India and Pakistan: a death dance

A Hindutva-inspired jingoism has now taken hold in India, threatening all manner of punitive actions against its smaller neighbor. For good measure, Pakistani policy-makers keep reminding India of their nuclear option.

(published in the Daily Times, 26 January 2018)

Despite officially and virtually being in a state of war since 1953, and dangerously close to an actual war in the last few months, North Korea and South Korea have now agreed to walk hand in hand under one flag at the winter Olympics next month.

North Korea’s overt and covert acts of subversion and terrorism against South Korea are well-known. Mutual suspicion and bellicosity between the two states runs very deep, yet they are able to come together from time to time.

In the former Yugoslavia, infamous for ethnic cleansing, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and other ethnicities, who were baying for one another’s blood, have now established normal state-to-state relations.

A couple of years ago, traveling by train and bus through the entirety of the former Yugoslavia, where now stand half a dozen independent states, I was pleasantly surprised at the ease with which erstwhile enemies are crossing borders, over lands that were smeared with their blood just over two decades ago.

Traveling in Africa, I have been struck by the facility with which people are able to cross borders, despite territorial disputes, historical tensions and tribal animosities, occasionally erupting into violence.

Greeks and Turks have sidelined, if not entirely buried, their age-old differences and territorial disputes to engage in normal interstate relations, including trade, travel and tourism.

It is the same in South America. Bolivia accuses Chile of seizing a large chunk of its territory (including its entire coastline and access to the sea) through war and yet there is normal trade, transit and travel between the two countries.

And, of course, there are France and Germany, which have fought many a war against each other in modern times, resulting in millions of casualties, and yet now they are the finest example of good neighbourly relations.

But India and Pakistan living as two normal, friendly neighbours seems inconceivable. Why so, you may ask? For Pakistanis, it is the issue of Kashmir. For Indians, it is cross-border terrorism, also emanating from the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan’s defence, economic, trade, tourism and human relations policy with regard to its closest neighbor remains hostage to the fate of a few million Kashmiri Muslims under Indian rule, even at the risk of a nuclear war.

India too confuses cause and effect, blaming Pakistan for its problems in Kashmir and Pakistan-based entities for acts of terror in India. A Hindutva-inspired jingoism has now taken hold in India, threatening all manner of punitive actions against its smaller neighbor. For good measure, Pakistani policy-makers keep reminding India of their nuclear option.

The two countries, tied together by a thousand knots and millions of family bonds, have fought three full-scale conventional wars (1948, 1965 and 1971) and three mini-wars (Kutch, Siachen and Kargil) in their brief 70-year history of separate existence.

Recently, I visited the Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah and witnessed the famous flag-lowering ceremony which takes place there every evening. It was my second visit there, the first being in 2002.

While the infrastructure at the Wagah border has improved, the symbolism of the ritual is manifestly worse. Instead of one cheer leader in 2002, we now have four: a teenage boy, a young man with one leg and two middle-aged men with bulging bellies.

Instead of patriotic slogans, the cheer leaders (and the very loud, loud speakers) tried to work the crowd into an Islamic religious frenzy. A non-Muslim Pakistani citizen seated there would have wondered if he belonged in this country at all. The whole atmosphere was designed to be more religious than patriotic. It was purposefully confrontational and belligerent.

Even when the gates don’t shut close every evening at Wagah (the only border crossing along a 3,000 km-long border), something comparable to the Berlin Wall divides the two countries. There is hardly any trade. Human movement across the borders is a mere trickle, consisting almost exclusively of elderly members of divided families. Transit and tourist visas between the two countries do not exist.

Thanks to a shared history, common language, culture and geography, the potential for trade and tourism between the two countries is immense, of Himalayan proportions, I dare say. Add the Torkham border with Afghanistan to the equation, and the sky is the limit, as far as the triangular trade and tourism are concerned. Instead of opening up the borders and exploiting the full potential, what we have is barriers, belligerence and bluster, even at the risk of a nuclear war.

Whereas India now has a far stronger and faster growing economy, excellent international relations and linkages, Pakistan appears to have few friends and even fewer options.  In the last few days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered a keynote address at the prestigious Davos World Economic Forum with sixty world leaders in attendance. If Chinese President Xi Jinping was the talk of Davos last year, this year it is the Indian Prime Minister.

Pakistan has lost the United States as a source of financial, economic and military support. A good friend turned virtual foe, Washington is establishing very close economic, technological and military ties with India. Instead of providing the much-coveted strategic depth to Pakistan (vis-à-vis India), Afghanistan now stares down its western border bitter and angry.

