If Israel, UAE, Bahrain can make peace, why can’t India, Pakistan?

Indian Border Security Force personnel (dressed in brown) and Pakistani Rangers (dressed in black) take part in the Beating Retreat ceremony at the India-Pakistan border in Wagah on Dec. 26. Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

With continued violence in Kashmir and a heightened threat of terrorist activity by Pakistan-based militant groups, tensions and concerns over a serious military confrontation between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan remain high. In August 2019, following the deployment of tens of thousands of additional troops and paramilitary forces to the region, the Indian government moved to revoke Article 370 of the Indian constitution, removing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. India-administered Kashmir remains under lockdown, with internet and phone services intermittently cut off and thousands of people detained.

Co-existence on earth is the rule of humanity. Its opposite is not the extermination of enemies as some imagine, but mutually assured destruction, quite mad as its acronym (MAD) implies. This holds true in multiple spheres of life, as amply illustrated in my book The Death and Afterlife of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: Penguin Random House, 2015).

As per Indian Standard Time, on the morning of Pakistan’s Independence Day on 14th August and a day before India’s on 15th August, the three-nation accord between the United States, Israel, and the UAE was announced. Its very first line proclaimed “the full normalization of relations” between Israel and UAE.

Even as City Hall, Tel Aviv was lit up with UAE flags and celebrations broke out in the Emirates, India was informed of this momentous development in a phone call to external affairs minister, Dr S. Jaishankar, by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.

Soon after, the Indian government applauded the agreement: “India has consistently supported peace, stability and development in West Asia, which is its extended neighbourhood. In that context, we welcome the full normalization of ties between UAE and Israel.

Both nations are key strategic partners of India.” MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava added that India’s “traditional support for the Palestinian cause” would not be affected. “We hope to see an early resumption of direct negotiations to find an acceptable two-state solution,” he said.

Bilateral Relationships

Bilateral relations remained fraught over the last few months of the year. Islamabad issued constant broadsides against New Delhi for its continued security lockdown in Kashmir. By year’s end, an internet blackout was still in effect. Then, in December, India’s parliament passed a controversial new citizenship law that affords fast-track paths to Indian citizenship for religious minorities—but not Muslims—fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The new law angered Islamabad not just for excluding Muslims, but because of the implication—accurate but not something Islamabad likes to admit—that Pakistan persecutes its Hindu and Christian communities.

These prolonged tensions often overshadowed what was arguably the biggest story in both countries in 2019: economic struggle. India suffered its biggest economic slowdown in six years, and Pakistan confronted a serious debt crisis. The two weren’t unconnected: Given the inability of New Delhi and Islamabad to fix their economies, both governments arguably sought political advantages from the distractions of saber rattling.

Against this tense backdrop, the opening in November of a new border corridor that enables Indian Sikhs to enter Pakistan visa-free to worship at a holy shrine, which in better times could have been a bridge to an improved relationship, amounted to little more than a one-off humanitarian gesture.

Peace in the subcontinent

In the sub-continent, this extraordinary announcement had positive-minded people on both sides of the Indo-Pak borders asking, “If the Arabs and Israelis can normalize ties, why can’t Indians and Pakistanis?”

The deterioration of relations between two feuding nations could actually be reversed—from conflict to coexistence, from coexistence to amity, and, finally, even if in the somewhat distant future, from amity to unity. Such thoughts were triggered by the message of hope out of the Middle East after so many decades of conflict, acrimony, bitterness, and distrust.

Why not? The history of the world has shown many similar instances of former enemies turning into friends. The thirteen colonies that rebelled against Great Britain and went on to form the United States of America in 1775 have an exceptionally stable and special alliance today. Britain and France which fought each other for nearly a thousand years have a warm and cordial relationship.

Even Germany, whose aggression devastated the rest of Europe in two world wars in the last century, is today the keystone of the European Union, enjoying good relations not only with its former enemies, but with most of the countries of the world.

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Similarly, the US and Japan, sworn enemies once are the best of friends, even though the former incinerated two of the latter’s highly populated cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 in the only known hostile use of nuclear weapons in human history.

More immediately, the accord signals the growing importance and clout of the UAE in the region. Stable, prosperous, and liberal, the federation of seven small emirates is not only a rising power but a vanguard of reform in the Arab world.

With Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman also seen as a reformer and champion of liberalism in the region, the centre of gravity of Islamic progress may well have shifted decisively. From Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan at one time to Indonesia, Iran, and Bangladesh more recently, not just material prosperity but political and social modernization is now returning to the lands where Islam was born.

What the future holds in store is still hidden from us. Pointing to Iran and Turkey’s denunciation of the accord, hard-headed advocates of realpolitik will caution us against being too sanguine or expectant.

Pakistan Must Contain Terrorist Organization

A new document accessed by security agencies confirms links of a terror proxy with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This matter is likely to muddy the waters even further with the country’s Grey Listing to be up at the upcoming FATF Plenary session.

One of the key terror outfits used by Pakistan to foment terrorism in India is Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), headed by Mohammad Yusuf Shah also known as Syed Salahuddin. Salahuddin is also the head of the United Jihad Council (UJC), an umbrella organization of terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

Terror financing evidence of Pakistani ISI

Meanwhile, the underlying tensions between India and Pakistan remain sharp. Pakistan arrested dozens of Islamist militants this past year, but New Delhi wasn’t convinced Islamabad was taking strong and “irreversible” steps against India-focused terrorists and their networks. And New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir in 2019 represented worst-case scenarios for Islamabad. 

The two nuclear-armed nations will enter 2020 just one big trigger event away from war. The trigger could be another mass-casualty attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir traced back to a Pakistan-based group, or—acting on the threats issued repeatedly by New Delhi in 2019—an Indian preemptive operation to seize territory in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. 

The US Department of State has designated Salahuddin as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT, 26 June 2017) for posing a “significant risk of committing acts of terrorism”, threatening to “train more Kashmiri suicide bombers”, and vowing to “turn the Kashmir valley into a graveyard for Indian forces”. The SDGT tag cuts off the designated terrorist’s access to his US-based assets and funding from US-based supporters. The HM has also been designated as a “Foreign Terrorist Organization” by the US.

U.S. can broker the peace agreement

The United States has identified South Asia as an epicenter of terrorism and religious extremism and therefore has an interest in ensuring regional stability, preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, and minimizing the potential of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

To right-thinking sub-continentals who ask, “If Arabs and Israelis can be friends, why not Indians and Pakistanis?” they may counter-question, half-humorously, half-sarcastically, “Who will broker such a peace? USA?!”

Yet those of us those who seek a lasting and peaceful transformation of the world consciousness cannot but remain hostage to hope.

There is an urgent need that the people of Pakistan, its politicians and the powerful Army stand on the same side in the fight against terrorism and set clear priorities. The ceaseless undermining of civilian authority by the military and its affiliated intelligence agencies remains a major challenge for the country and prevents any meaningful step towards social reforms in the country.

A change in policy and comprehensive consensus on terrorism have become prerequisites for the integrity, future and survival of peace agreement. A diametrical change in approach will prove to be beneficial to the people of Pakistan; the actual stakeholders in this country.

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