Peace between the two South Asian neighbours was on everyone’s mind when Prime Minister Imran Khan recently sent a letter to his Indian counterpart proposing a meeting between their foreign ministers. Only one day after accepting the invitation, however, the Indian government cancelled the meeting citing Pakistan’s recent killings of its security personnel and issuing postage stamps to glorify terrorism.
Peace between the two countries has been so politicised on the governmental, cultural, and media levels that repeated efforts in normalising relations have always ended in failure; and now every new move to eliminate hurdles seems to be a zero-sum game.
Against this backdrop, would both nations be able to at least start discussing the prospects of peace? A quick historical review of peace talks between the two countries will be helpful to comprehend the complexities of the issue.
Pakistan’s covert action in Kargil evaporated the aura of goodwill between the two countries and the familiar path of brinkmanship on both sides of the border was back.
Pervez Musharraf, however, picked up the pieces to resolve the most important issue of Kashmir when he came to power; dismantling the civilian government. Both nations were close to resolving the issue when Musharraf went to India in July 2001, to sign a supposedly landmark agreement with Vajpayee but he came back empty handed.
Vajpayee came to Pakistan in January 2004, to attend the SAARC conference and met Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali. In November 2004, Prime Minister Shoukat Aziz also met his counterpart Manmohan Singh in India to revive the Kashmir issue with no luck.
Ongoing negotiations were derailed when another political party, the Indian National Congress, came to power in India even though Musharraf visited India in April 2005, and had a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
When Musharraf was ousted by the lawyers’ movement, Pakistan People’s Party came to power and the new Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani visited India as part of cricket diplomacy. Later President Zardari also visited India and met Manmohan Singh in April 2012.
Hopes were high again to revive peace efforts when BJP in India and PML-N in Pakistan came to power with strong mandates. Besides good gestures, however, nothing materialised and there are several reasons why.
Normalising relations between the two nuclear powers in South Asia poses as a threat to certain state and nonstate elements in both countries. Religious extremists in India and Pakistan always oppose peacebuilding efforts and try to jeopardise negotiations through fiery agitations and violent tactics.
The political rhetoric as part of elections in both countries contributes to a heightened level of tension and further widens the gap between the two nations.
Politicisation of peacebuilding efforts at the media level starts with raising nationalistic fervour on both sides of the border. Whenever media outlets spread hatred, good intentions become prisoners of media frenzy; ultimately destroying the negotiating process.
There are also two bilateral issues that need to be resolved before establishing peace. The Kashmir issue has been so politicised by the media, and politicians in Pakistan that no government can afford to ignore it in bilateral negotiations with India.
India, on the other hand, has been asking Pakistan to end cross-border terrorism and bring culprits of terrorist attacks in India to justice, before they start any serious discussion on normalising relations.
Although there exist strong intentions on both sides of the border, to continue negotiations, peace seems to be lost somewhere amidst; the changing regimes, historical baggage, infamous bureaucratic control, public sentiments misused by politicians, and media frenzy.
This negotiating game — now you see it, now you don’t — has been going on in the subcontinent since the partition. Dangerously heightened conflicts, along with the inability of India and Pakistan to negotiate, have been jeopardising the progress of the whole region which otherwise has huge potential for economic growth, regional integration, and eradication of poverty.