Pakistan and India

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PAKISTAN AND INDIA After decades of unfulfilled promise, India now seems to be moving ahead, with more rapid economic growth, a more assertive foreign policy, better relations with the United States and China, and a modest nuclear arsenal. Adding these developments to India's traditional strengths—a unique and persistent democracy and an ancient, influential culture—it is no wonder that many predict the emergence of India as a major Asian power, or even a world-class state. However, this remains problematic as long as India's comprehensive and debilitating rivalry with Pakistan continues. If India cannot "solve" or better manage its relationship with Pakistan, which has become increasingly dangerous in recent years, then its wider strategic role is likely to remain circumscribed.

The origins of the India-Pakistan conflict have been traced to many sources: the cupidity of the British in their failed management of the partition; the cold war; the deeply rooted antagonisms between the subcontinent's major religious communities, Hindus and Muslims; the struggle for control over Kashmir; that province's importance to the national identities of both states; and the greed or personal shortsightedness of leaders on both sides of the border. These and other factors all play a role, but the conflict is greater than the sum of its parts.

Like many seemingly intractable disputes, the India-Pakistan conflict is a psychological, paired-minority conflict. Such conflicts are rooted in perceptions held by important groups on both sides—even those that are not a numerical minority and may even be a majority—that they are the threatened, weaker party, under attack from the other side. Paired-minority conflicts are most often found within states, but some occur at the state level, such as that between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors. These extremely persistent conflicts seem to draw their energy from an inexhaustible supply of distrust, and are remarkably resistant to compromise or the good offices of third parties.

Indian Insecurity

In the case of India-Pakistan relations, one of the puzzles is not why the smaller Pakistan feels encircled and threatened, but why the larger India does. It would seem that India, seven times more populous than Pakistan and five times larger, would be more secure, especially since it defeated Pakistan in 1971. This, however, is not the case, and historical, strategic, ideological, and domestic reasons all play a role in India's obsession with Pakistan, and in Pakistan's concern with India.

Generations and chosen grievances

The first generation of leaders in both states was devoted to achieving independence and building new states and nations. With the exception of Mahatma Gandhi, they did not believe that partition would lead to conflict between India and Pakistan. On the Indian side, some expected Pakistan to collapse, but did not see the need to hasten that collapse through war. On the Pakistani side, Mohammad Ali Jinnah hoped that the two countries would have good relations; he expected a multireligious Pakistan to be counterpoised against a predominantly Hindu India, with both possessing significant minorities whose presence would serve as hostage to good relations.

A second generation of Indian and Pakistani leaders was unprepared to solve the problems created by partition. Nothing in their experience had led them to place reconciliation ahead of their own political advantage. They reached a number of agreements that cleaned up the debris of partition, and there were trade and transit treaties, hot lines, and other confidence-building measures as early as the 1950s. India and Pakistan seemed to be headed toward an uneasy accommodation.

For India, what set the second generation apart from its predecessors was the defeat by China in 1962; for Pakistan, it was the division of their country by India in 1971. The ten-year difference is important: Indians have had longer to reconsider their great humiliation than the Pakistanis, and even the prospect of economic competition with China was met with equanimity by an economically resurgent India. In each case, the other side denies the seriousness of the other's grievances, and doubts the sincerity of the other's claim. In 1962 Mohammad Ayub Khan stated his skepticism that there was a real India-China conflict, and Pakistanis still belittle Indian obsessions with Beijing. Indians seemed to assume that Pakistanis have more or less forgotten the events of 1971 and cannot understand why Pakistani officials remain suspicious when New Delhi professes its good intentions. These two conflicts had profound domestic consequences, not a small matter in a democracy. No Indian politicians have admitted publicly that the Indian case against China is flawed or have suggested that there should be a territorial exchange. Until recently, no Pakistani could publicly talk about a settlement of Kashmir short of a plebiscite and accession, lest he or she be attacked as pro-Indian and anti-Islamic.

