A conflict of paired minorities

"One can explain India´s weakness by India´s greatness," says Stephen P. Cohen, head of the South Asia Programme at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He shared some insights into the India-Pakistan relationship and how India sees itself, with Islamabad-based research scholar, Sarahh Bokhari. Excerpts:

How would you define the India-Pakistan conflict?
India and Pakistan are engaged in a ´paired minority conflict´, which is a type of dispute in which each party thinks of itself as a minority whose interests are threatened by the other. It is very hard to construct a dialogue between such parties. The Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka each see themselves as threat ened minorities. The Sinhalese perceive an ideological, political, cultural and civilisational threat from Tamils, whereas the Tamils face the prospects of defeat and expulsion or dominance by the majority Sinhala. The latter have been reluctant to make concessions to Tamils and vice versa, and now the country has become polarised, with extremists on both sides exercising a veto over moderates. Similarly, Arabs and Israel both act as threatened minorities within the same territory—they use force against each other to protect themselves. Pakistan sees itself as a threatened minority due to being one-sixth the size of India, due to having lesser capabilities in the conventional military build-up, and for the very reason that, it was carved out of India.

But why should India see itself a threatened minority?
This is the most interesting aspect of the problem. India considers itself a threatened minority because there is no single   majority Hindu culture; it envisions itself as being encircled by outside    powers. Moreover, India lost its strategic ally, the Soviet Union, after the Cold War ended, which made it feel further threatened. When a crucial international supporter disappears, the sense of encirclement and threat intensifies.

To take it one by one, Indian culture does not have a majority. The notion of a Hindu majority culture is an artifice, advocated among others by the BJP and the RSS. There is no single dominant caste of Hindus. It is only a BJP ideological construct to maintain that Hindus are in a majority. Indian society is diverse, which does not give it a unified sense. However, there is an underlying cultural unity, and in modern times, both during the nationalist movement and more recently, Indians have begun to create an Indian identity. The RSS would give a Hindu flavour to this identity, but the Indian films and the mainstream nationalists are secular in their orientation.

Secondly, India has always felt encircled. Many Indian strategists and intellectuals consider their country to be surrounded by a larger alliance of outside powers and, hence, a threatened state. Pakistan is seen as being a part of this encirclement. Originally, the Indian nationalists regarded the British division of India and creation of Pakistan as a device to weaken India. Later on, the US was substituted for the British, and it was seen trying to interfere and stop India from emerging as a major power. China too has always been considered as an outside power out to enfeeble India. Thus, in the 1990s India perceived Pakistan, China and the US as uniting against it. The recent ´green wave´ of Islam is again regarded as a threat.

An almost comical aspect of this perception could be seen during the height of the great expansionist period of India´s foreign policy after Pakistan was divided in 1971. Back then, India even perceived a military threat from Bangladesh, and some Indians seriously regarded Bangladesh to be a part of an encirclement strategy. Nepal, too, was considered to fall in the same category. India maintained that Nepal is helped by China, and that Pakistan´s ISI is acting in Nepal, in Bangladesh and all around South Asia to contain India. Even the Voice of America was considered a strategic threat to India, and New Delhi interpreted the US interest in Sri Lanka as yet another strategic threat.

What explains this thinking that outside powers are always trying to keep India down?
There is again the sense of insecurity, but there is also a cultural argument. Samuel P. Huntington´s thesis fits in very well with Nehru´s and some BJP perceptions. India has a legacy of being a great civilisation, and Indians think that other civilisations are jealous of India. One can explain India´s weakness by India´s greatness. Similar argu ments can be found among the Israelis, Arabs and Sinhalese. Of course it seems rather contradictory in the case of India because of its size, but the same sense of deep insecurity in very large states was notable in post-world war Germany and even in post-revolution Russia.

What confidence-building measures would address this kind of problem?
Most of these types of conflicts are intractable in the short term. A long-term process is required to restore confidence of one or both sides so that they deal with each other realistically. A fundamental problem in these conflicts is the reluctance to make concessions. Once you see yourself as a threatened minority forced to make more concessions, you feel yourself moving down the slippery slope of making further concessions. When India or Pakistan sees itself as making more concessions than the other, it wants to pull back.

The two countries have seen brief periods of equilibrium in their relationship, when neither felt threatened by the other. However, this equilibrium lasted maybe for a day, a week or a month, and quickly disappeared. And as soon as the equilibrium stage passes, both again feel threatened, and the deals struck previously are broken, whether it is the Lahore process or any other.

A process of mutual concessions should begin. The problem is in determining who should do it first. Indians have their own arguments. They maintain that if they are the first to make concessions, then Pakistan will bring in the Americans and the Chinese, and India would be made to give more and more, particularly on Kashmir. Confidence building measures or CBMs are considered as a preliminary to get this process started, but I have my doubts. Confidence-building is not what people should be looking for; what is required is a mechanism to verify agreements. As Reagan once said with reference to the Soviet Union, "Trust but verify".

Can the US ever play the role of mediator?
Back in 1992, I concluded that there was no possibility for normal India-Pakistan relations without the help of an outside party. After the nuclearisation of the region, it does not seem likely that either would take the bold step of making unilateral concessions. A peace process between them, managed by an outside power, is one possibility. Clinton seems to be personally inclined to this role but he is seven years too late. If he had started it in 1993 or 1994, there might have been considerable progress by now. Neither the nuclearisation of South Asia nor Kargil might have happened. Japan, for one, might want to play a role in South Asia because it understands the effects of nuclear war.

Do you think India wants a collapsed Pakistan?
Pakistan as a failed state, but I doubt that Pakistan will fail. There have been alarming discussions in India about which is the best way to bring down Pakistan: economically, militarily or by internal disorder. But most Indians believe that a weak Pakistan is preferable to a disintegrated one. India´s internal problems could be made worse by a failed Pakistan.

What about the Kargil fiasco?
Kargil was like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was militarily a brilliant operation, but a strategic failure. It has also embittered the Indian public. Diplomatically, it demonstrated that American involvement could be useful in a regional crisis, but the chief responsibility rests with the two countries, not with the Americans. India and Pakistan have the most to gain in a normal relationship, and the most to lose through continuation of their paired minority conflict, where each vies with the other in inflicting and absorbing punishments.

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