Nirupama Rao, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to the United States and China, is a global fellow at the Wilson Center and councilor at the World Refugee Council.
More than five decades ago, the Indian poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote about India and Pakistan:
Delay the war, it is better
Your yard or mine,
If the lights stay on, it is better
The blood be your own or foreign
It is the blood of Adam, after all
The war, it may be in the west or east
It is the murder of world peace, after all.
These words seemed prescient in recent days, as the two nuclear-armed nations came closer to war than they have in decades.
Last month, a suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, left 40 Indian paramilitary personnel dead. The Pakistani terror group Jaish-e-Muhammad soon claimed responsibility. Less than two weeks later, the Indian Air Force launched a retaliatory strike deep inside Pakistani territory against a terrorist training camp in Balakot. The Indian foreign office called this “non-military preemptive” action.
Pakistan responded by sending its Air Force planes across the Line of Control. In a subsequent dogfight, an Indian aircraft was shot down and its pilot captured, while India claimed it shot down a Pakistani F-16. This engagement elicited international calls for restraint. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan sought moral high ground by calling for peace and, in a clever diplomatic move, returned the captured pilot to India.
Tensions have since slowed, though small-scale skirmishes have continued on the border. But in truth, there was darkness in the relationship between the two countries long before the recent escalation — darkness that will remain as we begin to look ahead. The relationship between India and Pakistan is defined by distrust, mutual suspicion and enmity. Today, an India-obsessed deep state in Pakistan is chagrined to see its neighbor substantively moving ahead in the development race and fast becoming a frontrunner in the global economy.
Meanwhile, India, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is ready to flex military muscle against Pakistan’s habitual support for terrorism as an instrument of sub-conventional war. There are domestic pressures at play: The hostilities boosted approval ratings for Modi before India’s general elections in April and May. Attitudes in favor of conflict became even stronger as jingoistic Indian news channels, which have demonstrated an unseemly exuberance for war, exploited national anger and elevated cries for retribution to the level of irrational hysteria.
Where do the two nuclear-armed countries go from here? Can a score-settling resort to military means substitute dialogue and diplomacy between the two nations? Has India’s retributive strike fulfilled its goals? The jury is out. Each side has claimed victory. Indians believe their tough reaction forced the Pakistanis to seek de-escalation, and the Pakistanis feel that they did not let the Indian strike go unanswered. Both countries continue to be on edge.
No government in New Delhi can advocate diplomacy when terrorist groups in Pakistan flourish. Pakistan cannot afford to play catch-me-if-you-can on terrorism. If it keeps the terrorism tap flowing, it will only trigger a heightened military response from India to enforce deterrence. That would dramatically increase the threat of outright war.
Some analysts say India-Pakistan relations are living on borrowed time. Terrorist strikes on India from Pakistan-based terrorist groups will no longer go unanswered. The repercussions are foreboding.
International diplomacy must shift to top gear to ease tensions and firmly convey to Pakistan that inaction on terrorism could have serious consequences. In the past, Pakistani governments have shown that they can clamp down upon infiltration by militants and terrorists from their territory into India. They must do so now. It is only through such sustained, effective action that the resumption of comprehensive bilateral dialogue can become a possibility.
For its part, India should further strengthen counter-terrorism measures. Pulwama pointed to breaches in its security and how it transports security personnel through risk-saturated terrain. It should also strengthen its own diplomatic campaign to internationally proscribe Pakistani terrorist groups and individuals. In particular, China — which has blocked proposals in the U.N. Security Council to list Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Masood Azhar as a proscribed global terrorist — should not brush aside Indian concerns in order to protect Pakistan.
At the heart of these disputes lies the struggle over Kashmir. Yet the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India in 1947 is an irreversible reality. For lasting peace, Kashmiris must have no truck with terrorism or separatist violence.
But not every problem in Jammu and Kashmir is due to terrorism exported from Pakistan. India must also provide avenues to the Kashmiri people for peace and reconciliation so that popular anger is addressed with maturity and inclusiveness. Indian law enforcement should also crack down on stray instances of violence against Kashmiri traders and students in some Indian cities.
Both India and Pakistan will need visionary statesmanship to seek peaceful solutions in Kashmir. It is crucial, as Ludhianvi perceptively wrote more than half a century ago, to keep the lights on and work to disprove prophecies about borrowed time. Sweating for peace is better than bleeding in war, after all.