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“Nuclear war to break out in South Asia,” announced the sensationalist title of a recent report by Russian news agency Pravda. Such alarmist readings of the South Asian security scenario are not new. Whenever the India-Pakistan relationship heats up, most recently after the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist strike, catastrophic scenarios proliferate and the world holds its breath.

From afar, in the cozy comfort of Western diplomatic and media corridors, the fears of a nuclear holocaust do seem valid. After all, Indian and Pakistani nuclear capabilities could wipe out several million people in the span of a few minutes. The two countries have a history of conflict, following a violent partition process in 1947, which displaced more than ten million people and left a trail of devastation, they fought four major wars. So is the hyperbole of a South Asian nuclear war just the overactive imagination of bored journalists and fearful diplomats? Three reasons explain why such a catastrophic scenario is not pure fantasy, yet still widely exaggerated.

First, domestic opposition actors actively exploit the explosive nature of bilateral relations in order to maximize immediate political gains. On the Indian side, after each major terrorist attack blamed on militants from across the border, seeking to galvanize support, Hindu nationalists impulsively advocate responses ranging from missile strikes on Pakistani terrorist camps to full-fledged nuclear war. But as soon as their party controls the government, such opportunist and inflammatory rhetoric is immediately abandoned.

Second, the nuclear capabilities of both countries have led to a mini-Cold War in South Asia, with a stalemate induced by the spectre of mutual assured destruction. There is thus little incentive for any of them to press the red button, and recent research suggests that their command and control authorities are actually far more cautious and rational than previously assumed.

Finally, there is also a latent interest among other great powers to exaggerate the possibility of a nuclear war. Pravda’s claim that it is up to Russia and the US to force India and Pakistan into dialogue is no innocent coincidence. Both Moscow and Washington, and more recently China, are keen to explore any available opportunity to intervene in a region long considered India’s strategic backyard.


A slow but steady rapprochement

“We are not neighbours, but worlds apart,” complained A. J. Akbar, one of India’s most reputed editorialists, in a recent comment on the relationship between the two rivals. However, current trends suggest a different reality: there has been surprisingly more than just the habitual mutual accusations, terrorists and exchange of gunfire across the Indo-Pakistani border.

According to a recent policy brief by the Peterson Institute of International Economics, Indo-Pakistani trade shot up from $300 million in 2003–04 to more than $2 billion last year, or close to $5 billion including informal trade via the Middle East. While Indian infrastructure, healthcare and entertainment industries are lured by attractive investment opportunities in Pakistan, Pakistani companies are now present at every major trade fair in India.

This comes as a direct result of the composite dialogue, a process of mutual consultation instituted in 2004, which led to a set of unprecedented confidence-building measures. Relaxed visa policies and new air, rail and road links were opened across the border in Kashmir, Punjab and Rajasthan, reactivating connections which had remained interrupted for decades and, in some cases, even allowing families to reunite after half a century.

At the official level, this led to the implementation of dozens of new treaties and consultation mechanisms, including Track-II expert meetings and new “hotlines” between high-level military and diplomatic command structures. India and Pakistan now regularly exchange prisoners, and even at the sensitive security level, Delhi and Islamabad have instituted a joint Anti-Terror Mechanism and exchanged lists of nuclear facilities and installations to reduce the risk of accidental war.


Civil society takes over

However, the most powerful forces can be found in civil society. Four wars and fifty years of mutual hatred have not erased the sentiment among millions of people, that the 1947 partition represents a tremendous “mistake of history.”

This is true for both older and younger generations. For those still in power, the “other side” is much too familiar to be simply wished away or exterminated: former Pakistani President Musharraf was born in New Delhi, and both India’s current Prime Minister and its Leader of the Opposition were born in what is today Pakistan.

In turn, for younger generations the traumas of the past are too distant and vague to determine the future course of South Asia – the promises of material wealth, international mobility and free cultural flows are far more attractive than facing a nuclear-armed enemy in a freezing Himalayan trench.

Thus, while Bollywood fever has taken over the Pakistani middle class in Lahore and Karachi, Pakistani rock bands such as Junoon, Fuzon or Strings now successfully tour India and gain thousands of new fans among the Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore urban youth, often in a “make peace, not war” Woodstock-like environment.

In sports, the feverish cricket rivalry persists, but Pakistani and Indian athletes now compete side by side in transnational competitions like the Punjab Games. Initiatives like Friends without Borders, in which thousands of Pakistani and Indian children regularly exchange letters, also promise to bring about a sea change in mutual perceptions. Media projects such as the “Southasian” magazine Himal, published from Kathmandu, encourage Indians and Pakistanis to view the subcontinent holistically, beyond the eternal prism of the bilateral dispute.


And the debate has just started

Rapprochement is not enough – India and Pakistan need a vision to move the dialogue forward. There are encouraging signs on both sides. After Manmohan Singh was elected Prime Minister in 2004, a group of influential Indian neo-functionalists emerged, who had been behind the creation of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in 1985. They spearheaded the post-2004 composite dialogue and believe New Delhi has more to gain from a stable and friendly Pakistan, and that this is best achieved through regional integration and, in Singh’s own words, “by making borders irrelevant.”

On the Pakistani side, there also seems to be a newfound realization that cooperation with India is not just an option, but a necessity against terrorism, now seen as a “common enemy.” Pakistani President Zardari’s recent suggestion that India should become a part of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan group is a step in the right direction.

However, in the end, it is in the hands of the younger generation to decide precisely how India and Pakistan will choose to coexist in South Asia. And they seem ready to take on the challenge. In 2007, The Indian National Interest, one of India’s youngest and most active strategic forums, witnessed a fierce debate entitled “Can India and Pakistan re-unite?” The very fact that such a provocative question is now openly discussed on both sides indicates a willingness to move the relationship from enmity to friendship.

 Constantino Xavier – Researcher and Fulbright scholar, Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, Washington DC, and editor of the Lisbon India Monitor

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