Each trauma led directly to the consideration of nuclear weapons and further militarization. In India's case, the lesson of 1962 was that only military power counts and that Jawaharlal Nehru's faith in diplomacy without the backing of firepower was disastrously naive. The link between the shock of 1971 and the nuclear option is even tighter in Pakistan, and for Zulfikar Ali Bhutto a nuclear weapon had the added attraction of enabling him to reduce the power of the army. Ironically, Pakistan has wound up with both a nuclear program and a politically powerful army.

Traditions: New and invented

While many Hindu and Islamic traditions suggest ways of reducing differences and ameliorating conflict, each also has elements that contribute to the idea of what historian Elias Canetti terms a "war-crowd." Indians and Pakistanis draw selectively from their own traditions, pointing to those on the other side that seem to "prove" the other intends to conquer and dominate. For example, Pakistanis cite the Artha Shāstra as "proof" that the Indian/Hindu approach to statecraft emphasizes subversion, espionage, and deceit. For their part, Indian strategists, especially at the Hindu nationalist end of the spectrum, emphasize those aspects of Islamic teachings that portray a world divided between believers and unbelievers, and suggest the former are obliged to convert the latter. Additionally, while Pakistani ideologues see the spread of Islam to South Asia as having purged and reformed the unbelievers, Indians read this history as reinforcing the notion of a comprehensive civilizational and cultural threat to India.

Indians also see Pakistan as an important example of neo-imperialism, meaning that when neighbors (that is, Pakistan) are allied to powerful intruders (such as Britain, the United States, or China), their domestic politics and their foreign policies become distorted. The U.S.–Pakistan alliance is widely believed to have militarized Pakistani politics and foreign policy, making it impossible for Delhi to come to an accommodation with Islamabad over Kashmir. Most Indians also believe that Pakistan compounded the error by allowing its territory to be used for the objectives of the cold war alliance, introducing a superpower into the region. The American tie is also seen as encouraging Pakistan to challenge the rightfully dominant regional power by providing the advanced weapons that enabled Pakistan to attack India in 1965. The preferred Indian solution to such a distortion of the natural regional power structure is for the international community to recognize regional dominant powers that are benign, accommodating, and liberal, rather than allowing either a global hegemon or adjacent powers to meddle in South Asia.

Pakistan is seen as an essential element in a shifting alliance against New Delhi composed of the West, Islam, China, and other hostile states. Another focus of attention in recent years has been the extremist Islamic forces led by Pakistan, with China as a silent partner. Like the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, many in the strategic community see a grand alliance between Islamic and "Confucian" civilization. The ring of states around India provides a ready-made image of encirclement. India has threats from the north, east, west, and over the horizon; naval theoreticians eagerly point out the threat from the sea, from whence both the Arabs and the Europeans came, and—thirty years ago—the USS Enterprise.

The threat from Pakistan, Islam, China, and the West is attributed to jealousy of India: outsiders wanting to cut it down to size. India's sense of weakness, of vulnerability, is contrasted with its "proper" status as a great power, stemming from its unique civilization and history. It is India's very diversity, long regarded as a virtue, that offers a tempting target for Pakistan, the Islamic world, and others. In the views of some of India's Hindu hawks, even the minorities (tribals, Sikhs, Christians, and Muslims) are a potential fifth column, awaiting foreign exploitation.

Pakistan as an incomplete state

The very nature of the Pakistani state is said to pose a threat to India. According to a 1982–1983 survey of India's security problems, the "Pakistan factor" looms large for reasons related to Pakistan's many shortcomings. These include Pakistan's limited cultural and civilizational inheritance, its military dictatorship, theocratic identity, unworkable unitary system of government (as opposed to India's flexible federalism), the imposition of Urdu on an unwilling population, the alienation of Pakistan's rulers from their people, Islamabad's support of "reactionary" regimes in West Asia (India identified its interests with the "progressive" segments of Arab nationalism, such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq), its dependency on foreign aid, and the failure to develop a strong economic base. This perspective has enjoyed a renaissance in the twelve years since Pakistan began to openly support the separatist and terrorist movements that emerged in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Pakistan is considered a threat also because it still claims that partition was imperfectly carried out; it harbors some revanchist notions toward India's Muslim population; and it falsely accuses India of wanting to undo Pakistan. Thus Pakistan still wishes to claim Kashmir, and even to upset the integrity and unity of India itself. More recently, Pakistan has served as the base for Islamic "jihadists" who seek not only the liberation of Kashmir, but also the liberation of all of India's Muslims.

