Overshadowed by the recent warming of relations between Iran and the United States at the United Nations, high level talks between India and Pakistan went largely unnoticed. The steps towards stabilizing relations between the two South Asian giants, however, could actually be more important in the realm of global affairs than the recent cool off of tensions between the United States and Iran.
Pakistan and India are the two principal actors in the Indian subcontinent. The two nations were originally merged as one colonial territory under the British Empire, and when Gandhi lead his peaceful revolution, he hoped the two nations would remain one after independence. His dream was shattered, however, with the violent partition of the territory in 1947.
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Pakistan and India actually engaged in a brief war
Tensions reached an all time high when India backed Eastern Pakistan’s independence movement, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. Pakistan and India actually engaged in a brief war, which Pakistan lost. This has left a lingering resentment that only adds to today’s complicated issues.
Most of the recent tensions have centered around Kashmir. While India is a secular state with a Hindu majority, Pakistan is an Islamic republic with a large Muslim majority. The Kashmir valley has long been the “front line” between the Islamic culture of the Middle East and South Central Asia and the Hindu dominated Indian subcontinent. And where two vastly different cultures clash there tends to be a propensity towards war and violence.
The Kashmir Valley, a subregion of the larger Kashmir “province” is controlled by India, but is approximately 95% Muslim. The entire Kashmir region consists of approximately 14 million people, with about 10 million under Indian control and four million under Pakistani control. The Kasmir valley is a part of the Indian state of Kashmir and Jammu. Jammu, to the east of the Kashmir Valley, is a Hindu majority region.
The Valley has been hit by a recent surge of violence. While both Pakistan and India initially pointed fingers at each other, now both countries have committed to working together to subdue violence and cool off tensions. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and India’s Manmohan Singh met for an hour on the sidelines of the UN summit last month. Talks were positive and both countries have pledged to work to stabilize the fractured Kashmir region.
This is an important step as tensions have been rising in the region over the last several months. There have been over 150 confirmed breaches of the cease fire agreement so far this year. This number already exceeds the total number of breaches for 2012. Still, this progress has hinged on the willingness of both leaders to work together, not on the general views of their respective populations nor the powerful institutions that exert huge influence over the countries.
Pakistan’s military apparatus, for example, is often seen as being more powerful than the Prime Minister’s office. On numerous occasions the Pakistani military has overthrown civilian leaders. So while Mr. Sharif may be ready to begin to slowly repair relations, the military has not yet made its stance known. Historically, the Pakistani military has seen India as its arch nemesis and it is unlikely that hard-lined military leaders will be willing to change their mindset any time soon.
Still, there is hope that progress can be made. Pakistan may also be feeling the winds of change. Its principal supporter, the United States, is suffering from fiscal problems and growing weary of the country’s accused connections with the Taliban and other parties. At the same time, India has slowly been gravitating toward America and building up stronger ties with the super power. It’s not inconceivable that the United States may eventually come to support India over Pakistan.
Pakistan itself is suffering from internal weaknesses
Meanwhile, Pakistan itself is suffering from internal weaknesses, such as upsurges in violence and an increasingly restless population. Pakistan might now be reaching the point that a continued conflict and tensions with India will become to costly to maintain.
While the current Indian government has been largely trying to cool tensions with Pakistan, upcoming elections in 2014 could change the tone. Right now, the “ultra nationalist” BJP party looks poised for big victories and could even put a prime minister into office. So far BJP has been highly critical of Singh’s stance towards Pakistan and conditions could be radically altered should the BJP party come into power.
Still, there is hope that tensions can continue to cool. Trade between the two nations has grown substantially, from a mere $340 million dollars only a decade ago, to $2.4 billion dollars today. While this is still a small sum for such large economies, it’s a step in the right direction. The number of visas being granted is also increasing, and there has been a growing amount of cooperation through international and regional organizations. If the two counties can maintain momentum, there is hope that conditions could stabilize and improve.