Even when India-Pakistan ties seem most soured, channels for dialogue remain open

Much of the scholarship on the India-Pakistan relationship characterises it as an implacable, and unrelenting, enmity. A great deal of this literature ascribes on both governments a dangerous readiness to resort to warfare; a tendency which is kept in check only by the greatest difficulty. A number of factors, ranging from the lingering shadows of a bitter partition, a deeply seated religious rivalry, continuing conflict in Kashmir, and a supposed antipathy between the two states because of their ideologically differing firmaments, are held to be responsible for predisposing the two governments towards an instinct to resort too readily to warfare.

The argument goes that this relationship was always doomed to violent showdowns and hostile acrimony, because of the bitterness left on both sides by the traumas of Partition, and the continuing conflict in Kashmir. The shadows of such antagonisms, moreover, are held to be responsible for a lack of good relations in the present. In such circumstances, a bitter rivalry is deemed inescapable; and the choices made with regard to bilateral relations seem too entangled with such emotions, which lead to both sides compulsively taking action that would be to the detriment of the other.

Watershed year

Yet, assumptions about the past, that can dictate actions and perception in the present, must be subjected to closer scrutiny. What is striking about the bilateral relationship is that even when relations seem at their most violent, soured, the possibilities for opening channels of communication and dialogue remain open, and, what is more, plausible; 1950 was one watershed year in the history of the bilateral relationship. Outright war had seemed dangerously close to the horizon for many months, and continued to remain a distinct possibility even as the year closed. The two new armies had already been in conflict in Kashmir by December 1947. The question of the accession of Hyderabad had come to a head by September 1948. In 1949 and 1950, many questions relating to bilateral cooperation seemed to have stultified into non resolution. The Evacuee Property conferences had largely failed in terms of securing concrete compensation for either government. Inter Dominion trade had come to a halt entirely following the currency devaluation crisis of 1949. Matters then came to a head in the early months of 1950, when an influx of migrants across the Bengal borders in swelling numbers drew forth furious protests from provincial governments on both sides, unwilling to support additional burden of incoming refugees.

Even in the midst of such serious and potentially violent tensions, however, channels of communication, dialogue and negotiations had been left open. A parallel chronology of the same period is littered with events which suggest that the leadership on both sides did not necessarily favour choices which would lead them into conflict, but instead repeatedly, and carefully considered avenues that could enable a stable coexistence. In December 1949, Nehru had opened negotiations on a “No War Pact” with Liaquat Ali Khan, and this correspondence carried on for over a year, with over 200 letters and telegrams exchanged between the two, stretching over a period of extremely tense bilateral relations.

Once in motion the correspondence was thoroughly publicised by both governments. It attracted a great deal of speculation in the press, and was reprinted in newspapers in both countries as the exchange continued. Both Nehru and Liaquat, moreover, stood in their Constituent Assemblies to report on the progress of the exchanges, and weathered questions from challenging political opponents on its outcome. It was important for both governments to show that they had made genuine efforts towards lasting peace, and that failure towards this object was not due to a lack of flexibility on their part.

Careful balance

The correspondence failed: while Nehru had favoured a broadly worded agreement renouncing the use of war in the text, Liaquat had attempted to have specificities on a timetable for a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, and a provision for third party intervention, inserted into the text. Signing the declaration seemed, in the end, unwise to officials on both sides, unwilling to concede away a long-term agreement that might limit room for bargaining and manoeuvre in the overall relationship. Yet, what archival research on this correspondence reveals is that the merits of such a declaration were carefully balanced — rather than instinctively, and immediately rejected — on both sides, before it was discarded.

The possibility of having such a declaration being made, did, nonetheless, need to be articulated. It acknowledged, and vocalised the ever-present possibility that India and Pakistan could have a stable coexistence. The idea of a No War Pact, moreover, also resurfaced on several occasions along the history of India-Pakistan relations. Nehru would renew his offer again in 1956, and 1962. In 1959, Pakistan made a “joint defence proposal” to India, and, some 20 years later, a “No War” offer was made by President Zia. None of these proposals, furthermore, were hurriedly, or unthinkingly, rejected as representing a sign of weakness. They offered a powerful incentive, as a way to try and change the moment, as well as the advantages of the international approval this could bring. While such a situation allowed for a fairly elaborate smoke and mirrors game being played in both countries, an examination of the concrete decisions made with regard to one another do reveal very pragmatic calculated, and inherently stable approaches on the positions to be adopted.

This is as true now, as it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Although the ways to defeat and outmanoeuvre the other were consistently explored, the India-Pakistan dynamic was also based on the necessity of being able to limit the potential for damage.

This necessity was not based only on a sentimental attachment to the ties of the past — though this is also a good reason — but in cold calculations about self interest on both sides. Rhetoric and scaremongering about impending violence between India and Pakistan should thus be treated with caution. While both governments routinely adopt hostile postures, they also simultaneously accommodate possibilities for agreement and dialogue.

(Pallavi Raghavan has recently completed PhD from the University of Cambridge. Her thesis was on the formation of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.)

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