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India and Pakistan: Second Cold War, Third World War?

On September 17th, the latent tension between South Asian heavyweights India and Pakistan escalated into overt hostility after an attack on an Indian Army base in Uri, part of the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir. Mourning the deaths of 18 soldiers, the Indian public called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration to strike back. India eventually retaliated on September 29th with “surgical strikes” on terror launch pads inside the Pakistan-controlled section of Kashmir. These strikes resulted in the deaths of “38 terrorists and Pakistani soldiers.” Relations between India and Pakistan have since degenerated to new lows since the conclusion of the 1999 Kargil War.

India and Pakistan have had tense relations since the violent partition of British India in 1947. After both countries gained independence, despite initial diplomatic efforts, competing territorial claims over Kashmir soon characterized and challenged their relationship. Surgical strikes and border conflicts such as those that followed recent Uri attacks have only aggravated this already tense relationship. Indian national sentiment has slowly been growing impatient with the forced diplomatic alliance; the public reaction to the Uri attacks embodies this burgeoning unease.

The Modi government has been under immense public pressure to respond to the Uri attacks with force. An astounding 63% of the Indian populace voiced their support for a military response. Conscious of this popular sentiment, Delhi broke its long-standing silence on covert operations and decided to go public about the surgical strikes. The Indian government used these surgical strikes to showcase its military capabilities and to deter Pakistan from future actions.

However, the full report of the strikes highlighted how the Indian military demonstrated reasonable caution as they recognized the risk associated in appeasing national sentiment. They did not express plans to further these attacks into Pakistan and ensured their intelligence was detailed and based on specific sources. The report shines on the reality that while playing into nationalistic narratives and satisfying some local electorates may offer temporary relief, immediate military, economic and political reactions in the name of solidarity are detrimental to larger diplomatic efforts and will not promote a return to peace or normalcy.

Even if India decides to pursue an armed conflict, it has few military options at its disposal. It could potentially carry out a surgical strike on the Pakistani army or an attack on supposed terrorist training camps inside Pakistan. However, for the past 15 years, India has been following strategic military restraint, unwilling to risk a complete breakdown in relations with Pakistan. Jan Zalewski, a senior analyst at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, argued in favor of this course, pointing out that a miscalculation could make the situation worse. Even as the war of attrition between Pakistan and India shows no sign of stopping, the government’s top priority will be to prevent the escalation of tensions. This is especially imperative because the two nations are the only nuclear states engaged in a permanent state of conflict. Pakistan has refused to pledge to no-first-use and has continued to develop nuclear weapons, raising a red flag for the Indian military. In response, the recent Indian Ballistic Missile Defense Programme has only exacerbated tensions. This dynamic nuclear status prevents military response from being a viable solution. Rising nationalism challenges this logic, and suggests that the diplomatic cut-off between the countries may make the situation even worse.

With the possibility of overt or even covert war out of the question, people are searching for alternative means of action, calling for the termination of Indo-Pak trade, suspension of inter-country cricket matches and deportation of Pakistani artists such as Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan, who have movies that are scheduled to be released soon in India. The far-right political party Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) has been one of most prominent voices in these efforts, demanding a ban on Pakistani artists in India. In response to these threats, Fawad Khan has left India, waiting until the situation comes under control. MNS vice-president Shalini Thackeray called on MNS activists to forcefully stop the filming of any Bollywood film that involved Pakistani actors, with no clarification on the extent of force that should be used. The joint police commissioner of the Mumbai Police, fearing the outbreak of violence, was forced to set up protective measures for these film sets. The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association (IMPPA) also passed a unanimous vote in their general meeting to “henceforth, not to work with any artists, singers or technicians from Pakistan until the situation of hostilities between Pakistan and India subsides.”

Even areas of erstwhile cooperation between the nations have fallen victim to the spike in tensions. The two countries have always regularly competed as major cricket rivals, but Anurag Thakur, the chief of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, announced that India and Pakistan would not be involved in a joint cricket series in the near future. In the world of media, “Zee Zindagi,” a channel popularized by its exclusive broadcasts of Pakistani shows, has joined the anti-Pakistani rhetoric by removing all Pakistani shows from its lineup. Telecast networks in Pakistan have made similar moves, with the Pakistani Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) announcing that all Indian channels would be banned from October 15th onwards. Cinemas in Karachi and Islamabad have already stopped screening Indian movies until “the situation improves and normalcy returns.” While there are some who understand that such bans will not help the situation, a large part of the society agrees with this ban, citing it as an example of a non-violent act of unity.

The economic relations between India and Pakistan also play a role in the current tensions. There have been calls in India for the dissolution of business ties with Pakistan or a complete ban on Pakistani exports. Granted, the Uri attacks will hamper the speed of the bilateral trade liberalization process, which has been stalled since the violence in 2013 at the Line of Control. However, during previous hostilities, trade relations have largely continued as usual: The response to the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 consisted only of partial sanctions. Trade continued through the Mumbai-Karachi sea-route. Bilateral trade also did not drop after the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which had been orchestrated by terrorists from Pakistan. In fact, trade expanded during the partial sanctions as Pakistan reduced the number of Indian banned goods from 6,000 to 1,209 and India reduced duties on Pakistani goods. None of these cases were examples of betrayal to national solidarity, but rather were reflective of rational economic expertise and emotional restraint. Additionally, a full trade ban would have worse consequences for the Indian economy than the Pakistani one, highlighting just how much India has to lose if it continues its belligerent line. While such an extreme outcome as trade bans are unrealistic, India can pursue similar partial economic sanctions as it had done in 2001, forming a cost-benefit analysis to determine which policies are more advantageous.

Amid the recent tensions and anti-Pakistani rhetoric, India withdrew from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit that was to take place in Islamabad this November. This is the first time that India has withdrawn from a SAARC summit, and Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan quickly followed India’s footsteps, cornering Pakistan diplomatically. This move does not bode well for India-Pakistani relations or general South Asian relations. Signs of tension and discord go against the strategic interests of all SAARC nations. The similarities between Indo-Pak relations and the Cold War have led certain experts to discuss similar solutions, such as a bilateral treaty modeled after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which led to the removal of nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.

Although calls for severing cultural ties may not seem very significant, their rhetoric has huge symbolic consequences. Banning Pakistani artists would only serve to increase the national anti-Pakistani sentiment that has gained popularity since the 2008 terror attacks. In associating art with politics, Indians are intentionally accusing Pakistani artists of siding with their government’s actions, a widely inaccurate charge that misrepresents and ignores their different identities and opinions. Although cricket matches may be suspended temporarily, there is a possibility that cricket series could cease to take place if tensions are sustained by hostile sentiment. Cultural ties between India and Pakistan such as cricket and film have also helped to diffuse political tensions when they got too high, a social deterrent to political and military feuds. Without this safety net, Indians are unwittingly laying the groundwork for a second Cold War. Ignoring the Uri attacks or the border conflicts is not a sustainable solution, but neither is rejecting a diplomatic approach. Although Delhi’s previous restrained policy might not satisfy the renewed nationalistic fervor, sustained conflict and non-diplomacy will only worsen the Indo-Pak deadlock.


About the Author

Simran Nayak '20 is the Senior Managing Editor of the Brown Political Review website. Simran can be reached at