Pakistan-India; a $5 million downpayment on a peace initiative

August 23, 2010

tentsHistorical parallels can be misleading, so I am a little bit wary of reading too much into a comparison between the devastating cyclone which hit then East Pakistan in 1970 and the current floods in Pakistan. But on the surface the similarities are there.

In 1970, the Pakistani government was criticised for not doing enough to help the victims of the Bhola cyclone, exacerbating tensions between the western and eastern wings of the country ahead of a civil war in which East Pakistan broke away to become Bangladesh. In 2010, the Pakistani government has been criticised for not doing enough to help the victims of the floods; potentially exacerbating tensions between the ruling elite and the poor — usually the first to suffer in a natural disaster. At the same time the country is fighting what is effectively a civil war against Islamist militants, for whom poverty and alienation provide a fertile breeding ground.

At the very least, you can say that big natural disasters have unpredictable consequences. For that reason I’m reluctant to start speculating about the long term consequences of the floods, although the Indian blog, The Acorn, has made a pretty good stab at it here. And you can also say that the response of India will be crucial.

 In 1971, India backed the Bengali separatists, inflicting a humiliating military defeat on Pakistan, forcing its army to surrender at Dhaka and taking 90,000 Pakistani prisoners-of-war. Whatever the rights and wrongs of that war – and there are many – Pakistan’s narrative memory of India exploiting its weakness in a civil war to split the country in two continues to inform its thinking about its much bigger neighbour to this day. So what happens in 2010?

The question — at least as posed to me from a Pakistani perspective – is this. Will India show its sincerity towards peace by helping Pakistan recover from the biggest natural disaster in its history? Or will India take advantage of Pakistan’s current vulnerability to impose its will on Kashmir? It is a question which is at once haunted by the ghosts of 1971, and infused with an optimism that history does not have to repeat itself.

So far the signs are reasonably promising. Pakistan has accepted an offer of $5 million flood aid from India (think America taking aid from Iran or vice versa to understand the significance of this).  India is also pledging to do more to help rebuild Pakistan. India and Pakistan, said Indian ambassador to the United Nations  Hardeep Singh Puri, shared the same history, topography, land mass and river systems.  The South Asian region was prone to natural disasters and, throughout it, the vagaries of nature continued to take a heavy tool of human lives and material losses. “We share the pain and agony and fully understand the trauma and suffering that our Pakistani brethren are living through,” he said.

At the same time, two of the big issues (Kashmir and water) which India and Pakistan traditionally blame on each other have been shown to be caused - at least partially – by problems within.  In Kashmir, a fresh wave of protests led by Kashmiri youths throwing stones has displaced the standard Indian view of the Kashmir revolt as one fuelled almost entirely by Pakistan-backed gunmen and bombers.  For the first time in years, the talk is of a need for a settlement on Kashmir which acknowledges that Kashmiri separatism has indigenous roots. In Pakistan, its problems with water management have been shown to go far beyond the much talked about threat of India manipulating the rivers which flow from its side of the border.  Both countries have had their assumptions challenged; both therefore have the potential for a change in mindset which might make talks easier.

The Pakistan Army has also been steadily reassessing the threat from Islamist militants after seeing many of its own killed fighting them, and after a wave of bombings which extended right into the country’s heartland Punjab province.  According to the Wall Street Journal, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency now sees the threat from Islamist militants as bigger than that posed by the Indian Army.  That is not terribly surprising to anyone who has been following the gradual evolution in Pakistan’s thinking towards militants it once backed to counter India. It also does not mean that the perceived threat from India has suddenly got smaller – army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani has been quoted as saying he looks at capabilities rather than intentions. It just suggests the perceived threat from militants has become bigger. But it does, again, offer the possibility of a change in mindset.

So if India really does intend to do more to help Pakistan, what are the next steps?

In an op-ed in the Times of India, Swaminathan Aiyar suggests the Indian Army should unilaterally withdraw from the border in Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

“This will pose no military risk whatsoever: flood-stricken Pakistan cannot possibly embark on military adventures against India,” he writes. “But the withdrawal of Indian troops will mean that the Pakistan Army loses all excuses to avoid diverting manpower and financial resources from the border to flood relief and rehabilitation. This will cost India nothing, yet will release very large resources within Pakistan. Its impact on the Pakistani psyche will be significant. Even analysts who distrust Pakistan agree widely that India has no alternative to diplomatic engagement: cutting off ties will not win any minds and hearts there. Unilateral withdrawal will itself be a form of engagement, and will encourage other forms.”

Secondly, judging from comments I’ve heard repeatedly from Pakistani officials, India would also need to be seen to be actively trying to find a solution to Kashmir. The fear is always that India benefits from the status quo and will allow the Kashmir dispute to fester as long as it takes until everyone else – Pakistan and the Kashmiri people – are ground down and give up.  The response to that has been that India must be forced to negotiate on Kashmir through the use of violence. I know I’m simplifying here for the sake of brevity, but having heard all the arguments on all sides, if India were to actively seek a solution on Kashmir at a time when Pakistan is at its most vulnerable, it could go a long way to changing mindsets that only force will convince it to negotiate.

Thirdly, there is the potential for trade through more open borders which could do more to revitalise Pakistan’s economy than any amount of foreign aid. But that is a tricky one – when it comes to financial gain countries tend to get very ruthless about promoting their own interests through trade, the British East India Company being an early case in point.  For an indication of which way the wind is blowing, do watch how New Delhi responds to any European Union initiative to lower tariffs on Pakistani textile exports since this is one where India’s own textile industry could be undercut.

Finally, both countries desperately need to cooperate on climate change and water management. Both stand to suffer from the combined effects of melting Himalayan glaciers which feed their rivers and over-population which stretch (usually) scarce water resources.  And both have been at risk of fighting their next war over water for so long that it has been drifting into the dangerous territory of inevitability.

India and Pakistan have not done terribly well in trying to make peace so far – a meeting between their foreign ministers in July ended in acrimony. But they are trying to engage with each other and pick up the pieces of a peace process shattered by the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani – who are the ones who are really driving the dialogue process - could have an opportunity to talk on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. We will probably see then whether the floods in Pakistan have had a lasting impact on its relationship with India.

And in the meantime, for the pessimists out there, here is a line I noticed in the Wikipedia entry for the Bhola cyclone. I have not had time to check this beyond Wikipedia, and it is probably contested like everything else about the 1971 war. But it reads: “India became one of the first nations to offer aid to Pakistan, despite the generally poor relations between the two countries, and by the end of November had pledged $1.3 million (1970 USD, $6.9 million 2007 USD) of assistance for the relief efforts.”

It’s an entry crying out for an aphorism. ”Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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