Pakistan, India and the possibility of change

July 25, 2011

Pakistan has been defined – sometimes by itself, sometimes by outsiders – as “not India” for so long that it has almost become set in stone. Conventional wisdom would have it that Pakistan can unite its many different ethnic and sectarian groups only by setting itself up in opposition to India and stressing its Muslim identity against Indian secularism and pluralism.  In particular, its powerful army has thrived in part because of that traditional enmity with India.

Yet viewing Pakistan through such a simple prism can be misleading, especially if by freeze-framing it within a historical perspective, it denies the possibility of change.

In many conversations during a trip I just made to Pakistan, I found the subject of India to be remarkable largely for its absence.  The United States is of course popularly perceived as a bigger enemy now, but even talk of relations with America – the big obsession of the western media — was dwarfed by an inwards focus on Pakistan itself.

In a four-hour discussion with his officers in May, Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani made no mention of India, but said that he worried about the weak economy being a threat to Pakistan.  Then in a speech to a conference on deradicalisation in July, he urged “all elements of national power” to work together on a national strategy to counter  terrorism — echoing a line frequently made by the army that Pakistan’s national security depends on better governance and an improved economy. 

Speaking at the same conference alongside Kayani, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani did mention India, but that was to stress the need for better relations. He made the same point in an interview last week, adding that he hoped India could “play a good role” in Afghanistan, where both countries have traditionally been rivals for influence.

None of that is to suggest a sea-change in Pakistan’s view of India — its military in particular remains configured for war with its much bigger neighbour.  And given that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies — including once nurturing militant groups to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir – have been shrouded in secrecy for decades, few would dare say with certainty exactly what is going on.

But there is a change, at least in relative terms. Pakistan has so many internal problems – the Taliban insurgency,  a weak economy, poor governance, political, ethnic and sectarian violence – that “the Indian threat” has receded, while the fear of internal threats to national security has grown. And amongst people not in positions of authority, the conversation is far more likely to be about power cuts and price rises.

True, the Urdu-language media (or so I’m told) still blames India for many of Pakistan’s problems – the CIA/Mossad/R&AW conspiracy is useful for those who cannot explain the rather bewildering speed at which conditions in the country have deteriorated. Yet some of the passion seemed to have gone out of it.  Nobody asked me – as they did when I first visited Pakistan from India in 2004 – about “rivers of blood” in Kashmir.

The question of Pakistan’s view of India has now become subject of a furious debate being played out across op-ed columns and on Twitter.

In an article this month in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why My Father Hated India”, Aatish Taseer, estranged son of the late Punjab governor Salman Taseer, wrote about Pakistan’s “unhealthy obsession with India”.   

 Columnist Ejaz Haider quickly objected to its “supposedly linear reality“. He noted that Pakistan’s political parties are in favour of peace with India, and argued that the Pakistan Army – given India’s own military posture – had reasons for matching that in its choice of deployment and threat perception.

In India, former Minister of State and author Shashi Tharoor wrote in defence of Taseer’s piece.  The “Indian threat”, he said, was “a useful device cynically exploited by the Pakistani military to justify their power”.  But he triggered the most anger by turning his sights on what the headline writer on his article called Pakistan’s “delusional liberals” who he said were unwilling to take on the Pakistan army – in his view the cause of all the tensions with India.

In a column in the Daily Times, headlined “We the ‘delusional’ liberals”, Marvi Sirmed wrote that Tharoor “may also like to know more about the diversity of Pakistani ‘liberals’ before passing judgments … if our liberalism determines the degree to which we should hate our country, it is essentially one certificate that I would not like to get from him. ”

Feisal Naqvi complained in a column in the Express Tribune  that, “Mr Tharoor further believes that Pakistan has no legitimate identity besides a rejection of India and that Pakistani liberals — if truly liberal — would acknowledge this fact. He thereby not only confirms all of the Pakistani establishment’s worst fears about India, but also helps delegitimise Pakistani liberals as would-be traitors, even though they are the very persons calling for peace with India.”

The argument is likely to run and run —Tharoor responded on Twitter.

But the fact that argument is being held at all shows something has changed. It is no less remarkable for being obvious that Pakistanis and Indians are now communicating more than ever before, in real-time, via Twitter, when not that long ago there were no direct flights and it could be difficult even to get a phone call through from Delhi to Islamabad.

Compared to the arguments online, the official peace process between India and Pakistan is rather dull.  Yet these talks seem to be making headway, perhaps by virtue of their dullness.  Unlike previous peace efforts which have triggered domestic backlashes by moving too quickly, the current process has been organised, cautious and incremental.

