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Sharif Victory Offers an Opportunity for Improved Pakistan-India Relations

Posted in Conflict Resolution, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Peacebuilding with tags , , , on May 20, 2013 by michaelkeating

Arvind Mahapatra's profile photo


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

Pakistan last week completed democratic elections with the political party Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) emerging victorious. Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh congratulated the leader of the party, Nawaz Sharif, even before formal announcement of election results. Sharif invited the Indian Prime Minister to attend his swearing-in ceremony and accepted India’s invitation to visit New Delhi. He will be prime minister for the third time. The Indian political class expressed hope that the new establishment in Islamabad will accelerate a peace process between the two countries, which has been moving laggardly since the Mumbai attack of 2008.

The good news is that the outgoing government is the only democratically elected government inPakistan’s 66 year history that lasted for constitutionally defined five years. Most of that history witnessed rule by the army. Though Sharif was elevated twice to the post of prime minister, he could not complete the terms. Last time he was deposed from power in 1999 by then army chief, Pervez Musharraf. The same year in February Prime Minister Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Atal Behari Vajpayee had met in Pakistani city of Lahore to sign the Lahore Declaration to foster bilateral relations and move forward to resolve contentious issues. Within four months of the declaration, the bonhomie in relations evaporated as war took place along the line of control inKashmir. The war was allegedly initiated by Pakistani army chief Musharraf without Sharif’s agreement. It was only after US President Bill Clinton intervened and summoned Sharif toWashingtonand told him to withdraw forces that the war came to an end but at considerable loss for both the countries. The differences between Sharif and Musharraf increased and as a result the powerful army under Musharraf removed Sharif from power in October 1999. The world was not surprised at the development asPakistanhad a history of the army overthrowing democratically elected leaders. While Sharif is now poised to be the leader of the country, Musharraf is now under arrest due to various charges.

Sharif is a businessman turned politician. He belongs to the most populous and wealthy state ofPunjab. He emerged as a political leader under the rule of another military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, who ruledPakistanfor 11 years after deposing the democratically elected founder of thePakistan’s People Part (PPP) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977. For Sharif, coming to power after a gap of 14 years, the challenges have increased manifold. When he was deposed from power there was no Pakistani-Taliban link on the horizon, there was no 9/11 or the desire to oust the Taliban from power inAfghanistan. There was no large scale proliferation of home grown terrorist networks with links with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Though these may pose new challenges, the old challenges in the form of the power rivalry between army and government, managing relations withIndiaand addressing contentious issues likeKashmirwill be equally daunting.

The Indian political class hopes that Sharif can play an effective role in fostering bilateral relations. The PPP led government was perceived weak and plagued by corruption. It was engaged in a power tussle with judiciary. The leader of PPP, Asif Ali Zardari was perceived a weak leader, accused of corruption. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had insisted on pursuing cases against him. Sharif, based inPunjab, is perceived to be a strong leader and has a relatively clean image. However, the challenges before him are numerous. With regard to extremism and terrorism, Sharif has to checkmate their mushrooming growth and their impact on Pakistani polity and society.

During the election campaign, Sharif had promised to initiate dialogue with the violent groups, and hopefully he would fulfill his promise in initiating dialogue with these groups and bring them to the path of peace. But this will be a daunting task. InPakistan, there are large number extremist groups with different ideologies. On the basis of their targets they can be categorized as India-centric (Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad), Pakistan-centric (Tehrik-e-TalibanPakistan), Afghanistan-centric (Taliban, Haqqani network), ethnic-centric, targeting Shias and other ethnic minorities (Sipah-e-Sahaba, Tehrik-e-TalibanPakistan) and world-centric (Al Qaeda). Sharif will have to use his political acumen in tackling these forces, while taking on board the army and other political parties in crafting policies against them. He may face problems in this regard. Some sections of the establishment, particularly the intelligence agencies and sections of army, may be inclined to shelter some terrorist groups as a strategic tool.

In the case of Pakistan’s relations with India, Sharif has to resume his old policies of promoting friendly relations with its most important neighbor. As India’s Prime Minister stated in his congratulations to Sharif, “The people of India also welcome your publicly articulated commitment to a relationship between India and Pakistan that is defined by peace, friendship and cooperation.”  The relations during the last four years have not been that cordial and particularly after the border skirmishes in the beginning of this year, and the death of an Indian prisoner in Pakistani jail this month, the relations have soured further. Sharif and Singh will have to build the relations in areas which are less controversial like trade, and gradually move towards addressing contentious issues like Kashmir. The forthcoming visit of Sharif to India will hold a lot of promises for the bilateral relations.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also a fellow at the Center for Peace, Development and Democracy in the same university.


