A Pakistani soldier stands guard near the wreckage of an Indian plane shot down by the Pakistan military on Wednesday, in Hurran, near the Line of Control in Pakistani Kashmir, on Thursday, February 28, 2019. Image Credit: AP

As India and Pakistan stepped back from a week of mounting tensions, Friday became a day of relative hope.

Not only did Pakistan come through with the release of an Indian Air Force pilot captured just two days earlier after his aircraft crashed in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, there were other early indications too of life returning to normality.

Meanwhile, countries with friendly ties to both India and Pakistan continued to make contact with both to encourage further restraint.

However, what has been witnessed between south Asia’s two nuclear-armed neighbours over the past week must be a nightmare to anyone looking at the future of global security.

That two countries with a combined population of more than a billion people, and armed with a combined estimate of 250 nuclear bombs at the very least, could consider going to war is nothing short of mind-boggling.

The past week has indeed exposed the powerful reality of a fast-troubling trend in daily life across the two countries. The large numbers of nationalists in India and Pakistan who clamoured for an outright fight, just to give a bloody nose to the other, seemed nothing short of bizarre. History has never before placed two excessively armed nuclear powers immediately next to each other and locked in such an acrimonious animosity.

Even though western diplomats in both countries now say that the worst in this latest crisis may be over for now, India and Pakistan tragically remain locked in an excessively dangerous dispute. During the crisis, some of the strongest hardliners in India and Pakistan casually discussed the ‘strength’ of each player by virtue of their nuclear weapons, as if using them to win a war could be a viable option.

Going forward after this latest crisis, India and Pakistan must recognise that the worst in their troubled relationship is far from over. Even though the latest crisis ended peacefully, there’s no guarantee that another crisis in the not too distant future will not put them on a fresh collision course.

The attack in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14 — leading to the deaths of 49 paramilitary personnel and which Pakistan-based militant group Jaesh-e-Mohammad claimed to have masterminded — tragically set a terrible precedent. It demonstrated the dangerous possibility of yet another attack in future.

It is therefore essential that the two countries immediately set themselves on a mission to bring about number of measures crucial to building a new and sustainable road to peace.

The troublesome past relationship between the two countries has been mainly destabilised by the Indo-Pakistan dispute over the divided and predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir.

It’s essential for the first important foundation for a qualitatively new relationship to rest on how best to find an end to this dispute. In the last decade, under the rule of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, both nations reportedly came close to a settlement on Kashmir. That formula seemingly rested on a demilitarisation of the region along with limited autonomy to be given to the local population on both sides of the divide.

Minimal restrictions

Additionally, there were discussions on allowing Kashmiri people relatively free movement across the divide, allowing them to travel to each others’ terrain with minimal restrictions. That formula now deserves to be revisited as a starting point to end the possibility of future acrimony that could repeat the dangerous events of the past week.

In the meantime, both India and Pakistan need to work actively to build a new framework for not just deepening their present ties, but also to widen the relationship further. Though placed in the same region and forced to face similar challenges related to the environment, agriculture and health care, just to name a few pressing matters, there has virtually been no contact between Indian and Pakistani experts in these or other vital areas.

Likewise, even in the realm of security, India and Pakistan can exchange important information on non-contentious issues removed from the ones that have fuelled their divide.

But most importantly, a lowering of tensions between India and Pakistan could help each country to focus on human development and welfare of their people.

Recent history has adequately proven that economic rejuvenation of the kind experienced by China has armed Beijing with more formidable credentials on the world stage than China’s military potential. And going forward this must be the very first objective for India and Pakistan as each seeks to gain the best for its people.

Both New Delhi and Islamabad must recognise that the best way to deal with militancy is just one: Economic growth must become the cornerstone of beating this threat. As the number of impoverished people in both countries is reduced, takers for militant causes are bound to scale down too.

Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.