, allegedly founded by Pakistani intelligence, destroyed any hope of a more permanent settlement with events that led up to the Kargil War.

When India’s left wing government made overtures to Pakistan in the last decade, the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks occurred, setting back the peace process by two years.

There are also domestic political imperatives that can derail the bilateral relationship. India’s present government may find its very convenient to divert public outrage over rape cases to the border shootings. The ongoing debate in India’s press over the need to empower and protect women has been all but silenced as attention is diverted to the situation on the border.

There are also groups in India that are troubled by the prospect of a Pakistani peace altogether. Recent border incidents have thrust foreign policy hawks out of hibernation and given them a media platform to explain why India and Pakistan can never be at peace.

2012 was actually a successful year for Indian-Pakistani engagement. Confidence building measures and treaties were signed and there seemed to be a closed door understanding between the leaders of both countries to put the Kashmir issue aside for a while and make progress in other areas. An integrated check post was set up to allow trucks easier access across the border, thus facilitating trade. There was agreement to issue more visas to citizens from both nations. And in a symbolic step, Pakistan’s national cricket team came to and played in India late last year. All of it could unravel as the two rivals are at each other’s throats again.

Also read: