Escaping history in India and Pakistan

July 20, 2009

When France and Germany put years of enmity behind them after World War Two, they made a leap of faith in agreeing to entwine their economies so that war became impossible. With their economies now soldered by the euro, it can be easy to forget how deep their mutual distrust once ran - from the Napoleonic wars to the fall of Paris to Prussia in 1871, to the trenches of World War One and the Nazi occupation of France in World War Two.

As India and Pakistan begin yet another attempt to make peace, they face a similar challenge. Can they put aside years of distrust to build on a tentative thaw in relations?

Many analysts argue that a sketchy roadmap to peace is already available, based on negotiations between advisers to former president Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in which Pakistani action against militants was matched by Indian moves towards a peace deal on Kashmir. But reviving that roadmap – or for that matter finding another way forward – would require both countries to put aside their past and accept that history is not the only guide to the future.

Indian newspaper, the Business Standard, summarised what many Indian commentators say about past attempts at peace-making – that Indian peace offers have never been matched by a sincere effort by Pakistan to curb Islamist militants. ”Pakistan has a history of trying first to get what it wants on the battlefield and, when that fails, to get it at the negotiating table,” it says in an editorial. “Indian leaders meanwhile fall into the traps of magnanimity (make a gesture to a smaller neighbour) or gullibility (concede this or that and it will deliver peace).”

Pakistan has its own version of history, seen from the perspective of a smaller country that believed it was cheated of Kashmir at partition in 1947, and then torn in two with Indian help when Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, won independence in the 1971 war.  Both sides accuse the other of breaching the Simla accord which followed that war – the last major peace treaty between the two – Pakistan by sponsoring militants to fight in Kashmir, and India by starting the Siachen conflict in the mountains beyond Kashmir in 1984.

Many other arguments about the past, too numerous to mention, come up every time anybody discusses India and Pakistan until the weight of history becomes an immoveable obstacle to peace.

So how did France and Germany put their history behind them? And are their parallels with India and Pakistan?

Their reconciliation was in part due to a real change in Germany after World War Two, when it renounced a tradition of militarism dating back to its roots in Prussia.  But New Delhi has yet to be convinced that Pakistan has really changed in its attitude to Islamist militants it once nurtured, fearing that while it attacks the Pakistani Taliban in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, it will leave alone other groups used against India like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in its Punjab province.

In a column in the Daily Times, Pakistani analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi has an interesting take on this question, suggesting the next few months could be decisive.

“It seems that these (Punjab-based militant) groups are no longer favoured by Pakistan’s security and intelligence authorities. These have been put on hold because the army is busy in the tribal areas and does not want to open a new front in mainland Pakistan. Further, it does not want to seen as taking action against these groups under Indian pressure,” he writes. “The Punjab security and intelligence apparatus is now targeting activists of these organisations and monitoring the madrassas that have a reputation for militancy and maintain links with the Taliban. This effort is aimed at destroying their networks, isolating them and discouraging recruitment.

“The next two months will show if Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities will exert more pressure on Punjab-based militant groups and ensure that they do not force a foreign policy situation on Pakistan in its interaction with India. If the role of these groups is neutralised, it will be possible to argue that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism policy has made a historical shift.”

Franco-German reconciliation was also encouraged by the United States, which wanted both to work together against a common enemy in the Soviet Union. The United States, keen to see an improvement in relations between India and Pakistan to help stabilise the region as far as Afghanistan, is now quietly trying to persuade them that they both face a common enemy in terrorism.

As for the benefits of greater economic cooperation between India and Pakistan, these are rarely questioned by either country, from increased bilateral trade, to pipelines bringing oil and gas to India from Iran and Central Asia, and to the opening up of transit trade from India via Pakistan into Afghanistan.  So the parallels are there - in the possibility of real change (and the jury is still out on that one), in the backing of the United States, and in the potential economic gains.

Where the parallel falls down is perhaps in vision and leadership. While Franco-German reconciliation was inspired by men who had lived through the horrors of World War Two and saw European integration as the best way to stop history from repeating itself, there is no clear vision of where India and Pakistan might end up. And while France and Germany benefitted from leaders who were powerful enough to push change through, only in India does Prime Minister Singh enjoy a relatively strong position having just won a renewed mandate in a general election, while in Pakistan the civilian government shares power with the Pakistan Army on foreign and security policy.

A much-quoted aphorism is that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But only very rarely do two countries like France and Germany escape their history. Can India and Pakistan do the same?

(Photos: French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Verdun (1984), Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (undated); Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1983).)

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