The Pakistani Perspective

Pakistani leaders see themselves as even more threatened than their Indian counterparts but still more able to withstand the challenge than the larger, more powerful India. Its leaders have a profound distrust of New Delhi, and the latter's reassurances that India "accepts" the existence of Pakistan are not taken seriously. The dominant explanation of regional conflict held by Pakistan's strategic community is that, from the first day of independence, there has been a concerted Indian attempt to crush their state. This original trauma was refreshed and deepened by the loss of East Pakistan in 1971. Many Pakistanis now see their state as threatened by an increasingly Hindu, extremist India, motivated by a desire for religious revenge and a missionary-like zeal to extend its influence to the furthest reaches of South Asia. There is also a strand of Pakistani thinking that draws on the army's tradition of geopolitics, rather than the two-nation theory, to explain the conflict between India and Pakistan.

Like Israel, Pakistan was founded by a people who felt persecuted when living as a minority; even though they possess their own states (based on religious identity), both remain under threat from powerful enemies. In both cases, an original partition demonstrated the hostility of neighbors, and subsequent wars showed that these neighbors remained hostile. Pakistan and Israel have also followed parallel strategic policies. Both sought an entangling alliance with various outside powers (at various times, Britain, France, China, and the United States). Both ultimately concluded that outsiders could not be trusted in a moment of extreme crisis, which led them to develop nuclear weapons.

Further complicating India-Pakistan relations is the 1971 defeat, a great blow to the Pakistan army, which has governed Pakistan for more than half of its existence. Thus to achieve a normal relationship with Pakistan, India must not only influence Pakistan's public opinion; it must also change the institutionalized distrust of India found in the army. The chances of this happening are slim.

Another source of Pakistani hostility is the Indian claim that Pakistan needs the Indian threat to maintain its own unity. This argument has an element of truth: distrust of India and the Kashmir conflict do serve as a national rallying cry for Pakistanis, and thus as a device for smoothing over differences between Pakistan's dominant province, Punjab, and the smaller provinces of Baluchistan, Sind, and the North-West Frontier. "India as enemy" is also useful to distract the Pakistani public from other concerns, such as social inequality, sectarian (Sunni-Shiʿa) conflict, and the distinct absence of social progress in many sectors of Pakistani society.

Strategies in a Paired-Minority Conflict

States or groups that see themselves as threatened minorities have at least eight coping strategies. In the abstract, these include: fleeing the relationship, either physically or psychologically; demonizing the opponent; assimilation; accommodation; changing the behavior or perception of the enemy state; using outsiders to redress the balance of power; and finally, changing the balance of power by war or other means (such as increasing one's economy or population faster than the other side). Over the past fifty years, India and Pakistan, not to mention third parties, have contemplated each of these strategies.


India and Pakistan have tried to flee their relationship several times. The first instance was literally a physical escape; the others constitute symbolic, psychological, and strategic flight. Even though its founders had no interest in creating a theocratic state, Pakistan was created as a "homeland" for Indian Muslims, and most of its subsequent leaders left India to establish the new state of Pakistan. The key West Pakistani leaders were from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, and Bombay; the key East Pakistani leaders were Bengali Muslims. Intermittently, India has pursued a policy of psychologically escaping the relationship with Pakistan by the "look East" policy, or by ignoring Pakistan, simply refusing to engage in serious negotiations with it.


Demonization is another way of escaping a relationship. If the leaders of the other country are evil, misguided, or corrupt, then dialogue with them is immoral and dangerous. For many Indians, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, has long personified the misguided, evil leader who challenged India's civilizational unity with his two-nation theory, began the militarization of Pakistan by seeking arms from the West, and in a cold, undemocratic, and jealous spirit whipped up hatred and fear of India. His successors, largely military officers, are thought to lack even Jinnah's leadership qualities and the moral authority to place their country on a solid footing.

