Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra
India-Pakistan relations, in the aftermath of the execution of a Kashmir Muslim in the last month, have reached a new low. Though Kashmir witnessed turbulence after the execution, the bilateral relations appeared to have sailed smooth despite border skirmishes in January. The initial pronouncements of Pakistan were cautious and Indian leaders also downplayed the sensitive issue as it was linked to one of the most protracted conflicts in South Asia. Despite the border skirmishes in January and the execution in February, the common assumption among the stakeholders in the conflict was that the relations would continue smoothly and none of the parties would sacrifice the accumulated peace of the past decade and return to old methods of violence.
Developments during the past weeks, however, indicate that the relations are spiraling downward. On 14 March, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed a resolution condemning the execution of Afzal Guru by the Indian government and demanded that the body of Guru be returned to his family in Kashmir. The body of Guru was buried in Delhi’s Tihar jail as the Indian government was apprehensive that delivering the body to his family in Kashmir might fuel the separatist spirit in the region. On the next day, the Indian Parliament passed a resolution condemning Pakistan’s resolution and accused their neighbor of interfering in India’s internal affairs. It further reiterated the old nationalist position that the whole of Kashmir is an integral part of India. The resolutions of both the houses of the Indian parliament stated that they reject “Pakistan’s interference in the internal affairs of India and calls upon the national assembly of Pakistan to desist from such acts of support for extremist and terrorist elements.”
On the same day India cancelled the bilateral hockey series that was to be played in India next month. India’s apex hockey body, Hockey India stated, “The bilateral series between India and Pakistan has been cancelled as the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) did not give us permission. The MEA had sent a fax to us yesterday, asking us not to host Pakistan or travel to the country for the series.” Pakistan’s hockey authority reacted sharply and observed that such acts only vitiate the already tense atmosphere between the two countries. Pakistan also threatened to boycott the world junior hockey championship to be held in India in December.
In the case of both countries, it appears that current political situations triumphed over genuine concerns of peace and stability in the volatile Kashmir. As Pakistan is going to elections in few months, the resolution aimed at appeasing the right wing political spectrum and hard line religious groups in order to win elections. Pakistan also shelved the idea of granting Most Favored Nation status to India, mainly keeping an eye on the forthcoming elections. In Pakistan’s elections Kashmir plays a crucial role, and the issue is so much ensconced in national psychology since the partition of the Indian subcontinent, a hard line position on the disputed region proves a vote catcher. Though Kashmir does not play a key role in Indian elections, Pakistan is often portrayed as the spoiler of the peace process. Some of the hard liners have gone to the extent of suggesting that the Indian government declare Pakistan an enemy state. They have criticized Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh as dovish. Singh had earlier made his famous conciliatory statement that India would ‘walk the extra mile’ to buttress peace with the neighbor. As the elections season is too gearing up in India, the ruling party in New Delhi also appeared eager to display its hard-line image before the public to garner votes. Hence, the Indian parliament’s resolution on the day after the Pakistani resolution was not a surprise.
The incidents since January (detailed here and here ) set the trend for this downward spiraling. In the past decade such events took place but they did not dampen relations for such a long time except in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attack. Particularly after the civilian government came to power in Pakistan in 2007, the peace advocates were hopeful that the ‘irreversible’ peace process would continue till its logical end in terms of transforming conflict in Kashmir. But as the recent developments indicate, the relations have gradually taking a downward turn in a steady manner. Manmohan Singh declared few days back that ‘business can not be as usual’ with Pakistan.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Raza Pervaiz Ashraf was in the Indian city of Ajmer for a religious visit to the famous Sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti. Contrast this visit to the visit of Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari last year in April. Zardari on his return had stopped in New Delhi and met Manmohan Singh. This year’s visit clearly reflected the increasing distance between the policy makers of both the countries. India’s foreign ministry spokesperson stated that “The Pakistani Prime Minister is not visiting New Delhi and no substantive discussions are scheduled to be held in Jaipur (where Indian government was hosting a lunch for him on his way to Ajmer).” The recent developments have certainly contributed to widening the gap in the already fragile relationship between the countries. Unless the leaders mend the relations and restore the trust, the downward spiral may prove dangerous. They have fought four wars, diverted huge funds for building arms, and both possess nuclear weapons.
If there is a thread of hope in the increasing tangle of pessimism, both countries planned to go ahead with the earlier schedule in forming the India-Pakistan Business Forum on 15 March. The forum would facilitate trade between the two countries. As per the current plan the fifteen member forum is to meet every six month, and deliberate on issues of bilateral trade and investment. It needs emphasis that in case of India-Pakistan relations politics precede economics. Unless the tense political relations are mended, the economic initiatives may not work as the hardliners in both sides will attempt to jeopardize trade between the two countries.
Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also an Associate Fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy.