Aparna Pande is Director of the India Initiative and a Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute. You may follow her on Twitter @Aparna_Pande. This essay is an adapted chapter from an edited volume of Politics and Geopolitics: India’s Neighborhood Challenge (ed) Harsh V. Pant (2021).
Notwithstanding ties of history, culture, ethnicity, and language, Pakistan and India remain hostile neighbors divided by the impact of the British Indian Empire’s partition in 1947. The split of a unified subcontinent along religious lines framed the fundamental relations between the two neighboring states. To understand India-Pakistan relations, there is a need to comprehensively understand the underlying issues of their relationship.
The roots of the key areas of conflict between India and Pakistan lie in the legacy of partition, whether it is the problems facing minorities, the dispute over Kashmir as well as issues like Siachen or the Sir Creek and the water dispute. The two countries have fought four wars in the last six decades, three over Kashmir and one which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh.
Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s identity and foreign policy have been framed around India. A religion-based national identity was constructed for Pakistan based on the view of “Hindu” India as the “other” for an “Islamic” Pakistan. This feeling of mistrust towards India and the insecurity about India’s larger size, led Pakistan’s leaders and strategists to argue that India never accepted the creation of Pakistan and seeks to undo Partition.
Pakistan’s foreign and security policy is driven by a fervent desire to check “hegemonic” India from achieving its nefarious aims in South Asia and beyond. Although there is no evidence that India seeks to reincorporate Pakistan, the fear of India undoing partition has informed Pakistani decisionmaking for over seven decades.
In 1971, during the civil war in East Pakistanis that created Bangladesh, India supported the Bengalis but withdrew its forces as soon as the war ended. Every Indian Prime Minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, has sought to improve relations with Pakistan based on the belief that it will lead to a peaceful neighborhood.
There is consensus in India that a politically stable and economically integrated South Asia is in India’s national interest. Only in recent years has a strong anti-Pakistan sentiment emerged in India, particularly in the aftermath of Kargil and the Mumbai terrorist attacks, both of which are seen as reflective of Pakistan’s use of peace initiatives as an opportunity to launch attacks.
In the last two decades three successive Indian Prime Ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singha, and Narendra Modi—have attempted to rebuild relations with Pakistan. Although Pakistani civilian leaders have reciprocated Indian initiatives, a hard core of Pakistan’s national security apparatus remains wedded to the idea of India being a permanent enemy.
Civilian leaders who have initiated friendship towards India—Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Zardari—have been targeted by their domestic opponents as “security risks” or “Indian agents.” They have also lost influence and power soon after the initiation of a peace process with India.
Throughout the various ups and downs, India’s argument has consistently been that the two countries must build people-to-people ties and economic relations before resolving outstanding issues like Kashmir. In recent years the rise in terrorism—including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—has made it difficult for Indian governments to consider a dialogue with Pakistan without any discussion of terrorism.
If terrorism is front and center for India in any dialogue, for Pakistan it is Kashmir.
Kashmir: “Unfinished Business of Partition”
The one issue which most epitomizes how the rest of the world looks at India-Pakistan ties is that of Kashmir. The divergence of views on Kashmir starts from how the two countries refer to the issue: for Pakistan, Kashmir is the “unfinished business of Partition,” whereas for India, it is a settled issue that only needs dialogue and discussion.
The Kashmir conflict, a legacy of Partition, has been viewed by Pakistan as the “unfinished business of partition” and every Pakistani leader, and government, has tried to solve the problem. India has always maintained that Kashmir is Indian territory and the instrument of accession signed by the Maharaja of Kashmir in October 1947, and successive elections within the province demonstrate that the people of Indian Kashmir wish to remain with India. Pakistan’s argument has always been that as a Muslim majority area, Kashmir should have gone to Pakistan at partition.
The two countries have adopted differing policies when it comes to dealing with Kashmir.
Pakistan has sought to internationalize the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan’s leaders have consistently demanded that a plebiscite should be held in Kashmir in accordance with the United Nations resolutions to ascertain the will of the people about joining India or Pakistan. However, the last of the UN resolutions was voted on in 1957, over six decades ago. India views Kashmir as a bilateral issue, not an international dispute.