Pakistan's image of the Indian leadership is no less hostile. An important component of Pakistan's founding ideology was that Muslims could not trust the "crafty" Hindus, who still suffered from an inferiority complex. While Gandhi and Jinnah were once respected rivals, their successors in both states lacked even professional respect for each other.


Although many on both sides would like to flee the relationship, some Indians hope that Pakistan will someday rejoin India. Indeed, most of India's past leaders assumed that the Pakistan experiment would fail and that the state would come back to the fold. However, Pakistan's leaders have never contemplated assimilation. Indians no longer talk of reintegrating Pakistan into India, but there are widespread (if generally private) discussions about how India might establish friendly relations with successor states to present-day Pakistan. Like Bangladesh today, these states might not like or love India, but they may fear and respect Indian power and would not dream of challenging New Delhi as Pakistan has.


If Pakistan did not rejoin India, many Indians expected it to accommodate Indian power. However, Pakistani strategists view the accommodation of Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and even Bangladesh as precisely the wrong model for Islamabad. These states have lost their freedom of action, they have been penetrated by Indian culture, and New Delhi has undue influence on their domestic politics, even intervening by force where necessary. For example, India absorbed Sikkim, intervened in Sri Lanka, and has a military presence in Bhutan. Because Pakistan is larger and more powerful than any of these states, many of its strategists contend, it does not need to accommodate India. This resistance to accommodation or compromise with India is especially powerful in the armed forces. Pakistan, its officers argue, may be smaller, but it is not weaker. United by religion and a martial spirit, it need not lower its demands of India, especially regarding Kashmir.

Altering perceptions

From time to time, there have been attempts to change perceptions of Indians and Pakistanis to promote better understanding between the two. Several nonregional states and organizations have tried to promote India-Pakistan cooperation or dialogue. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States wanted to broker a détente between the two states so that they might join in a common alliance against threats from the Soviet Union and China. Considerable diplomatic energy was expended on these efforts, but the only result was to provide each with enhanced diplomatic leverage against the other.

Within South Asia the regional organization, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), has provided a venue for meetings between Indian and Pakistani leaders and sponsors some cooperative projects on regional issues. However, SAARC cannot deal with bilateral issues, and the smaller members are vulnerable to Indian pressure concerning the focus of SAARC initiatives. India has twice been able to force a postponement of its annual meetings when it was displeased with developments in Pakistan.

Most of the India-Pakistan dialogues, intended to promote understanding, wind up rehearsing old arguments, often for the sake of the non–South Asian participants present. History is used—and abused—to emphasize the legitimacy of one's own side and the misguided policies of the other. For years, meetings between Indians and Pakistanis rarely lasted long enough to systematically discuss the differences between the two sides and how those differences might be ameliorated or accommodated.

Proposals that emerge from the two countries were often not serious, their purpose usually being to convince outside powers of Indian (or Pakistani) sincerity. Much the same can be said of recent proposals for the institution of confidence-building measures (hot lines, summits, dialogues, and various technical verification proposals) between the two countries. Since the 1990s, there have also been at least one hundred programs to bring together students, journalists, politicians, strategists, artists, intellectuals, and retired generals from both countries. Much of the goodwill created by such efforts, however, was washed away by the 1999 Kargil conflict, an Indian Airlines hijacking, the attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001, and an extended military crisis that lasted well into 2002. A new round of dialogues, begun in late 2003, shows promise but has yet to yield concrete results.

The Indian and Pakistani governments have also tried to influence deeper perceptions across the border. Several Indian governments—including those of Morarji Desai, Inder Kumar Gujral, and Atal Bihari Vajpayee—have undertaken major initiatives in an attempt to win over Pakistani opinion. Most efforts seem to have failed dramatically, with the Lahore meeting between Vajpayee and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the spring of the 1999 discredited by the subsequent Kargil conflict, and the Nawaz linkage destroyed by the army coup of October 1999. The Indian proponents of a conciliatory line toward Pakistan came under strong attack from both the opposition parties and more hawkish elements of the Bharatiya Janata Party, although the new (2004) Congress-led government seems to be showing more flexibility. On Pakistan's part, President Zia's "cricket diplomacy" of the late 1980s and President Musharraf's participation in the Agra Summit in July 2001 raised the prospect of a more forthcoming Pakistani policy. Nevertheless, Pakistan's two democratically elected prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, fearful of the army, both assumed a very hawkish stance toward India.

