India and Pakistan: Can they ever shed the 'enemy' tag?

Over the course of the past one month, there has been a series of overtures between India and Pakistan which are being construed as steps towards re-establishing a semblance of peace between the two countries

Niranjan Marjani Apr 04, 2021

Over the course of the past one month, there has been a series of overtures between India and Pakistan which are being construed as steps towards re-establishing a semblance of peace between the two countries.  

First, there was an agreement on a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LOC) from the midnight of February 24 and 25. Following this, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, while speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on March 17, said that India would benefit economically by having peace with Pakistan since it will give India direct access to Central Asia.

Two days later Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa called on both India and Pakistan to bury the past and move forward. However, both Khan and Bajwa put the onus on India to take the initiative for establishing peace.

More recently, India and Pakistan started the Indus Water Treaty talks. Recently, Pakistan made a flip-flop on its plans to go for limited imports of sugar and cotton from India. India refused to comment on this. India, on its part, while expressing the desire for normal and friendly relations with neighbouring countries have maintained that Pakistan must take demonstrable actions against cross-border terrorism and that terror and talks cannot go together.

These steps from India and Pakistan have come after a long spell of hostilities. However, it would be too early to predict if these initiatives would indeed lead to lasting peace. But at the same time, it is also important to consider the India-Pakistan relations from a regional perspective.

India, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Afghanistan presents a challenge to the engagements between India and Pakistan since both countries have their stakes there, although at different levels. For India, Afghanistan is crucial from the point of view of connectivity to Central Asian countries, a factor that Khan highlighted. Pakistan, owing to its proximity to the Taliban, is an important ally of the United States in the Afghan Peace Process.

India’s role in Afghanistan remains restricted as compared to that of other countries, particularly the US and even Pakistan. India has contributed a great deal to reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan. But in the political landscape of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been the primary facilitator for the US.

Pakistan’s close relations with the Taliban have a major impact on the security situation in Afghanistan. This is a matter of concern for India as it affects India’s developmental activities in Afghanistan and its outreach to Central Asia.

India is already engaged in developing the Chabahar Port in Iran which would enable India to circumvent Pakistan and reach Central Asia through Afghanistan. However, a volatile Afghanistan is the biggest impediment to India’s plans. With the US likely to miss the troops’ withdrawal deadline, uncertainty would prevail for which India might have to rethink its engagements with Afghanistan.  

Also, Afghanistan presents an opportunity for Pakistan to exert its influence. Elsewhere in South Asia, Pakistan has little room to maneuver where India is involved in competition with China to gain strategic and economic advantage. It looks difficult at the moment if Pakistan would be willing to cooperate with India in Afghanistan as it might be seen as ceding strategic depth to India.

And while Jammu and Kashmir remains the most disputed issue in India-Pakistan relations, it is still a bilateral issue. No other country is a stakeholder in it. But since there are multiple stakeholders in Afghanistan, the situation is much more complex and less conducive to establishing cordial relations between India and Pakistan.

Changing equations with West Asian countries

The approaches of India and Pakistan towards the Middle Eastern countries warrant a mention here. For decades, Islam has been a common denominator for both India and Pakistan to engage with the Middle Eastern countries. For India, oil trade and remittances from the Indian diaspora in the Middle East were additional avenues to connect with the region.

However, over the past few years, India has diversified its relations with the Middle Eastern countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2017, India-UAE signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement, while in 2019 India-Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to form a Strategic Partnership Council.

While India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have strengthened, Pakistan relations with these countries have declined. However, over a period of time, Pakistan has got closer to Turkey, the rival of Arab countries in the Middle East. India and Pakistan’s rivalry has been on display with both the countries expressing their preferences for engagements between the Arab countries and Turkey.

The current situation is a conundrum for Pakistan oscillating between economic challenges and political ideology. It has been reported that the UAE had a role in the recent peace initiatives between India and Pakistan. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has asked Pakistan to comply with its conditions by June which may have prompted Pakistan to make a move towards peace with India. 

On the one hand, improved relations with India and the Arab countries would be economically beneficial for Pakistan. But, at the same time, friendship with Turkey and support to Taliban act as an ideological incentive and an opportunity to exert strategic influence in the neighbourhood.  

India and Pakistan have always been categorized as enemies and never as competitors. Even if both countries work towards shedding the tag of enemies from now onwards, any lasting thaw in India-Pakistan relations would still remain a distant goal due to their often clashing geopolitical priorities in the region.

(The writer is a political analyst and researcher based in Vadodara, India. The views are personal. He can be contacted at @NiranjanMarjani)

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