When the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan meet in New Delhi on Tuesday and foreign ministers on Wednesday there will be no sudden breakthrough.   According to reports in the Indian media (including from ANI and The Hindu)  the focus at this week’s talks will be on small-scale confidence building measures – including improving trade across the Line of Control which divides Kashmir, or making it easier for Indians and Pakistanis to get visas to visit each other.

The foreign ministers’ meeting will be the culmination of a series of talks between top officials covering everything from defence to trade and follow talks between the foreign secretaries – the top diplomats – in Islamabad last month. They are expected to review talks so far, and set a course for future discussions — prosaic stuff unlikely to grab much attention in the 24-hour international news cycle. But there too, there may be signs of change in approach. For all their deliberate dullness, they are worth following, rather than assuming the many failures at peacemaking of the past will be repeated in the present.


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[…] Pakistan, India and the possibility of change […]

Posted by WORLD HEADLINES 7/25/2011 | Report as abusive

My first reaction to the first part of this post was that maybe, just maybe, the Pakistani establishment is coming out of its state of perpetual denial about all its problems having one common cause – India. Then again the next thought was perhaps that is just because they really have problems which they can’t, this time, blame on India and the settlement of the Kashmir issue. How long will this last?

The other thing that struck me that maybe Myra is now voicing facts that earlier she apparently chose to ignore when pointedly asked to give her opinion on – “given that Pakistan’s foreign and security policies — including once nurturing militant groups to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir – …, ” and “True, the Urdu-language media (or so I’m told) still blames India for many of Pakistan’s problems – the CIA/Mossad/R&AW conspiracy is useful for those who cannot explain the rather bewildering speed at which conditions in the country have deteriorated.”

I hope Umair will now understand what I said a while back about this raging to and fro war of words over Aatish Taheer’s article. It is good. That people reacting to it, from both sides, is best as it enables both sides to speak plainly and bring out things in the open. Once the other side of the story also comes out, both sides will gain a better understanding of each others point of view and some progress may result..

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Good that value is being seen in debate, that we are on talking terms means the lines of communication remain open and any differences woud be worked out and conflicts resolved. I am of the opinion that both nations must move on and open a new chapter.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

It is time to bring in new faces, especially in the case of Pakistan. I like the introduction of Ms. Khar. Younger generation can start on a fresh note and not carry the burdens of the past. And talks have to continue with no big expectations. Things will improve. A lot of patience is needed.

People to people interaction has to improve. It was improving prior to Mumbai attacks in 2008. We should go back to that level and build from there. Artists must participate and perform in both countries. Sports should open up. I’d like to see Pakistani players included in the next IPL. I’d even like to see a team for Lahore (and for Colombo) in the next IPL.

It has to be slow and steady. Militants and their supporters will try to thwart it. But we must remember that Mumbai attacks were staged to negate all goodwill development. So if it happens again, the first thing to do is for people to support each other across the border. If any attacks happen inside India, and if it is linked to a group or establishment in Pakistan, immediately Pakistanis should condemn such acts, protest and support India. And vice versa. That will change the minds of the opportunistic leaders.

Pakistan missed a great opportunity in co-operating with India when Mumbai attacks happened. They could have captured those responsible and both countries could have come up with a joint investigation to stem such plans in the future. What is gone is gone. But there is chance to build again, if Pakistanis are willing. We Indians are extremely tolerant and are always open. Let us see if things improve. I sincerely hope that the elements inside Pakistan are buying time because of economic and other constraints that they are facing. Once things thaw, they should try not to revert to the old ways. It will lead to certain death this time.

There is no further choice left for Pakistan but to reform from within. Trying to flex muscles and using might as a weapon to intimidate others, preparing constantly to thwart an imagined enemy etc should be forgotten. They have not helped all these years. And they will not help any further, excepting to weaken Pakistan even more.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Typo: “I sincerely hope that the elements inside Pakistan are buying time because of economic and other constraints that they are facing. ”

should read as:

“I sincerely hope that the elements inside Pakistan are NOT buying time because of economic and other constraints that they are facing. “

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Let us hope that change of Pakistan’s FM brings in attitudinal change to fix the multiple problems between considered nuclear powered rival neighboring countries of Asia. In past as & when two sides appeared to be nearing some agreement, the attempt was always either marred by some terror attack alleged to be originating from Pakistan or Pakistan army/ISI putting its strong foot to scuttle its seeing the light of the day. Will Ms Khar be able to overcome these forces playing behind the screen to result a meaningful agreement bringing peace & prosperity to this region? Further even if an agreement is reached, the spirit with which it gets implement, only coming times will speak

Posted by vksaini | Report as abusive

vksaini said:

> In past as & when two sides appeared to be nearing some agreement, the attempt was always either marred by some terror attack alleged to be originating from Pakistan or Pakistan army/ISI putting its strong foot to scuttle its seeing the light of the day.

