Behind the façade of persistent hostility, relations between India and Pakistan have been undergoing deeper changes during the last year, and Pathankot marks one critical landmark in the continuum of these changes. It had become a pattern that almost every attempt at outreach and cultivation of relations beyond the minimalistic peace offering had been followed by terrorist attacks or border tensions between the two countries. And almost every time this had derailed the peace process. However, this time there is a major difference, with both the countries clearly identifying the role of a third actor and allying with each other and the international community to avoid the derailing of talks.
The New Shift
The Indian state of Punjab has become the ideal ground for cross-border terrorism in recent times. The January 2nd attack on an Indian air force base in Pathankot is yielding new facts every day. It has become clear that the attack was spearheaded by the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and its key leaders, who were also involved in hijacking a plane during the late nineties to prompt the release of terrorists arrested in India. And significantly it is now obvious that there was insider involvement, without which it would have been near impossible to breach, undetected¹, the base, which is surrounded by a fifteen mile perimeter and a ten foot wall topped by a concertina wire.
Since 2014, cross border terrorism has assumed different dimensions. The epicentre of terrorist infiltration and attacks has largely expanded from Kashmir to Punjab. Last summer’s Gurdaspur attack raised the concern of the expansion in the Indian security establishment. Besides which, Punjab is increasingly becoming a domestic conflict zone. Its status as the centre of widespread drug smuggling has intensified in the recent years, and, during the last year, there have also been communal tensions in the state.
Relations on an Upswing?
Relations between the two countries have been on an upswing since the Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference. This unscheduled meeting took place after Sharif expressed his willingness to resume the bilateral dialogue with India without any preconditions² – a new signal, since, for both India and Pakistan, the issues of terrorism and Kashmir, have hitherto constituted a significant precondition for progressing in the dialogue.
This was followed by the Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, agreeing to attend the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference on Afghanistan, in Islamabad, on December 9th. With India taking the initiative to hold the sixth such conference in 2016, it is clear that what is happening is an inevitable reorientation of India-Pakistan relations in the larger context of South Asia. The Istanbul Process document of the conference highlighted issues like economy and terrorism as its key agenda.
Further cementing of ties occurred with a surprise visit by Modi on December 25th to Lahore, en route to India from Russia and Afghanistan, to attend Sharif’s birthday. It was a diplomatic coup that was lauded by the international community and yielded the way for holding the stalled NSA (National Security Adviser)-level talks on January 15th. The last such visit by an Indian PM was in 2004.
Three factors can be seen as being critically responsible for the rapid changes in India-Pakistan relations:
First, there was a recent³ widespread publicity of the issue of atrocities perpetrated on the civilians in PoK and how their voices, in favour of development and against identity politics and terrorism, were brutally crushed by Pakistan.
Second, India, under Modi, has firmed up its foreign policy, to give preference to ‘neighbourhood first’. Thus, even last year after the attack in Punjab, India demanded tough action from Pakistan, but without saying that it will compromise on the peace process.
Third, the economy plays a crucial role in Modi’s agenda to ramp up SAARC as a relevant regional organization, by raising issues like trade, connectivity and common limited financial institutions.
A resumption of dialogue will be good for both the countries. The biggest payoff will be in terms of the economy. India can offer Pakistan manufactured goods which Pakistan currently procures from distant countries, hiking its GDP by about 2%. 4 On this side of the border, Indian industry has, therefore, the most to gain if bilateral trade with Pakistan opens up.
This time even Pakistan is committed to sustaining the dialogue. It has given its assurance to the international community, in response to US’s statement on strong action. It needs to strengthen its ties with India in other areas as well. The recent attack on the Pakistani consulate in Afghanistan shows that it is as vulnerable to terrorism as India. Since 2003, the number of fatalities in terrorist violence in Pakistan stands at about 60,000, out of which more than 20,000 are civilians.5 It has also been on the receiving end of JeM’s Maulana Masood Azhar’s warning of facing destruction if it takes any action against terrorism. But Pakistan cannot remain stuck in this suspended mode forever. Time is running out for it and it has to take a stand or be engulfed by the inter-Islamic terrorist conflicts. The future is inevitably in the direction of forging closer ties with India.
- Reuters. 2016. January 10. https://www.yahoo.com/news/pakistan-tells-u-india-attack-probe-bring-truth-084855961.html.
- Roy, Shubhajit, and Amitabh Sinha. 2015. The Indian Express. December 1. http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/pm-modi-meets-nawaz-sharif-at-un-climate-summit-in-paris/.
- The Quint. 2015. The Quint. September 30. http://www.thequint.com/india/2015/09/29/living-hell-in-pakistan-pro-india-voices-in-pok-brutally-crushed.
- Ramachandran, Sushma. 2016. ABP Live. January 7. http://www.abplive.in/blog/improving-trade-relations-with-pakistan-will-be-win-win-for-india.
- Organiser. 2016. Organiser. January. http://organiser.org//Encyc/2016/1/18/Editorial—Better-Late-than-Never.aspx.