WASHINGTON — With troops massed at the India-Pakistan border, and communication and travel between the two nations frozen, we are reminded of the perpetual possibility of armed conflict between these nuclear-armed neighbors.
Rich in culture and resources, and the birthplace of several great civilizations and world religions, the region is marked by poverty and conflict. Despite its recent advances in cyberscience and its mature spiritual traditions, India evokes images of disease and social dysfunction. Pakistan suggests religious intolerance, and a culture of irrational violence. For both of us - one Pakistani, the other from India - this is a source of immense sadness.
Until modern times, the region was a model of financial and administrative accomplishment. Its traders were wealthy, its manufacturers highly productive, its craftsmen exquisitely talented. The Muslim Moghuls ruled a predominantly Hindu population and elaborated an Indian civilization that partook of both cultures.
The Moghuls developed a sophisticated and equitable tax system. This structure was so well designed, the British emulated it in setting up their local administration in India, itself the pride of the British Empire. In the 16-century empire of Akbar the Great, the poorest province had revenues larger than those of the United Kingdom.
Today, all must also acknowledge the contemporary accomplishments of Pakistanis and Indians: abroad and at home, in education, business, leadership of international financial institutions and UN agencies, academic life, and literature. And though justifiably known for women's oppression, both countries have had women political leaders, activists, journalists, diplomats, novelists, and filmmakers.
As British India moved toward independence in 1947, greatness was expected by all - Britons, secular Indian nationalists, Muslim partisans of a separate Pakistan, and Hindu revivalists. India would inherit British power and wealth, and revive its own ancient cultural greatness.
Greatness was also expected of the relatively small and impoverished new nation of Pakistan, so gifted was its leadership. The first generation of Pakistanis sought to revive the greatness of Indian Muslim civilization. They sought to represent the interests of all Muslims of the subcontinent.
Between Rabindranath Tagore, the poet and first Indian to win the Nobel prize in 1913, and the Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam who shared the Nobel prize in 1979, came an extraordinary group. Nehru, India's first prime minister, was an accomplished historian. Radhakrishnan, its second president, was a renowned scholar and philosopher, as was Iqbal, the poet and intellectual hero of Pakistan's national movement. This firmament included women such as India's Sarojini Naidu, the poet of national awakening. Greatness will continue to elude both societies in the absence of prosperity and security. Neither is possible without peace.
There are as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan. A Pakistani who cares about the welfare of Muslims everywhere must surely see that a weak and impoverished India is not in the interests of Indian Muslims. And if the hostility persists, Pakistan's greatness will remain hostage to it. Indian nationalists concerned with India's strength, prosperity, and security (or chauvinists aspiring to revive Hindu greatness) must see that a weak and hostile neighbor is a liability.
The armed tension between them aggravates their poverty. Vast portions of their budgets have been devoured by their relentless search for military security or advantage with respect to the other. Their rush toward nuclear weapons compounds this vicious cycle.
The stakes are enormous. India and Pakistan account for almost one-fifth of the human race. But their common problems also offer the occasion for cooperation. The populations of both are still predominantly rural, and their national economies rely substantially on the prosperity of farmers. River-based irrigation offers one of the few means for scientific agriculture. In a water-scarce and population-intensive environment, rivers are also key to the welfare of urban dwellers.
One positive example of longstanding cooperation so far has been their agreement and consultative mechanism for dealing with the complex Indus River system that crosses their border. This could be expanded and updated to allow more integrated and cooperative planning for mutual benefit.
The two face common, even interrelated, problems of international crime and terrorism and public-health issues such as tuberculosis and polio. Cooperation on those would be of mutual benefit. Both also face similar challenges of ending illiteracy, child labor, and oppression of women. They could share experiences and learn from each other.
The process of dialogue and collaboration on these practical problems would also build understanding between Indians and Pakistanis. We can imagine the peacemaking effects of Indian and Pakistani women discovering in dialogue that what they have in common is greater than what divides them.
The initiation of such a visionary enterprise must come from both the political leaders and the business and cultural leaders of both countries, as well as grass-roots organizations already addressing these problems. Civil society can push politicians to do what is right. Cooperation offers the almost certain prospect of more prosperity for business, a richer culture, poverty reduction, and popular empowerment.
In the process of collaboration, each could become what it aspires to, and what the other would respect rather than fear.
Akbar Ahmed, former high commissioner of Pakistan to the United Kingdom, is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University. Amit Pandya is a former US government official and a member of the Washington Foreign Policy Group.