It looks like that tactic has been tried so often it has now become predictable and lost its potency. The recent Mumbai bomb blasts did not cause the official dialogue to break stride. That’s goodness :-).

Umair said:

> Good that value is being seen in debate, that we are on talking terms means the lines of communication remain open and any differences woud be worked out and conflicts resolved.

I too see something positive in the arguments that Indians and Pakistanis are having over Aatish Taseer’s article. Any communication is better than none. Some subtle change in attitudes will definitely result.

Feisal Naqvi made an important point in his last paragraph here ( Pakistani liberals are already under a lot of pressure from the military establishment that tries to make them appear like traitors. They’re already quite critical of their military on their own ( But if they agree with an Indian critic like Aatish Taseer who says *exactly* the same thing, it will seem to prove that they are traitors, so they’re forced to defend their military. That in turn makes them look dishonest to the Indians. And so it goes on. But I do think that that dialogue cleared the air a bit.

The confidence-building measures will also add their bit. We will need to get ordinary people hooked onto the advantages of a tension-free relationship. Surely the Pakistani military that runs so many commercial enterprises like breakfast cereal, should see the benefits of free trade. If the military brass can see personal profit from peaceful relations with India, then tensions could reduce. India should perhaps investigate which companies are owned by influential generals and offer them attractive business deals ;-).

Ganesh Prasad

Posted by prasadgc | Report as abusive

I agree with almost all commentators here, dialogue is very good. Moreover, there are positive signs, like not allowing the recent Mumbai attacks to be a breaker. If just once, both sides could somehow pull out the proverbial rabbit from a hat and do something so demonstrative that it commences to break down the trust deficit, radical improvement can result.

We know that hard liners will try to sabotage the process. We have to show that we are beyond such subterfuge and not get emotional. Unfortunately ‘trust’ is what we need badly. It is each sides responsibility to convince the other. Can we rise above our past?

A word of caution, sweeping dirt under the carpet, just to show off that things are moving positively, will be courting disaster.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

Ganesh, I was surprised by the comments of Feisal Naqvi and have to read the comments to ensure he is the same guy speaking. Now as you said, this is exactly what liberals of pakistan (how small a minority they be) has been saying. To Tharoors credit he was less hard than say Nadeem Paracha or Hoodbhoy.

But a deeper mind would realize that liberals of Pakistan are playing a very dangerous and risky game(although I believe its worth it and worth for them) of slowly but surely delegitimizing the pakistan military (no not defenestrating it) in the pakistani body politic.

The last thing they need is a Tharoors article calling them brothers in arms and asking to join Indian liberals. No matter how liberal a pakistani is, he is bound by country’s founding ideology in order to survive. If any, He would draw a bigger circle of tolerance like salman taseer and thats it. Unfortunately Pakistan by creating a founding identity based on religion which confused itself with common muslim culture(there is nothing as such) have unknowingly or knowingly legitimized the theocratic narrative of pakistan and made religious parties very much part of pakistan’s polity.

Thankfully there is a way around out of this. By providing more and more provincial autonomy and devolving powers to the provinces, the state ideology can be diluted (every state in US has its constitution and laws like relating to Gay rights in NewYork) and just as many (east) European constitutions mention God but neverthless are secular societies, Pakistan may one day join the mainstream of rational-spiritual nations rather than theocratic-renegade nations.

Ganesh:”Surely the Pakistani military that runs so many commercial enterprises like breakfast cereal, should see the benefits of free trade. If the military brass can see personal profit from peaceful relations with India, then tensions could reduce. India should perhaps investigate which companies are owned by influential generals and offer them attractive business deals”.
I am not sure if you said this seriously but this is just what law enforcement agencies called moral hazard. If we let pakistani military have economic deals with India, how is it different with the ones they have now with Americans. Unless their is a change in heart or loss in Authority, Army will continue to excercise this India bogey.
Imagine we had a 10 billion dollar trade deal with pakistan (lets say we earn a billion profit of out it and pakistan similarly so), if Army continue to send terrorists, Indian government threatens to withdraw economic ties and then our liberals will cry hoarse and demand the continuation of trade. Over the time they have trade and we have terror attacks and we learn to live with this equilibrium. Are u sure on the proposal.
This just happened with our bilateral ties as we accepted the low intensity attacks as fait accompli.

