Addressing India-Pakistan standoff Quest for minimalism


by Tariq Mahmud   18 March 2023

Historically, Pakistan-India relations have been marred by maximalist posturing aimed at altering the status quo, but this has only resulted in a no-win scenario for both of these neighbouring countries.

Nuclear deterrence, though, has levelled the conventional asymmetry to a degree to Pakistan’s advantage.

Maximalist approach is not working

With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the region turning into an unremitting war theatre, jihadist elements found the opportunity to make an ingress into Indian-held Kashmir through transient and porous borders. They could strike a chord with the ongoing simmering domestic insurgency in the valley of Kashmir. These proxies fitted well into Pakistan’s stratagem. Over a period of time, they proved to be far costlier to Pakistan than to India, with their damaging ventures invoking a strong reaction from across the world while at the same time, they gained social spaces within Pakistan, which caused much damage to peace and tranquillity in the country. This clearly shows that maximalist posturing over the years hasn’t borne any positive results for Pakistan.

The same folly was committed by India in August 2019 when it changed the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh by stripping the territory off the status of a state, and imposed presidential rule from the centre. It has been nearly four years now, with there being no let up for the people in the valley and half a million Indian troops pinned there in the name of performing law and order duties. The move caused an instant reaction in China as well and turned the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh into a flashpoint between the two countries. There has been a noticeable Chinese build-up in the region, rendering the Indian position rather tenuous.

Cry for a reset

Pakistan-India relations are crying out for a reset so that a thaw can set in, notwithstanding the stated positions of the two countries on the various persistent disputes between them. The need of the hour is to go for a minimalist approach to de-clutter the set of enigmatic issues and build towards ultimate peace in the region. This approach puts faith in processes, confidence-building measures and above all in evidence-based intents and motives. Putting such a process into practice is a tall order indeed yet given resolve by both sides, it could lead to some progress on resolving seemingly insurmountable issues.

Minimalism, as a movement, has been impactful as an art form and in the architectural domain. With minimalist interventions one could create maximum effect, removing distractions, and gain more space to play around with. The present moment presents an opportune moment to use this tested template in the geo-political domain. It is time to set this approach in motion to take care of the issues according to a certain ranking as following the right process is indeed the way to reach the desired solution.

Kashmir, the major bone of contention between the two neighbours, should now be taken as a people-centric issue rather than a land-centric one. While maintaining the status quo on the land centricity, the two countries should focus on people-centric measures to alleviate the suffering of Kashmiris and bring esteem and quality to the life of the ordinary folks on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). Human rights should be foremost on the agenda. What is needed is a firm commitment of zero tolerance for any ingress by non-state actors by Pakistan and a matching resolve by India to alleviate the travails of Kashmiris and restore the self-esteem of ordinary citizens in Indian-held Kashmir. During the tenures of Dr Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf, considerable headway was made to make borders transient along the LoC as far as promoting trade and people-to-people contact were concerned. There is a need to revive this baseline for deliberations. The old markets for exchange and transactions all along the LoC could be revived and put in place for the mutual benefit of the people. This will certainly generate a lot of economic activity and be a major money-spinner.

The minimalist approach would also give more space and reaction time to the two countries to collaborate on their converging interests and formulate joint strategies in areas of climate change and dealing with disasters of a cyclical nature. This step may well help galvanise the role of SAARC, which is a solid geographic bloc yet in terms of geo-economics, one of the least integrated in the world. The region is not only at the crossroads of the ancient Silk Route, it is also crisscrossed by the Asian Highway and now the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship project.

Parag Khanna, a distinguished proponent of geo-economics, in his seminal book, Connectography, has mapped the future of the global civilisation and has observed that connectivity is taking over the sovereignty of nations with borders turning transient. Functional geography is taking over political geography. It is time now to leverage the multiple connectivities of super highways, fibre optics, and oil and gas corridors to upscale human lives and make the world a more liveable place. There is a moment when countries find themselves moving on to a path-breaking trajectory when path-dependent inertia stops delivering results.

