It is difficult to imagine a greater threat to South Asia than a potential conflict between India and Pakistan. It is harder still to contemplate the physical consequences of an all-out war between the nuclear armed nations. This is not because the world has not been exposed to that before, but for the very reason that it has been. While those too arrogant to look far enough into the future display their versions of nationalism in both countries, there are those in Japan who still reel from the effects of a bomb thrown on them after a quick escalation of war that seems all too real a possibility with the South Asian powers in question. To save their people from a similar tragedy, it is imperative that at the government level, Pakistan and India reconsider their prospects for initiating war. A prolonged conflict will not only affect the internal stability of both states, but hold dire consequences at the regional level as well.
The region has been simmering for some time over the clashes in the Kashmir valley, following the killing of a Kashmiri militant commander, Burhan Wani. The valley has seen constant violence and clashes between his supporters and the Indian army that has resulted in the deaths of close to 85 people. Notwithstanding the chest thumping and hostile posturing, these events had not brought the two countries to the brink of war. Events have since taken a different route. A little over a month ago, an attack took place at an army facility in the town of Uri close to the India-Pakistan border. 18 Indian soldiers were killed and the Indian government placed blame on Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad. Although no evidence has been found, the Indian government also accused the Pakistani state of collusion – which the Pakistani government vehemently denied. Over the course of the past few weeks, both militaries have been on high alert, conducting military exercises while actively exchanging fire across the Line of Control (LOC). The number of military and civilian causalities in these skirmishes remains unclear. However, what is evident is that the two regional powers are closer to a war today than they have been in decades.
The most immediate threat an all-out war poses, is to the physical well-being of the region. It has been estimated that a possible war between the two nuclear armed nations could produce casualties of up to 21 million. In this period of heightened and unprecedented nationalism and aggression from both sides, how far any restraint will go is questionable. At the mercy of constant domestic pressure, will the conservative right wing BJP government led by Modi and the centre-right PML-N government led by Sharif heed to international pressure? An unwillingness to do so, which is most likely, can result in disastrous and irrevocable consequences not just for India and Pakistan, but for the world in general.
Heightened hostilities between the countries have historically paved a way for far right and radical groups to emerge. In Pakistan, terrorist outfits such as the Jamaat ud Dawa while officially banned, have made offers to defend the state that they otherwise act against. Such organisations have criticised the Pakistani government for what they consider a soft stance on Indian aggression and have called for war against their neighbour. In India, similarly, the right wing, often militant Hindutva organisations such as the Shiv Sena and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have challenged the Indian Prime Minister, to strengthen his stance against Pakistan and declare war. All these organisations, some ideological like the RSS and Jamaat ud Dawa, others political like the Shiv Sena, have considerable nuisance value in both countries. The threats they pose are greatest when the states are at the brink of war.
While economic factors often take a backburner in times of war hysteria, it would benefit both countries to keep their respective economies in mind. As one of the fastest growing economies in the world today, at a rate of approximately 8%, it would be disastrous for India to go to war and give up the gains it has accumulated over the past three decades to another contender. On the other hand, Pakistan, while at only half the growth rate of India, has been recognised in the past year as a growing economy in Asia. Whatever little growth there is will undeniably fade away with the onset of war. Mis-prioritizing aims is not unfamiliar to these two South Asian states. While they spend millions on nuclear weapons and conventional military equipment every year, they still fare among some of the poorest countries in the world. In 2011, the World Bank estimated that approximately 23% of Indians lived under the poverty line with that number at an estimated 21% for Pakistan in 2014. Considering such figures, it is disgraceful for these countries to prioritize military prowess over empowering their citizens with welfare and social assistance. Their constant preoccupation with Kashmir has led to three wars in the past seven decades. India and Pakistan are part of an elite group of nuclear-armed states and have large and well-capable militaries. Yet, they continue to maintain embarrassing rankings per Human Development Index measures: India ranks 136th and Pakistan 147th among 187 countries.
A conflict of any measure is bound to affect the diplomatic relationship between the states concerned. Diplomatic ties between the governments of India and Pakistan have improved greatly since the Kargil conflict. Following the 1999 series of border skirmishes that led to a short war between the two countries near the Kargil region of Indian-controlled Kashmir, both India and Pakistan agreed to start a foreign secretary level inter-state dialogue where the representatives of both governments regularly meet. This has had mixed results. In good times, this has enforced the belief that even with major issues like Kashmir still unresolved, it is indeed possible for the countries to sit together and discuss their concerns without mobilizing their troops. There has also been hope that at some point, issues such as Kashmir may be discussed more openly through peaceful avenues of dialogue, so that long standing hostilities can be laid to rest. Unfortunately, these talks are typically the first casualty in an Indo-Pak conflict as it requires little political capital to start and end them. Those who prefer the dialogue have stressed that it is the only civilian outlet in a situation that is otherwise highly militarised. This is often the singular hope for ceasefire and peace in times of hostility. Discontinuing them, as has been done recently, is often construed as an implicit display of willingness for war.
Almost a quarter of the world lives in South Asia. For a region so densely populated and so closely linked to the rest of world, a nuclear war would be an unparalleled catastrophe. If not for the greater interest of the region, then for their own respective self-interests, nothing makes more sense than for India and Pakistan to take a step back and reconsider their options.
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