For Delhi the Simla Agreement of 1972 remains the framework within which the two countries should discuss any problem areas, especially Kashmir. The 1972 Simla Agreement states both countries “resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations.” The Lahore Declaration of 1999 reiterated the Simla Agreement “in letter and spirit.” But Pakistan’s military argues that the Simla Agreement was a treaty that was imposed after the devastating loss in the 1971 war that resulted in the separation of East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. They would prefer to ignore the agreement signed under duress and find a new basis for bilateral relations that denies India an upper hand.
However, Kashmir forms a subset of the broader issue of India-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s desire for parity with a much larger neighbor, India. Unable to maintain parity with India on the conventional military front, asymmetrical warfare in the form of terrorism was viewed by the Pakistani deep state as the cost-friendly and yet potent alternative against a much larger neighbor. Pakistan has nurtured a hardline ‘Kashmir bazor Shamsheer’ (Kashmir by the sword) lobby that portrays India as an existential threat to Pakistan—a view supported by Pakistan’s politically dominant military.
Until a few years ago, India pursued a policy of sporadic engagement with Pakistan even amidst intermittent terrorist attacks. The hope was that these comprehensive dialogues—covering everything from Kashmir to Siachen and the economy to the visa regime—would help build a mechanism that would resolve both the larger and smaller issues between the two countries. But since 2015, Delhi has made dialogue contingent on Pakistan ending all support for Kashmiri terrorist groups and giving up the option of using force to gain control of Kashmir.
There has been no bilateral meeting between the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers since the December 2015 visit by Prime Minister Modi to Lahore to meet then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Relations have only worsened since. The Pathankot terrorist attack in January 2016 was followed by the Uri terror attack later that year that resulted in India’s surgical strike against Pakistan-based jihadi camps. In February 2019 after one of the deadliest terror attacks against Indian security forces by a Kashmiri terrorist belonging to the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish e Muhammad in Pulwama, India ended its traditional strategic restraint and struck at terror camps deep inside Pakistan in Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The two countries are at an impasse now. India as of now does not believe it needs to restart a dialogue with Pakistan unless and until Pakistan takes actions against terrorist groups that target India. Pakistan believes it only needs to convince the global community to exert enough pressure that will bring India to the negotiating table.
On August 5th, 2019, the Indian government amended India’s constitution, removing article 370 that conferred special status on Jammu and Kashmir, and divided the erstwhile state into two Union territories. The erstwhile state of Kashmir—the one Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to India in October 1947—now no longer exists. Part of its territory is with Pakistan, which has already ceded a portion to China, and the part that was with India is split into union territories, with autonomy less than that of a state under the Indian constitution.
The Indian government believes it has changed the reality of Kashmir on the ground, in the hope of resolving the longstanding dual issues of national integration and international legitimacy with respect to Jammu and Kashmir. India’s leaders think they have resolved the Kashmir issue and presented the world with a fait accompli. As of now, India has benefitted from its friends around the world, notably the United States and most western countries being willing to give India time to restore the situation in Kashmir to normalcy.
Pakistan has received little support in its attempts to raise the matter of Jammu and Kashmir at the UN Security Council or even at regional fora. Except for Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, Muslim countries have avoided castigating India on the Kashmir issue. There is an international consensus that terrorism is not acceptable as a means of focusing attention on any grievance. But if the internal situation in Jammu and Kashmir, where suspension of civil liberties and severe militarization have accompanied the change in constitutional status, does not change for the better, the problem could come back to affect India’s global standing. Like all defining decisions, this solution must stand the test of time before being described as a triumph.
Broader India-Pakistan Relations
The two neighbors are at an impasse that cannot be broken unless one or both give up on the issue they define as the principal issue holding back the relationship. Moving forward requires that Pakistan back away from demands relating to Kashmir in return for India no longer insisting on terrorism-related conditions being central to peace talks.
Turning to the broader India-Pakistan relationship over the last six years, we see a lot of continuity again. Before becoming Prime Minister as chief minister of Gujarat, Modi consistently attacked his predecessor Manmohan Singh in matters relating to national security. After the 2011 Mumbai terror attack, Modi addressed a press conference and sharply criticized Singh’s address to the nation as “disappointing” and went on to outright blame the Pakistani government for the 26/11 terrorist attacks that killed over 160 civilians.
However, one of his first acts after winning elections in 2014 was to invite all his South Asia counterparts to his inauguration, including his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. This was followed by a series of peace moves made by both governments. During the 2014 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit, Modi posed for a handshake with Prime Minister Sharif, and later both leaders went on to have an hour-long secret meeting. Moreover, in June 2015, Modi called Sharif to send his good wishes for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. In the following month, both leaders met once again on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. In November, Modi and Sharif met once again, this time on the sidelines of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris, where they decided to resume National Security Agency-level talks between the two countries.
