In the last two years India and Pakistan have managed to rebuild ties after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks struck a devestating blow to bilateral relations between the two countries. However, the escalation of tensions over the latest incident on the Line of Control (LoC) threatens this normalization of ties.
In 2012, after much discussion and deliberation, both countries agreed to the easing of visa and trade regulations. Pakistan also agreed to grant India MFN (Most Favored Nation) status. To many it appeared as if the two countries would finally break the jinx that has plagued them since their independence.
However, while there is a civilian consensus in Pakistan for improving ties with India, until and unless there is a change in the mindset of Pakistan’s security establishment there will be repeated roadblocks.
India's civilian leadership, especially the current administration, has sought to improve ties with Pakistan notwithstanding the reality that incidents like these and others will keep occurring. For decades successive Indian leaders and administrations have tried to pursue with Pakistan what has happened on the India-China front. India and China still have a border dispute, but they have managed to carve out a relationship in other walks of life, especially economic relations. Further, while tensions on the border occur on a regular basis they are never allowed to irrevocably damage the Sino-Indian relationship. With Pakistan, the Indian argument has been to build economic, cultural, educational and other ties and keep issues like Kashmir on the backburner.
Pakistan’s policy, under various governments both civilian and military, however, has been the reverse. For decades Pakistan insisted that the Kashmir issue needed to be resolved before ties were regularized with India. Pakistan’s foreign and security policies are framed by the security establishment, which has benefited by adopting a policy of constant confrontation with India as justification for the existence of this establishment. The growth in civilian, and public, consensus on better ties with India helped the current Pakistani civilian administration to succeed to the extent it has in the areas of visa and trade with India. However, with an India-centric security establishment framing foreign and security policies that civilian initiative was sooner or later destined to hit a brick wall.
A few days ago India and Pakistan exchanged fire over the Line of Control. Trading of fire at the India-Pakistan border is a routine incident and has been occurring for the past few decades. In most cases all it results in is demarches issued by the two governments. The fact that soldiers have been killed on both sides led to ramping up of emotions and demands from the media and political parties. What actually happened will only unfold in the next few weeks or months. However, the reactions of both countries demonstrate how key players on each side view the long-term relationship.
The Indian reaction demonstrates the tightrope that the Indian administration has to walk on ties with Pakistan between those who advocate being tougher and those who would like to keep building ties. As External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid remarked, “we cannot and must not allow for an escalation of a very unwholesome event that has taken place.” National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s comment, that there has been an increase in “infiltration” in recent years and incidents like these are “a fact” India has to deal with, means that as of now the Indian government will continue with its current policy of normalizing ties with Pakistan.
Pakistan’s reaction also reflects continuity, as demonstrated in Islamabad’s appeal to the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) to investigate the incident. While India treats Kashmir as a bilateral issue, Pakistan has always preferred to internationalize the matter.
Pakistan’s decision to halt trade and travel across the Line of Control in Kashmir by closing its check posts in Poonch reflects a push back from the security establishment on the recent improvement of ties with India. There were signs all of last year that the military-intelligence establishment was uneasy about the easing of visa and trade ties. The repeated delay in signing the required declarations and memorandums were signs ignored by many. However, the security establishment faces a dilemma: Unlike in earlier decades, it is today easier to rile public opinion against the United States than against India. For that, an incident of the kind that happened at the Line of Control is required, one that draws on human emotions as well as vestigial emotions tied to Kashmir.