Signs of India-Pakistan reconciliation in sight

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2007, 12:00am

Sixty years after India and Pakistan were born in a bloody dissection of the subcontinent, relations between the two remain lukewarm to hostile. Much of the bad blood is due to their rival claims on Kashmir, the Muslim-majority Himalayan territory once described by American president Bill Clinton as 'the most dangerous place on Earth'.

India and Pakistan have gone to war four times, the last a high-altitude border war in 1999 on the desolate mountain-tops of Kashmir. Separatist Kashmiri Muslim insurgents armed by Islamabad have also been fighting Indian security forces since 1989. I have often visited the Indian side of Kashmir as a journalist and have seen how profoundly alienated the Kashmiri Muslim is from Delhi.

But for these simple people - mostly farmers, craftsmen and traders - it is difficult to comprehend that their dream, whether of independence or of union with Pakistan, can never be realised, since it collides with a powerful modern concept, the idea of a nation based not on religion but on secular principles.

Pakistan was created as a homeland for the subcontinent's Muslims, whereas Hindu-majority India chose to take the secular path. However, in one of those ironies of history, India today has almost as many Muslims as Pakistan - about 150 million. No government in Delhi can agree to Kashmir seceding on the basis of religion, for then the question will inevitably arise: what of the millions of Muslims living in the rest of India? Where do they belong? After the last border war though, both sides, nuclear-armed nations now, realised they were staring into an abyss. As a result, new ideas are being explored to resolve the dispute - ideas such as free movement of people and goods across the heavily-militarised border in Kashmir; joint cross-border development programmes; greater autonomy for both the Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir; and the eventual demilitarisation of the region.

Only a little of this has been achieved on the ground, but what is significant is that a serious and sustained dialogue aimed at finding a peaceful solution is in progress.

'There's been an almost revolutionary change in the environment of India-Pakistan relations,' says former Pakistan foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmed Khan. 'It's not inconceivable now that the two sides may also begin to jointly confront strategic regional challenges, such as Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, security of the sea lanes.'

Besides spreading urban terrorism in the subcontinent, Kashmir has also held hostage other aspects of India's relationship with Pakistan - trade, travel, cultural exchanges.

Bilateral trade is worth a meagre US$1.6 billion annually, and both countries pay more to import goods from elsewhere even though these are available at less cost just across the border. But there is change here, too. This month officials decided to increase trade to US$10 billion by 2010 and to rationalise trade and investment policies.

But the most remarkable example of the nascent spirit of give and take between New Delhi and Islamabad is the plan to build a US$7 billion gas pipeline linking Iran, Pakistan and India. Both India and Pakistan are energy deficient. The gas would be a godsend. The pipeline was first mooted in 1989, but mistrust between New Delhi and Islamabad stalled the proposal. Despite US opposition, negotiations have progressed in recent years and an agreement may not be far off.

'Something has changed in both countries,' says an Indian official involved in the talks. 'An effort is under way to see that economic logic triumphs over political differences.'

What about the flow of ideas, people, culture?

Last night a Pakistani production of a partition play was staged in Delhi to a packed house. Last month, so many people came to hear a Pakistani singer in Delhi that the gates had to be locked half an hour before the concert began. Several Bollywood personalities are currently helping revive Pakistani cinema whose latest box-office hit features a prominent Indian actor playing the good guy - a moderate Islamic mullah winning against extremists.

Even during times of war, the people of India and Pakistan did not lose sight of their common cultural heritage. Yet cultural exchange and people-to-people contact is still restricted. Leaders on both sides have yet to recognise that a song, or an embrace, can sometimes clear a thousand political misgivings.

The state of play

Ties between India and Pakistan remain lukewarm to hostile 60 years after the countries were partitioned

The firing line

India and Pakistan routinely carry out missile tests, and both have developed ballistic missiles that can deliver warheads to each other's main cities in five minutes

The Kashmir question

India and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars over the disputed region of Kashmir. The war of 1948 established the rough boundaries of today, with Pakistan holding about one-third of Kashmir, and India two-thirds. The war of 1965 began with an ill-fated Pakistani attempt to seize the rest of Kashmir. Both resulted in stalemates and UN-negotiated ceasefires

Nuclear weapons*

Pakistan 100 India 150


Pakistan 520,000 India 1.3m

Economy (2006 GDP)

Pakistan US$437.5b India US$ 4.156t


Pakistan 164m India 1.12b

*Analysts cannot provide exact figures on the size of India's and Pakistan's nuclear arsenals as each country keeps this a closely guarded secret