A Border Security Force soldier stands on the Indian side of the border, in Attari, India-Pakistan border, India. Image Credit: AP

India and Pakistan have seemingly pulled back from the edge of a war. But, the reasons for the tension that followed the partition following the British withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947 remain. Psychologically obsessed with each other, they have fought four wars. They continue to ratchet up their nuclear and missile capabilities by conducting missile tests periodically. Every few years they are into a tense standoff and withdraw from the brink of a conflict only after interventions from international community.

Determining peace between India and Pakistan is complex and a multi-layered process. The conflict is based on identity and the exercise of power demonstrated by the respective governments. Professor Stephen Cohen, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institute, underscores the divide vividly. “One of Pakistan’s ‘India problems’ is its belief that India wants to wipe the Pakistani state out of existence. Among India’s ‘Pakistan problems’ is lingering resentment towards partition; one Indian scholar calls it ‘one of the ten modern catastrophes’.”

Why does the conflict continue to drag indefinitely, with little sign of resolution? Born amid a bloody partition that left about a million dead and 12 million displaced, and yet, amid millions of victims no one was found guilty.

The partition’s mistrust between India and Pakistan led them into the dispute over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It was India who took the dispute to the United Nations and it remains on the UN agenda as a disputed territory. It is the Kashmir dispute, more than any other that now symbolises the divide between the two countries.

Consequently, a destructive equilibrium has emerged where even peace gestures by either are viewed with suspicion. This increased scepticism between them stiffens positions making chances of a peace breakthrough harder.

The partition, as much a mental division, shattered the social geography of the subcontinent affecting the communities seeking refuge on either side of the dividing line. Inability to form similar community structures anew created social distancing that contributed to anger and urge for reclaiming the lost. The psychological scars have therefore, multiplied affecting the post partition generations also.

The Muslim refugees who came over to Pakistan at least had the satisfaction of moving to a country they had chosen to create, which actually tempers their anger. That is perhaps why the non-Muslims who migrated out of Pakistan in compulsion live with bigger scars.

What puts the two in a different category is how much they mistrust each other and are unable to feel a whiff of sincerity in the other, when making a peace overture. Mutual suspicion and antagonism have moved both India and Pakistan in the opposite direction. With each country creating its own public memory of its historic experiences a lot of poisonous knowledge has been created that divides the ordinary folks between ‘us’ and ‘them’ always in opposition to the other.

The roots of their mutual anathema lie in early 11th century Mahmoud Ghaznavi’s (Central Asian ruler, first to assume the title of sultan) invasions of India and then the shared history of Muslims and Hindus since the 13th century when sultanates were first established in India. Indian historians do not brand this period as colonisation. Yet, 800 years of Muslim rule over parts of India has left a deep psychological damage on many ‘nationalists’ in India.

India is a behemoth in South Asia that lived through bloody invasions through history. While smaller countries in the region obligingly kowtow to New Delhi, the lone defiant note is often struck by Pakistan. The two countries have therefore, remained in a perpetual battle mode.

Notwithstanding all the everyday troubles between the two countries there is a tremendous amount of convergence based on historic societal behaviour and culture that binds the two people. Resolution of the Kashmir dispute alone, according to the wishes of the Kashmiri people, could pave the way for peace between the two estranged neighbours. Peace lovers hope this will generate irresistible political momentum for normalisation of relations between the two estranged neighbours, enabling them to focus on development of their countries.

Sajjad Ashraf was an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s.