In the last month of 2015, both states’ national security advisors met for a diplomatic summit in Bangkok, and discussed a wide array of issues including terrorism and Kashmir. A few days after the Bangkok meeting was concluded, India’s foreign minister traveled to Islamabad and announced both countries would hold comprehensive talks to discuss all issues of disagreement.
In December 2015, Modi traveled to Lahore to attend the wedding of Sharif’s granddaughter. The trip marked the first time India’s Prime Minister traveled to Pakistan in over a decade, and the optics could not be better. Both leaders were photographed hugging and sharing very friendly moments. Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore revived the oft-desired hope that India and Pakistan would finally be able to live as friends not adversaries. This was not the first time an Indian Prime Minister extended a hand of friendship towards Pakistan. What was different was the style: a sudden stopover in Lahore on the way back from Kabul. For many this is reminiscent of a phrase by former Indian Premier Dr. Manmohan Singh in January 2007: “I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live.”
Nawaz Sharif too came into power in June 2013 seeking to change Pakistan’s policy with respect to India and Afghanistan. While in opposition he often spoke of the need for better relations between India and Pakistan. Unfortunately, as with previous Pakistani civilian administrations, this time too the Pakistan military-intelligence establishment that runs the country’s foreign and security policies has ensured that Sharif is unable to change policies.
The background for Modi’s trip to Pakistan was laid starting with his meeting with Sharif in Ufa, the restart of the talks between the two National Security Advisors that took place in Bangkok and the visit by India’s then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s visit to Islamabad in early December 2015 to attend the Heart of Asia conference which led to the resumption of talks between the two countries.
From the Indian perspective, a democratic and civilian-led Pakistan has multiple benefits. Since 2008, two civilian governments in Pakistan have attempted to improve ties with India. However, they have been unable to do so because of the veto of Pakistan’s military-intelligence complex. Modi’s overture to Pakistan was founded on the belief that Pakistan was facing tremendous international pressure from the United States and that better ties with India would boost the civilian government by improving its global image.
From Delhi’s perspective, boosting a civilian government would help provide the civilians with leverage over the military-intelligence establishment at a time when the latter is facing pressure from radical groups, both domestic and foreign. Restarting talks also opened the prospects of boosting economic and commercial relations and people-to-people ties that would help change the narrative and eventually lead to peace in the region.
However, meetings alone do not change policies; paradigm shifts are required to do that. For that to happen there needs to be a paradigm shift in how the Pakistani army views India. That has yet to happen and within a week of Modi’s visit to Lahore, the January 2016 an Indian air force base at Pathankot was attacked by militants.
In a remarkable move, the Modi government allowed an investigative team from Pakistan—consisting of members of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence, and police—to reach the airbase and investigate the causes of the incident. While there have been occasions in the past when the intelligence agencies of both countries have spoken with each other, or sent messages, there is a reason that mistrust exists. When the idea of a joint intelligence mechanism was mooted in 2006, there is a reason the idea went nowhere.
Predictably, after several days of investigation, the Pakistani investigators returned home and claimed that the Pathankot attack had been staged by the Indian government. Prime Minister Sharif decided to suspend the ongoing peace talks with India, and then Pakistan’s Ambassador to India Abdul Basit stated no meetings were going to be scheduled between the foreign secretaries of the two nations.
Nine months after the January 2016 attack, in September 2016, tensions were raised once again at the Uri attack during which seventeen Indian soldiers were killed after Pakistani militants attacked an Indian army brigade headquarters in Uri, Kashmir. In response, Indian troops crossed the LOC on September 29th, in a move that was widely described as a “surgical strike” by India’s media establishment. While the New Delhi did not release the official figures, reports in the Indian media claimed up to 50 casualties. Pakistan sought to defuse the situation by asserting that nothing happened during this strike by India.
Like his predecessors, Modi too started his premiership by seeking to resolve the “Pakistan question” but he faced the same issue that had plagued others before him.
After 2018 elections in Pakistan, there was a revival of the view both regionally and globally that there would be a new beginning in relations with India. But Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise of a new Pakistan were easier for Pakistanis to believe than for the rest of the world. Nations tend to proceed cautiously when it comes to countries that have acted in an antagonistic manner or failed to keep promises in the past.
