2016: An Opportunity for Change in India-Pakistan Relations?

It seemed as though 2016 might bring with it promise of progress for the hostile relationship between India and neighbouring Pakistan. A surprise visit from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Pakistani capital on Christmas Day 2015 shocked the world after yet another year of tense relations. The brief stay marked the first presence of an Indian prime minister in Lahore since 1999. The pictures of Modi and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, grinning and walking hand in hand created an understandable stir in both countries as Indians, Pakistanis, and international observers began to speculate that the 67 year history of rivalry might finally come to an end.

Sharif spoke out about the visit, saying, “It is high time the countries put aside their hostilities”, and expressing optimism that, “The spirit of goodwill generated with Modi’s visit will continue to prevail”. It has been agreed that dialogue between Pakistan and India will be restarted, and the foreign secretaries of the two countries are due to meet in Islamabad on January 14th – 15th to prepare a schedule of meeting.

This progress, even if limited, must be welcomed news to the millions of people who reside in the two countries. In 2014, ceasefire violations were reported on 20% of days throughout the year. There was little cause for hope of improvement the next year when peace talks collapsed and the ceasefire was increasingly violated again. These latest explicit demonstrations of willingness to cooperate after so many years of animosity are, therefore, very exciting progress.

However, there are many who maintain a certain level of cynicism. Senior Indian journalist Bharat Bhushan, for example, has suggested that this meeting means very little at all: “Ever since he assumed office, Modi has taken India on an emotional roller-coaster ride by breathing hot and cold about Pakistan. In either case, he provides no explanation for his actions but seeks approval from the Indian public… Like a Bollywood movie, which seeks to entertain for a few hours, it is quite likely that the Lahore camaraderie between Prime Minister Modi and Sharif only has tactical goals. Strategically, it may change little”.

One of these “tactical goals” that Bhushan talks of is the fact that the Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP) has upcoming regional elections in states like Assam, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, which have substantial Muslim populations. It would therefore be beneficial to Modi and his government to at least appear to be conscientiously making an effort with their Islamic neighbour. The question is whether these attitudes will persist after the elections are over.

Additionally, it would be wrong to think that violence had completely stopped just because the prime ministers have suddenly become on good enough terms to attend family weddings. Four gunmen and three Indian soldiers were killed in an overnight attack on an Indian air force base near the Pakistani border in the early hours of Saturday morning. Although it is not yet clear who the attackers were, the suspicion is already falling on Kashmiri militant groups from Pakistan. Uday Bhaskar from Society for Policy Studies believes that it might have even been motivated by the recent improvements in India-Pakistan relations; he said, “We have had similar patterns in the past where those groups and constituencies that are against any improvement in bilateral relations play the terror card”.

Whether decision makers will perceive these events as all the more reason to resolve their differences and work towards peace, or whether it will dismantle any progress made in December is yet to be seen.