Pakistan’s one perennial source of financial aid, namely, Saudi Arabia, is struggling to balance its own budget. Iran has indicated where it stands, by providing India with port facilities at Chabahar for transit of goods to Afghanistan. Islamabad has now rendered itself dependent solely on Chinese support, economically, financially, militarily and diplomatically.

In terms of both hard power and soft power, India is forging ahead at an increasing pace. Pakistan not merely lags behind India in every sphere, but the gulf is growing fast. The prognosis is not good for Pakistan.

Sinking into financial debt, wracked by political instability, rife with religious extremism and bleeding from sectarian violence, with its conventional military inferiority in relation to India now aggravated by a growing gap in electronic and surveillance capability, Pakistan’s policy makers now brandish the nuclear option ever so often.

With Hindutva-driven jingoism growing and revanchist forces becoming dominant in India, an unprecedented level of belligerence and hostility is now gripping both sides. Two neighbours who can profit from good relations in numerous ways are instead engaged in a dangerous death dance.

by Razi Azmi

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9 Responses to India and Pakistan: a death dance

  1. Nazar Naqvi says:

    Dr. Azmi has given a balanced state of affairs between two neighboring countries. Its high time for leadership of our country to have right policies and improve relations with outer world and have efforts in direct direction to improve economy.

  2. Khurram says:

    I agree with Dr. Azmi, hopefully someone in Pakistan read this and think which way is Pakistan heading.

  3. M. Anwar Hossain says:

    Dr. Razi’s article narrates wonderfully the present belligerent relations between two neighboring countries, Pakistan and India. He rightly indicated how these two hostile nations could take lessons from other neighbors around the world in easing hostilities and tension between them.

  4. Dilip says:

    In India (despite the saffron robed fanatics and Modi ) so long as the Secularity of the Indian Constitution remains intact , there is hope.
    India will turn into another Pakistan if it ever becomes a theocracy.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      I agree with you, Dilip. Thanks to its secular constitution and an influential and significant secular-minded civil society which has evolved over more than half a century (thanks mainly to Nehru and Indira Gandhi), India will most probably bounce back from the BJP’s Hindutva agenda (just as USA will most certainly save itself from Trumpism). But, before that happens, there is trouble at least in the short term, especially for Indian Muslims (but also Christians and Dalits, to a lesser degree).

  5. Jehanzeb says:

    The state and the people of Pakistan are not hostage to Kashmir but rather to a mindset. If there were no Kashmir, there would be another issue created and nurtured. This mindset is led by the Pakistani Army as way to hog resources, exert political influence and have a free run to the country sans accountability.

    Pakistan is a natural confluence and culture and economic link between South Asia and West Asia. It must let go of its ideological mindset to reap the rewards of its geography.

  6. Pradeep Kalra says:

    Good reading. It appears this death dance will continue, the tempo may change from time to time. Pakistan will continue projecting India as the Enemy who wants to destroy it. The issue of Kashmir is given utmost priority as it serves vested interest. India claims that Pakistan sponsors terrorists. So the cross-firing on the LOC will go on as the Defence Budgets have to be justified. The foreseeable future in my opinion is not very bright

  7. Ali Wako says:


    I do not know much about these two countries but the permanent state of enmity does not appear to help either side. The Indians and Pakistanis that I come across regularly in Australia appear such peace loving and working people, pity the two countries do not get along. It must be much more difficult for people who left India for the modern day Bangladesh and then moved to Pakistan after the former’s Independence.

    Growing up in Kenya, I always thought people from India and Pakistan were one and the same (we did not differentiate between Urdu, Gujarati, Sindhi or Punjabi speakers…all were refereed to as Kenya Indians).

    • Razi Azmi says:

      You are right, Ali. The ancestral homes of millions of present-day Indians were in territory that now constitutes Pakistan and vice versa. Partition of 1947 resulted in the largest migration in modern human history. One Indian prime minister (I K Gujral) was of Pakistani origin and three Pakistani heads of state/government (Ziaul Haque, Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz) were from across the border in India. Eminent Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar wrote somewhere that when, as India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, he first met the then Pakistani High Commissioner, Shahryar Khan, in London, he said to his Pakistani counterpart: “How interesting, you are an Indian who is the High Commissioner of Pakistan and I am a Pakistani, who is the High Commissioner of India!” Kuldip Nayyar was referring to the fact that he himself was born in West Punjab, which is now a part of Pakistan, whereas Shahryar Khan was born in Bhopal, now in India.

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