India and Pakistan know that good relations would benefit them both but there are reasons why that knowledge has not translated into a workable strategy for positive engagement. Those reasons do not disappear just because one of the two countries has a new prime minister, one who has no experience of government and a tendency to over-promise amidst incredible faith in himself.
In his first speech after being elected, Khan spoke about improving relations with India even though he had denigrated similar efforts by his rival, Nawaz Sharif, whom he dubbed as “Modi ka yaar” (Modi’s friend) during his election campaign. Elections in Pakistan might be won more easily by painting your opponent as too friendly to India, but the burden of office turns all hawks into doves.
Khan then wrote to Modi, requesting that the two countries resume talks with a meeting of foreign ministers on the sidelines of next week’s annual UN General Assembly meetings. Khan indicated that Pakistan would be willing to discuss terrorism, but he asserted the need to make life easier for the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
This was a major concession from the Pakistani side, even if it fell short of India’s demand. For once, an ostensibly hawkish Pakistani leader was asking for improvement in the lives of Kashmiris without demanding resolution of the age-old Kashmir dispute.
The contents of Khan’s letter, however, were not released first by the Pakistan government, making Indian officials wonder whether Pakistan’s desire was just to create an illusion of a peace process to break out of international isolation. For India, it is important that negotiations with Pakistan’s leaders be conducted transparently.
From the Modi government’s perspective, it did not turn down an offer of talks. It initially accepted what it referred to as “talk not dialogue” on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, seeing it as an opportunity to at least hear what Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi might have to offer. India only backed off after the inhumane killing of an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) jawan and the kidnapping and killing of Jammu & Kashmir police by Hizbul Mujahideen terrorists.
Things worsened in 2019, when over 40 Central Reserve Police Force “jawans” were killed in Pulwama, Kashmir by a car bomber. The suicide attacker was a member of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). Twelve days after the attack, on February 26th, India’s Air Force crossed into Pakistan for what the government called a “non-military preemptive strike” on a JeM terrorist camp. Pakistan retaliated by launching airstrikes in Indian-administered Kashmir, which was followed by an air battle in which an Indian Air Force pilot, Abhinandan Varthaman, was captured by Pakistan. After several days of uncertainty and hostility, tensions finally eased when Pakistan returned Varthman to India.
The Pulwama attack led to a growing view within the Indian foreign policy establishment, and even the broader public, that it was futile to attempt to rebuild relations with Pakistan until and unless Pakistan’s military intelligence establishment changed its strategic outlook and views on India. The Indian policy for the last two years therefore has consisted primarily of using the issue of terrorism to isolate Pakistan on international fora, from the United Nations to the Financial Action Task Force, and at the regional level. In addition, against the background of heightened political and military tensions, the India-Pakistan relationship further collapsed with suspension of cross-border trade relations and official channels of communication.
While India has often been an election issue in Pakistan, Pakistan was rarely an issue in India. This changed after 2014 and now relations with Pakistan often implicate even in state level elections. The 2019 Pulwama-Balakot attacks played an influential role in helping the Modi government comfortably win a second term. During the campaign, the Prime Minister and many BJP leaders asserted that India is not afraid of Pakistan’s nuclear threats anymore and even suggested that India’s nuclear weapons were not just for show. The bilateral relationship between the two countries deteriorated even further in August 2019, with India’s revocation of the status of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan’s immediate reaction was the expulsion of the High commissioner of India in protest.
While Modi has strong domestic and international support, his Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan, does not have the same luck. After the initial shock against India’s act in Kashmir, Islamabad’s reaction was to either isolate India or to have the Indian action condemned by other Muslim countries, the regional or global community.
The strongest political response that Pakistan managed in the aftermath of the Balakot airstrikes was shutting down Pakistani airspace to India for over four months, even at the cost of financial losses to Pakistan.
Despite renewed tensions, the India-Pakistan relationship did not totally break down. Immediately after the Indian election results were announced, Imran Khan telephoned Modi and congratulated him while expressing the desire to improve the bilateral relationship. Modi was receptive and reiterated his earlier suggestion of working together to fight poverty, develop further cooperation, and enable an environment devoid of violence and terrorism.
