Imran Khan recently said he thinks there may be a better chance of peace talks with India if Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins the general election, currently underway. Though one should not read too much into this statement, it’s pertinent to ask: why is peace such a big deal when all it takes is to talk?
Conflict is an inevitable aspect of the human world, but when it becomes intractable it not only goes on for a long time but also resists any attempts to resolve it. Indo-Pak conflict is a case in point. The two neighbours are adversaries by birth. The baggage of history is too heavy to ignore. As a result, they have never really been at peace with each other. At a closer study, the conflict between the two countries offers insight into the factors that trigger confrontation and the elements that may help in de-escalation and gradual reconciliation.
War of Narratives
Much more than the military confrontation, India and Pakistan have witnessed battles of narratives. People in the two countries hold contrary beliefs about the history of acrimony since the partition. They hold these beliefs quite strongly, painting the rival country as a demon. These long held narratives have only been reinforced by 24x7 media.
People tend to believe the explanation of events given by their own governments or armed forces. So while reality may be quite different, people view it through the state-security prism. In the protracted Indo-Pak conflict, there are parallel narratives. People in India believe that Muhammad Ali Jinnah was responsible for the partition and the bloodshed that accompanied it. Since as per the Indian narrative Pakistan was the brainchild of Jinnah so all the problems stemming from Pakistan are attributed to him. On the contrary, Jinnah enjoys unparallel respect as ‘Quad-e-Azam’ in Pakistan. Since people of India and Pakistan did not agree on the role of Jinnah, for instance, in the past. This disagreement causes them to dispute what has happened in more recent times.
In its acceptable form, nationalism simply refers to a sentiment of loyalty toward the nation that is shared by people. The cohesive bond is provided by factors like physical proximity, religion, historical experience etc. One of the more problematic elements of nationalism is common hatred for the ‘enemy’ nation. Some public figures have been habitual of making hate speeches. This again was at display during the crisis between India and Pakistan earlier this year. War may have been averted for now, but the boost nationalism received means the vengeance will increase and next time it will be much more difficult to prevent the catastrophe.
In this backdrop, peacemaking becomes an increasingly elusive prospect. Peacemaking, by definition, is a dynamic process of ending conflict through negotiation or mediation. However, just like the conflict is inevitable, the longing for peace is inherent in the human world.
Bargaining is part of negotiations between warring nations. Negotiations involve compromises and concessions, but they are designed to yield some kind of agreement. However, when a party participates in negotiations just to score propaganda points or appease domestic constituency, it is doomed to fail. India and Pakistan need to prepare ground for meaningful negotiations. Preliminary talks can be held to agree on the issues, format and time frame for the formal talks. One can’t expect the negotiations deliver results overnight, but they can achieve substantive progress and help hammer out the final solution.
With lack of political will or rather political compulsions on both sides to resolve the differences, mediation becomes important. A mutually acceptable third party can help Indian and Pakistan find a solution. Mediators have no authority to decide the dispute between the parties, but powerful mediators can influence the outcome. This too, unfortunately, has not worked out. Some may argue that there has never really been a meaningful and sustained mediation even as countries like United States have offered mediation in the past.
Mediators are typically from outside the conflict. But sometimes mediators may not appear completely impartial and neutral. For instance, powerful nations like US, Russia and China have strategic interests in the South Asia region that may prompt them to pursue a particular outcome to suit their objectives. Nevertheless, mediation remains an important channel to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan as was seen in the recent standoff.
To begin with mediators can help in facilitating communication and negotiation. Since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, India’s position has been that ‘terror and talks cannot go together’. As a result, the two parties are not even talking to each other, not to speak of resolving differences. The mediators, particularly the United States, may use leverage and push the two nations to work out mutually agreed solutions. Again it may sound optimistic, but instead of ruling out all options of peacemaking it’s advisable that we stay hopeful and wait for that window of opportunity to emerge.