One can’t expect negotiations to deliver results overnight, but they can achieve substantive progress and help hammer out the final solution, Suhail Ahmad writes
It’s been a scary start to 2019 with India and Pakistan coming to the brink of all-out war. The February 14 Lethpora suicide attack on a CRPF convoy prompted Indian side for aerial strikes inside Pakistani territory leading to escalation of the crisis. With prompt Pakistani retaliation, the threat of nuclear face-off looked imminent and the international community stepped in to douse the fires. Surprisingly, the de-escalation came with the capture of Indian Air Force’s wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman on the Pakistani side. Suddenly, Pakistan seemed to have leverage. With Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan deciding to return him to India, the intensity of the conflict lessened. Imran consolidated on the leverage by reiterating his invitation for dialogue. It remains to be seen whether the resulting de-escalation can hold in the face of relentless war-mongering by a section of media.
The latest face-off between the two neighbours offers insight into the factors that trigger confrontation and the elements that may help in de-escalation and gradual reconciliation.
INTRACTABLE CONFLICT: 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 countries 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. The latest confrontation has once again shown that there is a mutually hurting stalemate in which neither party can win the conflict without incurring excessive loss and both will suffer from continuation of fighting. To make matters worse, media has become increasingly hawkish, particularly on the Indian side, sabotaging any attempt at peacemaking.
MEDIA HYSTERIA: As the Indo-Pak tensions flared up in the aftermath of the Lehtpora attack, some Indian news channels openly indulged in war-mongering. Even the peace offer from Imran Khan and the release of IAF man from Pakistan custody was given a twist. One channel dubbed it as ‘India brings Pak to knees’, another declared ‘Imran begs for peace’. For weeks since February 14, the channels clamoured for war.
WAR OF NARRATIVES: Much more than the military confrontation, India and Pakistan has witnessed battles of narratives. People in the two countries hold contrary beliefs about the history of acrimony since the partition. They hold these beliefs, which paint the rival country as a demon, quite strongly. These long-held narratives have been reinforced by 24×7 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.
NATIONALISM: Over the years, nationalism has grown in India with the ruling party proudly wearing it on its sleeves. 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. This again was at display during the recent crisis between India and Pakistan. 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.
HATE SPEECH: It has been a real problem. Some public figures have been habitual of making hate speeches. They make these speeches intentionally to foster hatred and discrimination against groups based on religion. Worse still, it promotes violence and killing.
WAY FORWARD: In this backdrop, peacemaking becomes an increasingly elusive prospect. Peacemaking, by definition, is a dynamic process of ending the conflict through negotiation or mediation. Now even if there is cessation of hostilities for some time, it cannot be construed as real peace. Sources of conflict are seldom completely resolved so peace can be unstable. Now since one of the main sources of Indo-Pak conflict is the intractable Kashmir issue, the prospects of lasting peace seem next to impossible. However, just like the conflict is inevitable, the longing for peace is inherent in the human world. The striving for peace becomes particularly strong in times of violent conflict.
MEDIATION: With a 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 the 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 the 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 latest 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.
MEDIA PEACEBUILDING: Notwithstanding the negative role of media, we must not lose sight of the positive role it can play in conflict. In fact, Media Peacebuilding is a term in Conflict Studies glossary. Peace journalism goes beyond this as it focuses attention on the search for nonviolent solutions to conflict.
NEGOTIATIONS: 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 the 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 negotiations to deliver results overnight, but they can achieve substantive progress and help hammer out the final solution.