Frank Islam (Washington): Pakistan-India relations in 2019 were extremely rocky. At year’s end, trade and diplomatic ties were attenuated. Bilateral relations were probably in the worst condition of this decade.
In November, there was a little cause for optimism that there might be a potential thawing of the relations. That was because of the opening of the Karpartur corridor which allowed thousands of Indian Sikhs to visit their sacred place in Gurdwara Pakistan. By mid-December, however, things turned pessimistic again as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan criticized India’s Citizen’sAmendment Act at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva Switzerland saying the Act could lead to a refugee crisis and possible nuclear conflict.
India responded saying Prime Minister Khan’s comments were “gratuitous and unwarranted” and this was an internal matter Pakistan-India relations were not ending on a high note, which, as the following selected recap shows, was consistent with the general tone throughout the year.
In February, a suicide attacker killed Indian soldiers in India administered Jammu and Kashmir area of Pulwama. India blamed it on Pakistan and responded with airstrikes on alleged terrorist camps in the Balakot area of Pakistan. And, Pakistan retaliated with air-strikes over the control line in Kashmir and there was combat between Indian and Pakistani jets in Pakistan air space. Fortunately, these encounters did not continue and things returned to normalcy.
In May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was re-elected with a sweeping victory. Khan reached out and congratulated Modi and called for working toward peace and progress in the region. Modi responded in kind calling for creating an environment of trust-free of violence and terrorism in order for Pakistan to begin that work.
For a short period, it seemed that relations might be improving. In mid-July, it is reported that India and Pakistan revived Track II diplomacy with a meeting in Islamabad – the first one since the Pulwama terrorist attack in February. In August, the Indian government repealed Article 370 of the Indian Constitution ending the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and consolidated its control there.
This led to protests from Pakistan and Prime Minister Khan shutting down relations and that is where things stand till today. The other event worth highlighting from 2019 occurred in September when Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan visited the United States to participate in a meeting at the UN Kashmir was a topic for discussion there and US President Donald Trump stated that he was willing to help mediate on the issue. That offer went nowhere.
That is a quick overview of Pakistan-India relations in 2019.
The question becomes; what are the implications for 2020? That is a matter for conjecture as evolving events could change those relations dramatically and in a moment’s time. But, a review of the history of India-Pakistan relations and an assessment of the current situation enables an informed judgment. Historically, the relations between these two countries must be characterized, at best, as tortured and tenuous.
This is attributable in large part to the manner of the partition and establishment of the two nation-states in 1947 and the brutal and bloody consequences thereafter. Through the more than seven decades since then, there have been numerous attempts to forge solid diplomatic bilateral relations through various summits and initiatives.
However, the military conflicts and terrorist attacks such as the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, the 2007 Samjthauta Express bombings, the 2008 Mumbai attacks, and the more recent attacks and conflicts along the Line of Control in Kashmir between 2016 to 2018, overshadow those unsuccessful efforts to build bridges between India and Pakistan.
As has been noted, after Prime Minister Modi’s re-election there appeared to be a bit of sunshine but that was only for an instant. The context going forward into 2020 is definitely problematic. As Tanvi Kulkarni points out in her paper for South Asian Voices, Prime Minister Khan has tremendous domestic and economic pressures that he will have to deal with in the coming year. Prime Minister Modi and India will be looking for “tangible action” from the PTI government in restraining Pakistan terrorist groups and individuals and a successful transition in the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir.
Most significantly, the US sees Pakistan’s support of terrorist groups against India as a “chief obstacle” to reducing tension between the two countries. Given all of this, it is difficult to envision 2020 being a year for improved relations between Pakistan and India.
That said, there are three reasons that could compel it to be so. They are economic pressure; climate change; and, the need for peace. It is reported that the suspension of trade between India and Pakistan because of the Kashmir conflict has already had economic consequences for both countries.
It has cost India $1.4 billion to date and eliminated the provision of medicine and cotton supplies to Pakistan. That negative impact will grow substantially in 2020.
Climate change is a critical common problem confronting both India and Pakistan. Heatwaves, droughts, and floods are having an enormous impact on both countries.
The two nations rank near the top of those countries in the world that are most vulnerable in terms of climate risk. Climate change knows no boundaries. It requires a shared and collective responsibility in order to be addressed adequately.
Finally, there is the issue of peace. India and Pakistan together have a total population of nearly 1.5 billion people. They are both nuclear powers with strong militaries. The worst-case scenario is that deteriorating relations lead to war. If that would happen, there would be no real winners and countless numbers of those people would be the losers. In conclusion, are the Pakistan-India relations in 2019 a harbinger for 2020?
The answer is most probably yes. That is not an optimistic answer or a pessimistic answer. It is a realistic answer based upon the factors in play today. My hope for the citizens and countries of Pakistan and India is that 2019 is not a harbinger and that I am wrong. They deserve better. They deserve 2020 that represents a new beginning for India Pakistan relations. That is my New Year’s wish for them.
—The writer is an Entrepreneur, Civic Leader, and Thought Leader based in Washington DC.