India, Pakistan, and the Same Old Problems

India, Pakistan, and the Same Old Problems

by Aryaman Bhatnagar
March 2, 2015

Aryaman Bhatnagar of the Observer Research Foundation (New Delhi) explores the impacts of domestic politics, the Pakistani military establishment, and cross-border terrorism on the India-Pakistan relationship.

India-Pakistan relations in Narendra Modi’s brief tenure as prime minister of India have followed an all too familiar trajectory. [1] In the space of eight months, initial optimism gave way to political stalemate and months of tensions. Now, with the new Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar slated to visit Pakistan in March, the two countries are once again exploring the possibility of resuming bilateral talks.

This cyclical pattern has characterized India-Pakistan relations over the past few decades. Leaders of both countries have had to work within the limitations of historical and structural problems, as well as against pressure from domestic constituencies opposed to closer bilateral ties. In Pakistan, the military establishment is strongly opposed to engagement with India and has created obstacles for the civilian government to pursue bilateral talks. The army has traditionally viewed India as posing an existential threat to Pakistan and has used this perception to cement its preeminent place in the country’s power structure. It is felt that closer ties with India may dilute the military’s importance in Pakistan. Moreover, the army’s strategic culture emphasizes retaining the ability to challenge India and resist its rise; any decrease in this capability would be tantamount to defeat. [2]

Likewise, political groups and opposition parties in India impose certain constraints on Indian leaders. This has been particularly noticeable in the aftermath of cross-border terror incidents and skirmishes along the Line of Control, when such groups tend to adopt a hard-line stance, creating an environment that is not conducive to dialogue. This pushes the government into a corner, forcing it to adopt an aggressive tone lest it appear to be soft on terror. This pattern was particularly noticeable during the tenure of Manmohan Singh, when pressure from opposition parties undermined his efforts to engage with Pakistan.

Given this backdrop, it is no surprise that any momentum tends to slow down as adverse developments overshadow the bilateral agenda and cause disruptions that last months, or even years. Separating progress in one field from difficulties in other areas has been a challenge that policymakers on both sides of the border have struggled to overcome, making it extremely difficult for India and Pakistan to sustain a genuine and comprehensive bilateral dialogue.

A False Dawn?

The change of leadership in New Delhi in May 2014—exactly a year after the electoral triumph of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad—generated hope about the prospects of improved bilateral relations. In Modi and Sharif, India and Pakistan were thought to have two leaders who could move beyond the existing flashpoints in relations and revitalize ties, particularly by providing a boost to bilateral trade and economic cooperation.

Much of this optimism was based on both leaders’ emphasis in their campaigns on the need to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation. Modi’s invitation to Sharif and leaders of other South Asian countries to his swearing-in ceremony and a separate meeting between Modi and Sharif on the sidelines of this event were positive steps in this direction. Even before the election results were announced, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) reportedly sent emissaries to Pakistan in April 2014 to allay any concerns in Islamabad about Modi on account of the anti-Pakistan sentiment that had gained traction during the BJP’s election campaign. [3]

However, things have not panned out as expected. New Delhi called off the foreign secretary–level talks scheduled for August 2014, which had been seen as a precursor to the resumption of formal talks, in protest of a meeting between Pakistan’s high commissioner to India and Kashmiri separatist leaders. Moreover, Sharif’s attempts to internationalize the Kashmir issue at the UN General Assembly in September 2014 drew sharp criticism from India. [4] Meanwhile, skirmishes along the Line of Control and ceasefire violations have continued unabated, raising the political temperature on both sides of the border.

Modi’s attempts to change the terms of engagement that have defined India’s approach to Pakistan over the past two decades, especially during the ten years of the Singh government, have further complicated the situation. While Singh was routinely criticized for being “soft” on Pakistan, Modi sought to adopt a more muscular policy. This has been reflected in India’s response to ceasefire violations along the Line of Control. The Indian government has reportedly directed the armed forces to retaliate against such incidents with “double the force.” [5] Buoyed by such government backing, the intensity and volume of India’s military action along the border have increased.

Back to Square One

In light of this approach, Modi’s decision in February to reach out to Sharif and send Jaishankar to Pakistan comes as a surprise. It is still not clear what exactly motivated Modi to make this overture. The foreign secretary–level talks are merely meant to explore the possibility of resuming a formal dialogue and in that sense will serve only as an icebreaker. However, they do help in overcoming the political impasse that has developed over the past few months.

Pakistan has held India responsible for the current state of bilateral relations. Islamabad has criticized New Delhi’s decision to unilaterally call off talks in August and has characterized India’s actions along the Line of Control as “unprovoked.” [6] India’s past decisions to call off talks have been used by Pakistani officials to lend credence to their claims that India, for all its talk of wanting improved ties, has not actually been consistent in its commitment to ensuring a sustainable dialogue. Although Modi’s latest move may not automatically fast-track bilateral relations, it does prevent Pakistan from passing the blame for the impasse solely to India.

However, Modi’s call for new talks may not necessarily signify a moderation in his approach to Pakistan. It is unlikely that Modi is willing to return to the usual framework of engagement with Pakistan. Consequently, there is no guarantee that further ceasefire violations or incidents of cross-border terrorism will not provoke a strong reaction from India. Only a greater effort on Pakistan’s part to address India’s concerns is likely to ensure greater commitment from Modi to the process. This is something that was reportedly conveyed by Modi to President Barack Obama during the latter’s recent visit to India.

The Challenge Ahead

From India’s perspective, the contentious issues in bilateral relations continue to remain more or less the same. Kashmir continues to be a challenge for both countries, and Pakistan’s interference—including political and military support for separatist groups—remains a major bone of contention. On a smaller scale, the granting of most-favored-nation (MFN) status, along with other concessions by Pakistan that would allow for the expansion of bilateral trade, is another Indian demand that is yet to be met.