Disasters Defy Borders

Posted in Conflict Resolution, Education, India, Kashmir, Natural Disasters, Pakistan with tags , , , on April 28, 2013 by michaelkeating

Arvind Mahapatra's profile photo


Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra

The recent 7.8 magnitude earthquake, with an epicenter on the Pakistan-Iran border,  impacted countries as far away as India, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others. The earthquake that took place on 16 April 2013 was not as devastating as the one that took place in Kashmir in 2005, the impact of which spread across the borders of Kashmir, India and Pakistan. Though it was of a lesser magnitude (7.6) than the recent one, it devastated parts of Kashmir and killed more than 73 thousand people. As I was doing field studies in Kashmir those days, I could feel how disasters defy state borders , and how they provide a  a hard lesson, that conflicting nations must develop common mechanisms to address these disasters and address the issues of conflict in a peaceful manner.

Like the border areas between Iran and Pakistan, the border areas between India and Pakistan (including disputed Kashmir) are located in seismic zones.  These areas, part of the Himalayas and the Karakoram mountain range, are rich in flora and fauna and other natural resources, particularly water. Due to the rivalry between the two neighbors, these common resources are not properly harnessed as they are in a disputed area, which both claim as part of their territory. These resources are also neglected when they are devastated by natural disasters like earthquakes. The impact of 2005 earthquake could have been minimized had the rivals joined their hands in time and started rescue operations together. Thousands of lives could have been saved. Bilateral mistrust and the stereotyping of the images prevailed even during this disaster, at least in initial days. As Kashmir is highly militarized, the rivals feared that allowing the neighbor might lead to revelation of military secrets.

The recent earthquake serves a call to the countries of South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, to transcend the narrow thinking and old policies of rivalry, and think in terms of collective gain in times of collective crisis. The earthquake killed about 9 people in Mashkel area of Baluchistan in Pakistan. About 1000 mud houses were damaged in this area. In India the tremors were felt far and wide including the national capital territory Delhi, and provinces including Rajasthan, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Kashmir also felt the brunt of the earthquake, though no casualties have been reported so far.

The 2005 earthquake was far devastating for both the countries and the region of Kashmir. The earthquake took place on 8 October. Kashmir, particularly the part under the control of Pakistan, was most devastated though Kashmir under India’s control too was affected. There were some devastated areas, though under Pak control, which were easily accessible from the Indian side. Pakistan initially hesitated and its then ruler, Pervez Musharraf cited the reason of ‘local sensibilities’ for not accepting Indian offer of assistance. It was after some days of the disaster that Pakistan accepted the Indian offer but by that time many people, who could have been rescued, died under the rubble  or due to injuries.

If it can be counted as a positive impact at all, the earthquake did impact the mind of leaders of both the countries. Both the countries agreed to open five crossing points in Kashmir for cross-border movement of humanitarian assistance. Till that year, the border in Kashmir was closed for 58 years. The Chief Minister of the Indian part of Kashmir called the opening of border and cross-border movements a  ‘historic confidence building measure.’ Many novel ideas such as a joint Indo-Pak natural disaster committee, opening of more border points for meeting of divided families, pilgrimage and trade were mooted. In that sense, the earthquake impacted the conflict dynamics in the Indian subcontinent. The year 2005 and the years aftermath, particularly till the Mumbai terror attack in 2008, were termed the peaceful years in Indo-Pak relations. The peace process was labeled ‘irreversible.’

The Indo-Pak relations, however, can not be subject to a linear pattern. The relations are unpredictable. Mistrust is so deeply ingrained in the national psyche of both the countries, and so openly flaunted by the leaders, it becomes difficult to consolidate gains from confidence building measures. The relations are also plagued by another problem. In the case of India, on matters of foreign policy including relations with Pakistan, the political elites in New Delhi adopt a unified position despite differences in ideologies, whereas in the case of Pakistan there seems to be a tussle between the civilian government based in Islamabad and the army based in Rawalpindi in matters of policy making. While democratically elected governments may be more inclined towards democratic means of conflict resolution, the army may prefer to adopt a rigid line. Though the leaders both the countries apparently realize that the conflict can not be sustained for long as it demands a heavy cost in terms of arms preparedness (while significant sections of people in these countries are poor), they still play old games to incite popular passion to remain in power. Unless these leaders change their approach and impart a culture of peace to their national constituencies, it is difficult to think in terms of sustainable peace in the subcontinent. The earthquake in 2005 imparted a lesson in this direction. Perhaps the recent earthquake will goad the leaders to think more in terms of peace than in terms of war and violence. Even if it brings a little change, that will be worth of it.

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a PhD student in the Global Governance and Human Security Program at UMass Boston. He is also an Associate Fellow in the Center for Peace, Development aand Democracy.

Downward Spiral of India-Pakistan Relations?

Posted in India, Kashmir, Pakistan, South Asia on March 24, 2013 by michaelkeating


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.