Seeking outside allies

The most consistent policy in both states for over fifty years has been to seek outside allies against each other. Pakistan has enlisted several Arab states, Iran, the United States, China, and North Korea in its attempt to balance Indian power, but Washington, uncomfortable shouldering such a role, has resisted Pakistan's efforts to extend the security umbrella to cover an attack by India. The Reagan administration drew the line at calling India a communist state, which would have invoked the 1959 agreement to take measures to defend Pakistan against communist aggression.

The Chinese have been less restrained, and while no known treaty binds Pakistan and China together, Beijing has provided more military assistance to Pakistan than it has to any other state. Beijing saw its support for Pakistan as serving a dual purpose, since a stronger Pakistan could counter the Soviet Union and resist Indian pressure. Yet, China has moderated its support for Pakistan's claims to Kashmir, and has gradually normalized its relationship with India. After 1988 New Delhi itself saw an opportunity to weaken the Beijing-Islamabad tie by moving closer to China and lately has been circumspect in its criticism of Chinese policies in Tibet and elsewhere. This trend has continued through 2004 with the reinvigoration of commercial trade, investment, and border talks between China and India.

India also saw the former Soviet Union as a major ally in its competition with Pakistan. The Soviet Union provided a veto in the United Nations, massive arms supplies, and general sympathy for New Delhi. However, this support was not directed so much against Pakistan as it was against China; when the Gorbachev government began to normalize relations with Beijing, its support for India gradually declined. This trend is likely to continue indefinitely, with India and Pakistan both seeking outside support against the other.

Changing the balance of power

Both India and Pakistan have also attempted to use their armed forces to change their balance of power. The closest the two have come to a decisive turning point was in 1971, when the Indian army secured the surrender of the Pakistan army in East Pakistan. However, rather than pressing on to a decisive victory in the West—which would have been very costly and might have brought other states into the contest—India settled for a negotiated peace and the Simla agreement. Both the United States and China provided verbal support for Pakistan in 1970 and 1971, but neither seemed prepared to take any direct action that would have prevented India from defeating the Pakistanis in East Pakistan. A second opportunity came in 1987 during the Brasstacks crisis, when India had conventional superiority and Pakistan had not yet acquired a nuclear weapon.

By 1990 both India and Pakistan had covertly exercised their nuclear options and seemed to have concluded that the risk of escalation had reached a point where the fundamental balance between the two could not be achieved by force of arms. This did not prevent the discrete use of force, and Pakistan adopted a strategy of hitting at India through the support of separatist and terrorist forces and, in 1999, a low-level war in Kargil. Now this raises the prospect of escalation to nuclear war, but so far there has been no Indian or Pakistani advocacy of a decisive nuclear war.

Resolution or Permanent Hostility?

A paired-minority conflict does not lend itself to the kind of sustained dialogue that leads to regional peace. Neither does it imply that war is likely. Other paired-minority conflicts have been moderated or appear to be on the road to resolution, or at least manageability. On the one hand, it is possible to envision a peace process that could resolve or ameliorate the core conflicts between India and Pakistan, though such a process would require major policy changes on the part of India, Pakistan, and the most likely "facilitator" of such a process, the United States. A regional peace now seems improbable, however, given Washington's reluctance (since 1964) to become deeply engaged in South Asian conflicts and the difficulty of arriving at political acceptance in both countries at the same time.

A more likely development is that steps will be taken to encourage India and Pakistan to accommodate one another and reduce their conflict. Such measures have already been gaining support since the early 1990s and in some quarters are seen as a prelude to a real peace agreement. The uprising in Kashmir and the nuclearization of India and Pakistan have stimulated this interest, as reflected in the expansion of "Track II" diplomacy as well as increasing research on ways to stabilize the India-Pakistan relationship and various confidence-building measures. The goal of all of these efforts is to increase regional cooperation and trust, and to moderate, if not transform, a relationship that seems to be based on fear, hatred, and distrust. These suggestions emphasize the gains and benefits that each side may reap from cooperation.

