South Asia on edge again

Is South Asia far away from a tipping point or Franz Ferdinand moment from a fatal escalation? Hardly an alarmist view in this charged environment. Raising the stakes after acts of terror and bloodshed have plunged states and regions into deadly conflicts. Calls to national dignity and honour do unleash public resentment leading to incalculable consequences.

India-Pakistan relations, between periods of strident nationalism and armed conflict, have mostly remained in a deep freeze with little sign of recovery. Bilateral ties suffer from shrill jingoism, xenophobia and a quest for win-win solutions often at the expense of national interest and political realism. Instead of propagating peace, national leaders unwilling to risk charges of appeasement, defeatism and selling out have generally found it easier to hold hawkish positions. In spite of the frequent bouts of hostility, India and Pakistan share deep historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic bonds.

The refusal to accept some hard facts have exacerbated the Kashmir issue. India has failed to induce its Kashmiri citizens to join the purported big tent of Indian secular democracy. On the other hand, despite the enormous cost to itself. Pakistan has stoked the Kashmir problem to realise unattainable territorial dreams. Furthermore, Kashmir Muslims haven’t come to terms with the reality of living under permanent majoritarian (read Hindu) rule.

Maximalist and uncompromising positions are unhelpful at this critical stage. Pursuing military solutions to political problems is a recipe for disaster. Peace and dialogue is the only way forward for the people of India, Pakistan, and Kashmir. Instead of amplifying war hysteria – perhaps it’s time to reflect on measures to reduce tensions. “Liberty and democracy become unholy when their hands are dyed red with innocent blood”: Gandhi, Non-violence in Peace and War 1948۔

Of immediate concern is the fallout from the violence in Indian Kashmir. The genuine anger over the deadly suicide attack on troops in Pulwama in Indian Kashmir could set off a chain of action and reaction hard to control. The Indian populace sees this incident as part of a pattern that confirms Pakistan’s ill-will towards India. It follows earlier terror attacks in India: Mumbai 1993, Indian Parliament 2001, Delhi 2005, Mumbai 2008, Gurdaspur 2015, Pathankot Air Force Station 2016 and Uri 2016.

India can rise as a global power fulfilling its ‘tryst with destiny’. Pakistan can focus on better controlling its borders; learn to live within its means, and regain the trust of the international community. And South Asia can have some semblance of peace with fewer bodies, funerals, and graveyards

No doubt Prime Minister Modi is under domestic pressure. Will he order punishing reprisals against Pakistan despite the significant risks involved? Moreover, the upcoming national elections in India complicate the situation. Coming down hard on the enemy can only help electoral chances for the political parties in the fray.

Conversely, the Kashmir dispute is a plank component of Pakistan’s foreign policy. But Pakistan is in a weak position to influence its resolution. Some still harbour the dream that Indian Kashmir will become part of Pakistan. Preserving the bloated national security state and wasting more blood and coin on Kashmir ’cause’ is a great disservice to those poor Pakistanis who face daily wage the battle against poverty, hunger and disease.

Can Pakistan sit sanguinely under its ‘impregnable’ defence (read nuclear capability), suggesting ‘befitting’ responses, but with a begging bowl in hand, afford another costly war? What prevents Pakistan, while waiting for ‘actionable’ intelligence from India, from cleaning up the cesspool of jihadi groups operating from its soil? Other than inviting isolation and ridicule, what possible utility do groups and individuals like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba and Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed serve for Pakistan?

In addition to India, the alleged presence of groups like the Afghan Taliban and Jaish al-Adl allow Afghanistan and Iran to blame Pakistan for abetting terrorism. While currently basking under the temporary glow and attention of the Taliban-US negotiation to bring peace to Afghanistan, Pakistan should be careful as its reputation as a terrorist hub won’t permanently escape the world’s attention.

In terms of Kashmir, although there is real alienation in Indian Kashmir from decades of Indian misrule, a separate identity or self-governance is not practical. The world would be even more chaotic if every ethnic or religious minority, claiming a distinctive culture and civilization, achieved a separate homeland. For its part, India should ensure that Kashmir returns to normalcy by pursuing political means, deterring human rights violations by developing a culture of restraint within its military forces.

The elusive peace in South Asia could benefit from the acceptance of the ground realities. And sober and unemotional analysis can lead to workable solutions. While the forces in South Asia that have benefited from decades of violence will create maximum obstacles, the peace dividend can accrue to all parties.

India can rise as a global power fulfilling its ‘tryst with destiny’. Pakistan can focus on better controlling its borders; learn to live within its means, and regain the trust of the international community. And South Asia can have some semblance of peace with fewer bodies, funerals, and graveyards.

The writer is a freelance contributor. He can be reached at

Published in Daily Times, February 23rd 2019.


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