For India, cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistani soil and Pakistan’s unwillingness, and inability, to put an end to it have become the main sticking points over the past few years. New Delhi has made clear that it will not pursue talks with Pakistan in “the shadow of terrorism.” [7] This policy was stated unequivocally to Sharif during his one-on-one meeting with Modi in May and is also consistent with the BJP’s pre-election rhetoric. Even Singh’s approach to Pakistan, especially following the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, was guided by this principal. More genuine efforts by Pakistan to uproot terror infrastructure—particularly the anti-India groups operating openly on its soil—and expedite the trials of the Mumbai suspects remain important prerequisites.

Pakistan’s efforts at driving terrorism from its soil have so far focused only on militants in the country’s tribal agencies. The Pakistani military, however, continues to maintain links with a number of groups based in the province of Punjab—Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen—that have carried out attacks against India in the past and are allowed to operate freely in the country. For instance, Hafiz Saeed, who is the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD)—the parent organization of the LeT—and the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, has openly declared jihad against India in public rallies on numerous occasions. The Punjab government—run by Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif—also allocated funds for the JuD in its 2013–14 budget. [8]

Following the massacre of school children by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in Peshawar in December 2014, there have been claims of a change in Pakistan’s strategic outlook. Within a day of the attack, Sharif declared that there will no longer be any “differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban.” [9] There were also reports of JuD and the Haqqani Network being banned by the state and their assets being frozen. [10]

Indian officials, however, remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this ban. Pakistan has pledged to take similar steps in the past, but has been either unable or unwilling to follow through on them. The LeT is one such example. Despite being banned by the Musharraf government in 2002, the organization was allowed to regroup as the JuD. Moreover, both of these groups still enjoy extensive state patronage. Pakistan’s failure to rein in banned outfits has been acknowledged by the country’s interior minister, who recently claimed that as many as 95 banned groups were still actively engaged in terrorism and extremism in Punjab alone. [11] In light of such precedents, the sincerity, as well as the capacity, of Pakistan to take action against such groups—and consequently the possibility of cross-border terrorism diminishing—remains to be seen. In fact, a recent Indian intelligence report highlighted the presence of Saeed and other JuD operatives in terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir with senior officers of the Pakistan Army and warned of the possibility of terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in the coming months. [12] How the Modi government reacts to such incidents would set the tone for the course of the bilateral dialogue process.

Way Forward

Given the scale of challenges confronting India-Pakistan relations, as well as the two countries’ historical rivalry, it would be unrealistic to assume that a significant breakthrough can be achieved overnight. The various confidence-building measures signed between India and Pakistan over the past decade and a half have created a foundation for both Modi and Sharif to build on. However, the sustainability and endurance of such measures will require bold political leadership and decisions from both sides.

It is critical that the ceasefire along the Line of Control is restored and maintained and that border skirmishes are not allowed to escalate into a political standoff between the two countries. Moreover, despite differences in other areas, India and Pakistan must keep the dialogue process moving forward. The failure to do so is likely to embolden factions on both sides of the border that are opposed to peace talks and bring any progress achieved in previous talks to a premature end.

In addition, as a much larger nation and an increasingly influential global player, India should not be reluctant to take steps unilaterally to improve relations. New Delhi has already displayed such initiative in the past when it granted Pakistan MFN status in 1996. The Indian belief that the Pakistan Army will pursue covert activities to destabilize India should also be tempered with the belief that the internal security challenges in Pakistan could actually bring about a change in the Pakistan military’s strategic calculus.

Pakistan, on the other hand, needs to adopt a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to counterterrorism. The announcement of the recent ban on groups like the JuD and the Haqqani Network by itself will not be sufficient. Only more purposeful and genuine action against such groups will generate goodwill among the Indian political elite and enable bolder initiatives on India’s part.


[1] This is an abridged version of an essay to be published in a report by the National Bureau of Asian Research and Observer Research Foundation on Pakistan’s internal security dynamics (forthcoming 2015).

[2] C. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[3] Mariana Baabar, “Modi Sends Emissaries to Islamabad,” News International (Pakistan), April 21, 2014,

[4] “India, Pakistan Spar over Kashmir at United Nations General Assembly,” Economic Times, November 4, 2014,

[5] “Retaliate Pakistan Ceasefire Violations with ‘Double Force’: Manohar Parrikar Tells Army,” Indian Express, December 31, 2014,

[6] Mateen Haider, “Prevail upon India to Work with Pakistan, Sartaj Tells Kerry,” Dawn, January 13, 2015,; and “Ceasefire Violations: Sartaj Aziz Calls on Indian Govt to ‘Give Peace a Chance,'” Express Tribune, October 7, 2014,

[7] Benazir Shah, “No Interest or Reason to Focus on Pakistan,” Newsweek, October 12, 2014,

[8] “Pak’s Punjab Government Allocates Millions of Rupees for Hafez Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa,” Times of India, June 18, 2013,

[9] Imtiaz Ahmad, “Won’t Differentiate between ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Taliban: Pak PM Sharif Vows to Fight Terror,” Hindustan Times, December 18, 2014,

[10] Irfan Haider, “Haqqani Network and JuD Banned,” Dawn, January 22, 2015,

[11] Khawar Ghumman, “95 Banned Groups Active in Punjab,” Dawn, January 15, 2015,

[12] Rajnish Sharma, “Hafiz Saeed Plans Slew of Attacks in Valley,” Asian Age, February 9, 2015,

Aryaman Bhatnagar is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His research focuses on political developments within Afghanistan and Pakistan and India’s relations with these countries.