A suicide bomb attack on a bus in Kashmir, resulted in 40 Indian soldiers losing their lives recently. Amidst Indian allegations that the attack was planned by Pakistan, Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister denied his country’s involvement, threatening to retaliate if attacked by India.

A new tense stand-off between India and Pakistan over a militant attack in Jammu and Kashmir, which claimed over 40 Indian soldiers recently could reverse South Asia’s seemingly glittery economic gains and take the region back to times of dire material impoverishment.

It is not the case that we are having uniform, eye-catching economic growth over the length and breadth of South Asia, but economic setbacks in India and Pakistan, the regional economic heavyweights, that carry on their shoulders the SAARC region’s economic prospects, could auger very badly for the whole of South Asia. Hopefully, negotiations and diplomacy between these key states would win the day and the stand-off over the J&K attack prevented from degenerating into an armed confrontation between ‘the arch rivals’ of the region.

Needless to say such armed conflicts have been dime-a-dozen and during the most recent of one such confrontation in the Kargil sector of the Indo-Pakistani border some years ago, the possibility was great of our having on our hands a nuclear holocaust in South Asia. We have it on the authority of one-time military Head of government of Pakistan Gen. Parvaiz Musharraf that he was ‘toying with the idea’ of pulling the nuclear trigger at the height of the crisis. Need we say more about the possibility of a full-blown nuclear war in this region which could eliminate nearly quarter of the world’s population?

Accordingly, our hope is that sanity will prevail. Fortunately, a civilian government is in place in Pakistan. As we have seen, military strongmen, not constrained much by public accountability and enjoying no popular mandate, could engage in military adventurism which is unspeakably dangerous. However, the Imran Khan government would need to be on a fundamentally different policy wavelength and seek to engage India in crisis-reduction talks. The two countries owe it to their civilian populations to seek a negotiated settlement to this new stand-off; the worst in several years.

Keeping a vigilant eye on the border between India and Pakistan.
Keeping a vigilant eye on the border between India and Pakistan.

It is habitual for the Indian side to allege that Pakistan ‘harbours’ terrorist elements within its borders and that this reality prevents the sides from arriving at a full normalization of bilateral relations. Pakistan, on the other hand, alleges that India backs separatist tendencies in the North Western Frontier Province and in the Sindh. Whatever the truth or otherwise of these allegations, the two sides are obliged to refrain from fostering conditions that seem to promote ‘cross-border terrorism’ that has been a blight over the decades in bilateral ties.

It is no secret that successive governments in both countries have been exploiting bilateral differences and tensions to garner short term political gains. This tendency has been instrumental in aggravating bilateral tensions over the years. Bilateral ties could be greatly improved if opportunistic politics of this nature are not engaged in.

The fact that there is a civilian, democratic administration in Pakistan should be utilized by India to normalize bilateral relations and to build on this foundation to promote mutual gains on a multiplicity of fronts, including the economic. Pakistan, on the other hand, should go more than the extra mile to ensure that the suspicion is not created in minds on the other side that terrorist training camps, for example, are in existence within its borders. Such advances could be achieved only if bilateral negotiations are carried out consistently and systematically. The overall objective in such talks should ideally be the wellbeing of the SAARC region.

It needs to be seen by these major states that a down slide in the region’s economic fortunes would be pivotal in aggravating identity politics, which is a number one bane of South Asia. Economic impoverishment breeds insecurity region wide and this in turn enables demagogues of numerous religious and political persuasions to mobilize population groups on divisive lines that usually pit countries and population groups against each other. Broadly speaking, this has been the case in South Asia over the decades.

Azad Kashmir for Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir for India; the two countries have been fighting over this idyllic city since 1947.  If the conflict escalates will one of the country’s choose the nuclear option?
Azad Kashmir for Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir for India; the two countries have been fighting over this idyllic city since 1947. If the conflict escalates will one of the country’s choose the nuclear option?

However, the evidence is not at hand that India and Pakistan are looking at the South Asian region from this perspective. If this were not so the SAARC organization would not be in the hapless, hamstrung condition in which it is today. There needs to be a meaningful meeting of minds on SAARC and the onus is on India and Pakistan to bring about this happy situation.

To be sure, SAARC has not lived up to its promise and continues to be afflicted with a range of issues to which there is no easy cure. But an impoverished neighbourhood, for the reasons just outlined, would not be in any SAARC country’s interests, big or small. India and Pakistan, for instance, might be in a position to work out their individual economic fortunes by integrating their economies with those of countries and groupings outside South Asia but an impoverished SAARC region would continue to breed problems from which there would be no escape for either of them. And, needless to say, they have no choice but to ‘live and have their being’ in South Asia and nowhere else.

At the moment India and China are working quietly and steadily on establishing ‘sub regional economic connectivities’ which hold out the promise bringing economic gains to both countries, by enabling their border regions to cooperate closely. North-East India is, thus, seeking to forge mutually-beneficial economic links with South-West China. India should think in terms of including in this process Pakistan and other SAARC countries. Such efforts would eventually bring about economic betterment for a substantial part of the SAARC region.

Thus, all should not be seen as lost by SAARC’s major powers. Through efforts to think ‘outside the box’ the region could chip away at problems that have been getting in the way of its collective wellbeing. The moment is now!



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