Published On: Fri, Jan 15th, 2016

India-Pakistan Relations – Rogue neighbours

By Shaheera Syed

Understanding the India-Pakistan conundrum

From committing to burn the other’s ashes to the ground to developing an agenda for a comprehensive bilateral dialogue ensuring regional stability, the relationship between Pakistan and India has seen all colours. The hostility from the Indian side has been particularly prominent and in some cases, somewhat startling since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took to power last year. In contrast to its counterpart where electoral campaigns mainly revolve around criticising the opposing political party, interestingly BJP didn’t shy away from throwing blows at Pakistan during its ’14 electoral campaign to gain local traction. Such seemingly easy and elaborate usage of foreign policy items in the local politics goes to show how deeply intertwined the relationship is between India and Pakistan.

In a frenzy to digest Modi’s visit to Lahore and to ponder over whether Pathankot air base attack has sabotaged the Foreign Secretary level talks, the question of the hour is the future of the relationship between India and Pakistan. Truth is that the relationship between the two countries is so fragile and volatile that even the best predictions often prove wrong. This, however, doesn’t mean that Pakistan can’t develop contingency plans to conceive a comprehensive policy towards India. A good start is to analyse the overly hostile attitude of the BJP government from its coming to power till December ’15 (National Security Advisors meeting in Bangkok), its isolationist policies towards Pakistan and hijacking of all cross-cultural initiatives by radical right-wing parties like Shiv Sena. The table below aims to highlight some of the major events that are of significance to Pakistan and India relationship. The red color symbolises the negative nature of the event (in terms of the response that it generated) and the green code symbolises the positive nature of the event.

With just one glance, it becomes apparent that things started to look up between the two countries only towards the end of last year. In addition to studying each negative event in details, significant emphasis should be devoted to analyse the sudden U-turn in Indian attitude towards Pakistan for two reasons. First, this knowledge will prove instrumental to recreate similar environment in case the relationship turns sour again. Second, understanding why change appeared can be instrumental to make predictions about its durability and duration.

India-Pakistan Relations - Rogue neighbours

What changed?

Rising against the climate of intolerance in India, the BJP government had been facing backlash of the left leaning cultural elite in the country. More than 40 novelists, essayists, playwrights and poets gave back awards from the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the Sahitya Akademi. After a landslide election victory last year, the party faced a huge upset in the form of the staggering victory for the Mahagathbandan in the Bihar elections. There also has been international pressure on both India and Pakistan to beef up the peace and reconciliatory efforts to avoid nuclear pressure build up and to maintain regional stability. In order to regain the trust of the local as well as the international community, BJP government apparently abandoned its hardliner approach towards Pakistan and welcomed the peace process with open arms. We all hailed for peace when the Prime Ministers met at the sidelines of COP21 or when Sushma Swaraj attended the Heart of Asia Conference or when PM Modi visited Lahore on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday.

The budding relationship between Pakistan and India seemed too good to be true. And it was.

On 2 January, India’s sprawling Pathankot airbase came under a remarkable four days of attack from a handful of gunmen. On 3 January, India’s consulate in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif was besieged for over 24 hours. Then on 5 January, an explosion occurred near another of India’s Afghan missions, in Jalalabad.

Though somewhat mature response is shown from both sides and India is not blatantly accusing Pakistan for the attacks but the undertones remain the same — fingers are being pointed at Pakistani intelligence agencies for supporting such illicit activities. This has been done in the past as well but the only difference is that now India gets to say that it tried.

It tried to overlook the differences and play nice with its neighbor, but Pakistan doesn’t seem to learn from its mistakes. Maybe it isn’t ready to change its antics and move on. Or worse yet, maybe it has the intention but is incapable to do so.

Looking at the current situation, many are asking whether Indian attitude towards Pakistan has really changed. I dare to further the line of reasoning and ask: Does it matter?

Just because Indian Prime Minister decided to drop by Lahore on his way to India doesn’t mean that we forget that he is the same Modi who openly acknowledged and boasted about India’s involvement dividing the sovereign state of Pakistan in 1971. Peace process should be supported at all levels but at the same time Pakistan should also be prepared for the possibility of relations turning bitter if an incident like Pathankot happens again. Given the extent of stakes involved, the likelihood of such an occurrence is pretty high.

What Pakistani politicians and policymakers need to realise is that they can’t rely on the Indian projections and need to reduce the space granted to India for distorting its image in the international community. While efforts should be dedicated to prevent the peace dialogue from derailing, Pakistan should concurrently try to strengthen its relations with other neighbouring countries. Having a strong international presence and tapping the opportunities for regional collaboration is probably the only smart policy option that Pakistan can exercise to stop negotiating from a position of weakness when dealing with India and to counter its belligerence.

Shaheera Syed is a Research Adviser at the Foreign Affairs Committee of Pakistan. She can be reached at:, and on Twitter at: @ShaheeraSyed

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