Sixty-three years on: still India’s vital interest

COMMENT: Sixty-three years on: still India’s vital interest —Aparna Pande

Mistrust is bridged by opening borders and improving visa regimes, by championing trade and commerce and above all by the willingness to listen to the other person and to continue talks despite disagreements and differences

India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao recently stated: “I believe that dialogue is the most effective means to tackle outstanding issues with Pakistan and the abandonment of dialogue; the interruption of the dialogue, by no means serves the interest that we seek to pursue in getting Pakistan to stop its pursuit of terrorism against India.” In light of Secretary Rao’s statement let us analyse why, 63 years after independence, India and Pakistan need to keep talking.

In June 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated: “I sincerely believe it is in our vital interest therefore to try again to make peace with Pakistan…If the leaders of Pakistan have the courage, the determination and the statesmanship to take this road to peace, I wish to assure them that we will meet them more than halfway.” Dr Singh was not the first Indian prime minister to express a desire for peace between the two countries; premiers from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards have stated similar views.

A stable democratic and peaceful Pakistan is in our vital interest, not just for altruistic reasons but for selfish national security reasons as well. Stable neighbours lead to secure borders and secure borders are vital to national interests. India is the only country in South Asia that shares borders with all its neighbours — Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and a water border with Sri Lanka. Any problems in these countries will automatically spill over into India.

The Maoist problem in Nepal, including the fact that today they are the largest political organisation in that country and are vehemently anti-India, has led to continuous frictions between India and Nepal. Any breakdown of law and order in Bangladesh will only add to the already steady flow of illegal immigrants into India’s north-eastern states where religious and ethno-linguistic tensions between the Muslim Bengalis and the mainly Hindu Assamese natives are already at a flash point. The impact of Sri Lanka’s two decade long civil war in India can be seen not only in the key role the ‘Tamil issue’ plays in local elections in Tamil Nadu but also in that one of our prime minister’s was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.

Hardliners in India believe that Pakistan is a state waiting to collapse and India should just wait for the inevitable to happen and hence do nothing. A majority also assert that it does not help India to talk to any civilian government since the only institution in Pakistan that functions properly is the army, which is by definition anti-India. Hence, their policy is that India should continue to build ties with the US and convince the Americans to put more pressure on Pakistan and ignore talking directly to Pakistan. When the Americans insist that India should talk to Pakistan to solve issues, the hawks have a readymade answer. India can always point out that until and unless Pakistan changes its anti-India attitude and stops exporting terror to India, the Indian domestic opinion will not allow any Indian government to move forward with Pakistan.

However, burying your head in the sand and saying that Pakistan’s implosion is inevitable and will not make a difference to India is fallacious and dangerous. Pakistan is a country of 175 million and if the country starts to collapse, the most likely venue for these immigrants will be India, not Afghanistan or Iran. If Pakistan collapses to the extent that even the Pakistani army is not able to hold on to the country, then the security of the nuclear weapons is something India needs to be concerned about. And if the jihadi menace is a problem right now, what will the situation be like when it is jihadi sans control, i.e. when the Pakistani security forces are unable to keep any check on these groups.

The best way to ensure that there is no mass immigration, that terrorists and extremists do not take over the territory of such a large state and that the nuclear weapons are in safe hands is if Pakistan is stable, democratic and peaceful. For that to happen, as Pakistan’s largest neighbour it is in India’s vital interest to help stabilise Pakistan and hence stabilise and secure the neighbourhood.

Stating that the civilians are weak in Pakistan and hence not talking with them has only ensured that the vicious cycle of military power-civilian weakness continues. With India and Kashmir holding such a sway in Pakistani politics, if any civilian government is able to build long-lasting ties with India and move forward in solving the Kashmir dispute, this will boost democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan.

However, just as Pakistanis will judge India by its actions, not its intentions, similarly Indians too will judge Pakistan by its actions. President Zardari has oft stated that India is not a threat to Pakistan and Pakistan’s civilian government has often expressed the desire to have peaceful ties with India. These intentions have not yet been actualised. When Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took over as president of Argentina, her first call was to Brazil. If states want to build ties with their neighbours, they make talks with them their priority.

Pakistani hardliners assert that India has never accepted partition or the creation of Pakistan and they point to India’s immense conventional military capabilities as a reflection of Indian intentions. Indian hardliners point out that until and unless the entire military — technocratic-intelligence establishment changes its perception of India as an existential threat, things will not change. Pakistani and Indian moderates would like India to support the civilian government and the liberals in Pakistan.

There is no denying that the India-Pakistan peace process will be cumbersome, that there will be setbacks — like during the last foreign ministers’ talks in Islamabad — but there is no other option. India and Pakistan need to continue talks because the main underlying problem is ‘mistrust.’ On the eve of the July 15 talks both countries recognised the need to bridge this mistrust and move ahead. Mistrust is bridged by opening borders and improving visa regimes, by championing trade and commerce and above all by the willingness to listen to the other person and to continue talks despite disagreements and differences.

For centuries France and Germany fought over a piece of territory; today the two countries are so closely allied economically that it is difficult to imagine they were ever enemies. India and Pakistan have close civilisational ties and yet have fought four wars in the last six decades. The weight of history is on the side of those who want to build ties between the two countries. Let us hope our leaders hear this call.

The writer has a doctorate in political science and is a research fellow at Hudson Institute. Her book on Pakistan’s foreign policy will be published by Routledge in March 2011

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