In recent years, tensions mounted between India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers in South Asia. The 2016 Uri attack, the 2019 Pulwama attack on a convoy of vehicles carrying Indian security personnel on the Jammu Srinagar National Highway by a vehicle-borne suicide bomber that led to deaths of 46, and the retaliatory Balakot airstrikes by the Indian air force can be specially noted here. In February 2019, both countries augmented military strengths and exchanged mortar fires along the Line of Control and air patrol for days, and threatened to go to war against each other. Many in India, Pakistan and elsewhere raised a serious concern straight away on whether there could be a large-scale military war.
In actual fact, such a possibility cannot be discarded altogether because India and Pakistan which have around 140 and 160 nuclear warheads respectively — or, less than two percent of global nuclear arsenal in total — are in troublesome relations since the partition of the then Indian sub-continent in 1947. The first ever conflict happened at the time of the partition. Tensions later increased between the two South Asian neigbhouring countries that led to loss of countless lives and brought many other negative impacts. Up until now, several major wars such as the 1947-48 war, the 1965 war and the 1999 Kargil war occurred between the two nuclear armed rivals. In addition to the mentioned recent conflicts, many small–scale conflicts almost frequently take place in the bordering areas.
Diverse unresolved problems such as border dispute, religious tensions and/or terror controversy, Kashmir problem, water-sharing dispute and rising geo-political rivalry of both countries in Afghanistan as well as influence of other countries may also increase such a possibility — at least somewhat. But religious and the Kashmir issues are historically rendered as two main problems. The 1947-1948 communal riots emerged between Hindus and Muslims just prior to the religion based controversial partition of the sub-continent. Since then, religion has been playing pivotal roles to heightened tensions in different forms, even if large scale communal riots are absent at this moment; as is criticized, non-state actors have brought the two countries to the verge of war in 2001-02 and 2008. Also, dispute over the Jammu and Kashmir always puts significant threats to peace between the countries.
But it is, on the contrary, undeniable that any large scale war, considered to be devastating, is not desired between two nuclear powers by any means. As it is predicted by a group of researchers led by Toon, any Indo-Pak nuclear war, if somehow occurs, could directly lead to deaths of 125 million people of the two countries and would launch some 5 million tons of soot toward the stratosphere; also, firestorms following the bombings would take more than a decade for temperatures and precipitation to come back to normal level. Even a limited nuclear war can cause unprecedented planet-wide food shortages and probable starvation lasting more than a decade. Devastation of war can presumably reach to other countries of the region and beyond, even if others remain uninvolved with the conflicts.
A crucial question may relevantly be raised: is it really possible to reduce tensions between the two nuclear armed rivals in South Asia? It may be, in my opinion, difficult, even if possibility remains too. In reality, India and Pakistan have been unable to resolve tensions and develop a good neighbourly relationship in the last 65 years of independence. Of course, there are many bilateral and multi-lateral treaties and agreements aiming at reduction of tensions and improvement of relations, but a lack of trust and confidence to each other — caused by wars, clashes and geo-political rivalry — often makes it hard to reduce tensions and improve relations. Rising nationalism of India and influence of military in Pakistan are also significant barriers to making any successful attempt for mitigation of disputes.
Of different bilateral efforts made by the neighbouring India and Pakistan, the 1972 Shimla Treaty, the 1988 Non-Nuclear Aggression Agreement, and the 1999 Lahore Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) are obviously promising. But the Shimla Treaty, which had potential to establish peaceful relations and resolve bilateral disputes by peaceful dialogue and mutual co-operation, has not resulted in any desired outcomes. In spite of the fact that the proposed confidence-building measures within the 1999 Lahore MoU, rendered as a crucial Indo-Pakistani attempt to deal with bilateral problems and to explore steps to reduce tensions, were taken into account when the composite dialogue restarted in 2004, there is, in effect, no discernible forward movement in the bilateral talks at present.
Yet, the positive side is that two states are strengthening relations in recent years, although slowly. Indeed, India and Pakistan are moving toward a more cooperative rivalry — usually rendered as a state in which the enemy countries develop a level of mutual cooperation that makes them able to resolve disputes ahead of spiraling into war — from traditional rivalry, despite the fact that such a position is yet to come to a matured and effectual stage. But, in my opinion, both countries need to continue mutual efforts based on earlier treaties including the Lahore MoU — or, based on dispute resolution oriented more effective new treaties or agreements — to avoid significant disputes that can escalate into conflict in the future, even if the possibility of a war is very low at this time.
As it seems, leaders of India and Pakistan are unwilling to wage a nuclear war but development of a system to effectively manage rivalry and prevention of the rivalry from devolving into war requires further roles. Despite some recent events such as India’s initiative for regional cooperation during the pandemic and Pakistan’s sending back of an Indian pilot after the 2020 air strikes are politically optimistic, there is no alternative to institutionalized mechanism and continued dialogues between the countries at least at the government level — instead of crisis-based efforts — for any desired outcomes, given the extent of dispute and its dimensions. I believe that it is possible to mitigate bilateral disputes without affecting geopolitical interests, if leaders are earnest and have commitment.
Of course, the SAARC, which aims at promoting welfare of the peoples of South Asia and strengthening regional cooperation on diverse fronts including economic and socio-cultural, may help reduce tensions and improve relations between India and Pakistan. But this promising forum is almost inactive mainly because of political differences among member states; more relevantly, the SAARC charter excludes bilateral and contentious issues from discussion. Consequently, it becomes difficult for the regional forum to help mitigate disputes, even if it has high potential. To make it more effective for its contribution to the reduction of disputes, discussion on some contentious issues, especially which have regional impacts, may be, in my opinion, allowed at least to a certain extent.
Amir Mohammad Sayem is a researcher and commentator on miscellaneous issues including social, political, environmental, public health and international relations, Dhaka, Bangladesh