Finally, the possibility that the India-Pakistan relationship might undergo a major transformation cannot be ruled out. Several scenarios suggest themselves, and though some of these seem far-fetched at the moment, all merit at least a brief mention.

  • Pakistan could collapse under the weight of its own contradictions and cease to exist in its present form, perhaps splitting into several states.
  • India could cause Pakistan to change its identity or cease to exist in its present form, instead emerging as a state less able or willing to challenge India in any significant way.
  • Some Hindu nationalists believe that India's "civilizational pull" will triumph over the idea of Pakistan, and that Pakistanis will simply succumb to India's greater cultural and social power (though not necessarily merge with India).
  • India may underestimate Pakistani nationalism and power and take some action that would lead Islamabad to actually use its nuclear weapons in a final attempt to defend Pakistan and, if that fails, to bring India down with it by attacking India's cities.
  • Pakistan might change its priorities, putting development ahead of Kashmir—at least for a while. This seems to be the strategy adopted by Pakistan's president Pervez Musharraf in 2003–2004.
  • India could accept Pakistan's identity as an Islamic state and move toward cooperating with it on a range of shared interests. Or, it could declare that it disagreed with this identity and point to the accomplishments of a secular democracy, but also acknowledge that on this irreconcilable point Pakistanis have the right to choose a different path.

None of these extreme outcomes seem likely, but together they add up to a possibility that the India-Pakistan relationship could take a dramatic and even dangerous turn. Without some fundamental changes in India and Pakistan, the most likely future of this dispute will be a continuing stalemate, one of hesitant movements toward dialogue, punctuated by attempts on both sides to unilaterally press their advantage in Kashmir and in international forums. This is a conflict that Pakistan cannot win and India cannot lose, a true "hurting stalemate."

India's dilemma

A state of stalemate is seen to be more attractive to each side than finding solutions. From the perspective of the Pakistan military, which has an absolute veto over any policy initiative regarding Kashmir, the ability to tie Indian forces down in Kashmir is an important consequence of the dispute; cynically, it could be said that Pakistan is willing to fight India to the last Kashmiri. For India, Kashmir has so many links to India's secular political order—especially the place of Muslims—that any settlement that appears to compromise this order is unacceptable.

Until a few years ago, the prospect of a "failed" Pakistan did not greatly disturb India. In the face of Islamic extremism, Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the state's economic collapse, however, the thought of a failed Pakistan is worrying India more and more. Pakistan could spew out millions of refugees, it might accelerate the spread of nuclear weapons to hostile states and terrorist groups, and it could serve as a base for radical Islamic movements that target Indian Muslims. Strategically, a failed Pakistan might draw outside powers into the subcontinent. Conversely, a more normal India-Pakistan relationship could help India assume a place among the major Asian and even global powers. It would not be a question, as it is now, of Indian power minus Pakistani power, but of an India free to exercise its influence over a much wider range, without the distraction—and the cost—of a conflict with a still-powerful Pakistan.

India's strained relationship with Pakistan resembles a chronic ailment. It has not prevented the Indian economy from forging ahead, India has been able to pursue its great democratic experiment, and it is now recognized as one of Asia's major powers—with its sights set on a wider arena. Yet, Pakistan remains an obsession for a sector of the Indian elite, and Islamabad's new nuclear capabilities, plus its willingness to tolerate if not support separatist and terrorist groups operating in India and Kashmir cannot be ignored. Indians (and perhaps even more so, Pakistanis) need to come to grips with the relationship. The problem is that events may outrun the process of accommodation. In recent years there has been a summit, a miniwar, a coup in Pakistan, and a major crisis (in 2002). India, as of early 2005, appears to be searching for a stable relationship with Pakistan, but the most important question one can ask of the relationship is not whether Indians or Pakistanis can be trusted to fulfill obligations incurred in agreements where they had little incentive to comply, but whether, under the influence of a pessimistic vision of the region's destiny, they can be trusted in cases where it is in their self-interest to comply.

Stephen P. Cohen

See alsoChina, Relations with ; Kashmir ; Nuclear Programs and Policies ; Nuclear Weapons Testing and Development ; Pakistan ; United States, Relations with


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