We live in an era of regional blocs that provide a foundation for member countries to thrive and prosper. The ASEAN, for instance, generates 25% of its regional trade amongst the member countries, notwithstanding their maritime disputes over the extraction of oil and gas reserves in South China Sea. On the other hand, SAARC has a trade volume of a mere 5% within the member countries. Pakistan and India, the two largest states, trade as much through third countries as the direct trade between the two, which has never gone beyond $2 billion. When Pakistan recently faced a shortfall of agricultural produce, it reportedly imported about 13,000 tonnes of onions from India via Dubai. This was a perverse move indeed as it prevented the country from benefiting from the low transportation cost had the trade been through the Wagha border, battering Pakistani consumers who were already facing the brunt of a severe economic recession and high inflation.

There are some murmurs of the most-favoured treatment being revived, but so far nothing concrete has happened to that effect. While opening this window, the minimalist mantra could be helpful where both countries could safeguard those of each other’s products that are yet to gain competitive ground. According to a conservative estimate, bilateral trade between India and Pakistan, if exploited more fully, has the potential to reach the $35 billion mark. If this comes to pass, it could indeed have a spiralling effect on income levels, employment and creating demand for each other’s products. This has been the experience of the European Union and the North Atlantic Free Trade Area. Regional trade has the advantage of incurring low per unit and transport costs, an innate benefit that is being denied to the poor consumer in both countries. There could be a reaction on both sides, where there could be calls for the protection of local industry, but instituting safeguards in line with the WTO regime could be the answer to those concerns.

We need to pick up cues from the Sino-Indian model of economic interdependence. Despite the bloody clashes along the Line of Actual Control, a burgeoning trade of $135 billion between India and China has created close linkages in the supply chain of the two countries. Similarly, without compromising on its ‘One China’ stance, China still does not shy away from carrying on a robust trade with Taiwan. It is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for over 25% of its total trade, while China and Hong Kong together account for 40% of Taiwan’s imports.

The nation state system the world over is undergoing cataclysmic changes, where one sees countries going for the best bargain and leveraging spatial domains beyond transient political borders. The lines are blurring and borders are turning borderless. It is not just commodities and services that are being traded, but also software including music, literature, and arts and crafts. Performers like vocalists, lyricists, actors, musicians and sportspersons also have a significant role to play. Geography and economics, put together, can work as force multipliers. The relatively smaller South East Asian countries have turned into economic hubs by releasing the innate energy and talents of their peoples. This was made possible by the state playing the lead role of a change agent, an enabler to launch a reformist agenda. The invisible hand of the market did have a role as well, but the visible hand of the state was just as important.

A minimalist approach

Promoting minimalism between arch-adversaries may sound like a pipedream, something easier said than done. With distrust so deeply entrenched, it would require a maximalist shift in the mindset, which for so long has been wired to a rigid trajectory. The distrust on both sides is not unfounded either with glaring examples of the hurt caused to each other, yet there is no choice but for a beginning to be made. The European powers remained in fratricidal war mode for centuries followed by the two world wars. However, today these countries have seamless borders and display a unique example of economic integration and ever-growing connectivity, with the relatively richer and more sound political entities salvaging those that are still lagging behind. Taking cue from these enviable examples, a beginning has to be made notwithstanding the very heavy odds placed against them.

The question arises as to what could be the kind of response in the two countries to a clarion call for adopting a minimalist approach to bilateral relations. This message will certainly not be to the liking of the zealots in India, riding high on the Hindutva crest wave. This crest has unleashed toxic rhetoric around ‘otherness’, applicable to all those who do not fit a certain mould. This represents nothing but a yearning for a monolithic order. There now appears to be a deep-seated horizontal division in a society that had previously always found strength in its diversity. Similarly, the mantra of minimalism may also not work on the hawks in Pakistan, who have been living in a make-believe world of their own, encouraged and placated by the ruling elites. This has only resulted in the mushrooming of militancy in Pakistan. The minimalist approach is going to find a warm reception among those in the two countries who have been yearning for peace and prosperity, and who will see this approach as a seedling that has the potential to grow. The voices calling for peace may be weak right now, but are countless in numbers. They are part of the drive to start thinking for a better future, to re-rank priorities and strive for a win-win scenario emerging for the people of the subcontinent.

In the words of Pakistan’s distinguished poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Hum parwarish-e-loh-e-qalam kartay rahain gay

Jo dil pay guzarti hai so raqam kartay rahain gay

(We would keep nurturing our pen

And keep writing about the yarning of our hearts) 

Let us listen to the ‘yarning of our hearts’ and strive for maximum peace with a minimalist approach.