In November 2019, the two countries inaugurated the visa-free Kartarpur Corridor allowing Sikh pilgrims from India’s Punjab state to visit some of their religion’s holiest shrines located across the border. For India, the Kartarpur corridor is simply that, a corridor to ease access for Sikh pilgrims to their religious sites. It is an issue-specific concession, akin to offering visas for medical purposes, that ties in with India’s overall policy of improving people-to-people ties with Pakistan. It does not, however, reflect any change in Indian policy on substantive matters and, therefore, does not ease India’s policy over the last several years of refusing direct high-level talks with Pakistan until the issue of terrorism is addressed.
Since 1989, on every New Year’s Day, India and Pakistan exchange lists of sensitive nuclear installations pursuant to a non-attack agreement between them. In 2020 too, the two sides successfully completed the 29th consecutive annual information exchange, as defined by the Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack against Nuclear Installations. This requires the countries to exchange such lists to prevent such installations from being attacked during any conflict.
Starting from 2008, there has been a growing Indian public opinion that has supported a tough hawkish policy towards Pakistan. This has only deepened since 2016 and even more after 2019. This has provided the Modi government with the necessary domestic support to continue with their policy and lay down strong conditions for the resumption of any diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan. On the international fora as well, India has been able to obtain support from the United States, European countries, and even in the United Nations Security Council on calling Pakistan out on the issue of terrorism.
India-Pakistan crises are not new, nor are terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based groups or India’s attempts to coerce Pakistan in their aftermath. What has changed over the last few years, and was witnessed in 2019, was the regional and global reaction to both the February 14th terror attack at Pulwama, where a Jaish e Muhammad suicide bomber attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy, and India’s punitive action against Pakistan. Almost every major country, as well as the UN Security Council, have been unequivocal in condemning the terrorist attack. Most have not minced words in assigning the blame to Pakistan. Even China disregarded Pakistan’s usual ploy of linking terrorism to the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, or demanding more evidence about those who orchestrated the attack in Pulwama.
Even after the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008, statements by countries that used to be allies of Pakistan—the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, as well as Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—provided some leeway to Pakistan. Words such as “non-state actors” were sometimes used alongside expressions of faith in Pakistan’s promises of acting against the terrorists. That seems to have changed. No one is now willing to praise the Pakistan government’s actions against domestic terrorists while asking for action against terrorists targeting India and Afghanistan. With both domestic and international support, the Modi government had the necessary support to back their notorious slogan, “terror and talks cannot go together.”
The failure of attempts at resuming talks between India and Pakistan reflects the inability of both governments to make an extremely difficult political decision. Pakistan’s leaders remain reluctant to admit that their desire for the intractable Kashmir dispute to be resolved will not be fulfilled any time soon. India finds it difficult to recognize that it might have to forego its demand for justice in past terror cases as the price for a future commitment to normal and good neighborly relations.
Although both sides are currently raising the temperature for their respective domestic constituencies, it is important to remember the context of India-Pakistan peacemaking as well as periodic jingoism.
If Pakistan is really interested in improvement of India-Pakistan relations, it will need to move beyond the “Kashmir first” policy. Pakistan may have to bite the bullet and accept that normalization of relations with India would require that Kashmir is placed on the back burner not just for now but possibly forever.
There are some Pakistanis who understand that reality. Former Ambassador Shahid Amin argued in an article that Pakistan needs to understand the “Kashmir dispute cannot be solved by military means or through the use of non-state actors.” Ambassador Husain Haqqani has argued in his books and articles for over two decades that improving relations with India is more important for Pakistan than resolving a specific dispute.
But currently, there are no such thinkers in Pakistan’s government. On the Indian side, too, where national pride and anger over terrorism precludes initiatives involving what some refer to as “magnanimity towards Pakistan.”
Living with Hostility
Pakistan remains critical to India’s view of its neighborhood. It is the country that broke away from India, so to speak, and has maintained consistent hostility towards it. Every Indian Prime Minister has come into power hoping to leave as their legacy the resolution of the conflict with Pakistan. The fact that this has not happened points to the problem having deeper roots than is generally assumed.
For Pakistan, antagonism towards India has become an essential characteristic of its national identity. Until and unless the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment moves away from viewing India as an existential threat and stops using jihad as a lever of foreign policy, there is little hope for normal relations between the two countries.
India, therefore, must plan on the assumption that Pakistan would continue to be hostile to India and will act as an obstacle to India’s rise. India would have to convince others, especially the United States, that instead of mediating in some India-Pakistan dispute, their role should be to check Pakistan’s implacable hostility and disregard for international norms when it comes to India.