Finally, all though the talks must continue with Pakistan, its Janus-faced actions in the past nevertheless doesn’t inspire confidence. India must take a call on decisive breakthroughs with Pakistan only after Pakistan gets its socio-economical and political edifice back on track.
Unfortunately Pakistan has not shown any reconciliation towards India and if any its probably out of the desperate situation it currently is in. When our economy is doing good and politicians are atlast trying to focus on our most urgent needs with pressure from active civil society(they are really, look at the states. Name one really really bad Chief minister..say of Lalu’s grade) why is the hurry on our side. I am really surprised.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Indian government threatens to withdraw economic ties and then our liberals will cry hoarse and demand the continuation of trade. THEY SAY WITHDRAWING TRADE WILL ONLY WORSEN THE SCENARIO AND PAKISTAN KNOWS THAT INDIA CANNOT GO BACK FOR THE FEAR OF LOSING WHATEVER LEVERAGE IT HAS GAINED.
Somehow this para got cut.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

The new Pakistani foreign minister is a big hit in India. May be this is the way to ease tension. She is going to impress people all over the world. Hope she stays on.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Tycoons’ Rise Aids India, and the Favor Is Returned asia/27tycoon.html?hp

-entrepreneurial spirit is required to move forward, and surely people on both sides have termendous entrepreneurial skills. Energy sector is one area where Pakistan can imitate the Indian success. Yet another success story is India’s aviation sector, though I do not know everything my guess is with all the Jetairways and Kingfishers airlines etc, flying for the Indian consumer is much cheaper. Pakistan has PIA and Air Blue only, and with extensive expertise in aviation sector, recently the African nation of Eritrea relaunched its national flag carrier Eritrean Airlines under Pakistani management. Today it costs around Rs 10K return to fly between Islamabad and Karachi on Pakistani airlines, I would like to be able to, for example, attend a meeting in Karachi in the morning and get back home for dinner the same day for a fraction of current airfare.
Only if both India and Pakistan can take advantage of expertise each one can offer.
These things seem wishful for now, there is a long long way to go before progress can be made. But the possibility is always there, like greater integration in EU, maybe South Asian nations can also get closer.

And just to add, dialogue makes a difference. Anyone could have got furious at Tharoor’s article, but the replies from Marvi Sirmed and Faisal Naqvi were good enough and spot on.
India has no choice but to go full throttle for engagement with Pakistan at all levels, otherwise it will just be the opposing forces that will win. No country can afford to go backwards, and with positive energy on both sides things can start moving in the right direction. For Pakistan, there is a clear choice to make, judge and decide what would be a future relationship with India should be. For now this remains a question mark and I would appreciate if we can get real answers.
In the end, as I stated before, probably ISI could curtail some of its budget and resources and retire majority of staff and Pakistan Army could display their tanks in exhibitions rather than carry out firing exercises in the desert. Afterall when business is booming and there is no conflict, who has time to fight?
In short, there are choices to be made on both sides.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

Seeing Umair’s comments, I get a feeling that things are changing in Pakistan. This is a welcome change. All of us want peace and well being. We cannot undo the past. It is time we bring in new faces and move forward. I think Indian military generals and their sub-ordinates should visit Pakistan and meet with their counterparts in a friendly mission, where they can discuss ways to reduce tension. If the militaries can reduce friction between them, it will help civilian efforts to gain strength. Though militaries are under civilian establishments, they can be given guidelines on talking only about military issues. Emphasis must be made on not challenging each other, showing off and taunting each other. Instead they should discuss what they can do to help the two nations get along. A joint mission to help Afghanistan or drug trafficking can be a starting point. Mending has to happen on all fronts. But I welcome this change of stance. It does not matter if things are forced by circumstances or not. We can capitalize on it and increase the momentum. Looking forward to better relations at any time.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, I can’t be so optimistic. The problem with using economic ties, is that from the Pakistan Army perspective, this makes it very difficult to sustain conflict with India. Once Pakistan is plugged in to the Indian economy and Lahori businessmen are flying to Delhi and Chandigarh instead of Karachi (whose own businesspeople will be flying to Mumbai and Hyderabad instead of Islamabad), it will be very difficult to sustain this narrative of India as hostile.

Not just that, but in the event of actual hostilities, Pakistan would face additional vulnerabilities. Their economy would suffer if trade was cut with India (which tends to happen during hostilities). And they might risk losing strategic supplies and spares if those are made in India.

Hence, the reluctance to plug in to India. That said, the only way Pakistan will ever truly be prosperous is by plugging in to the Indian economy. There is no other choice. The sooner the Pakistanis realize this the better for them and their progeny.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive

It’s no secret that Pakistan’s foreign policy is dictated by the generals in Rawalpindi & the civilian govt has no control over it. Meeting of foreign ministers could thaw the ice a bit but that’s pretty much it. Unless there’s a fundamental change in anti-India ideology of the Pakistani military establishment, all talks are futile. Also, it’s none of my concern but Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Khar, seems too inexperienced & young to deal with the extraordinary diplomatic challenges, which that country currently faces.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

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