As long as he is already trying to denuclearize North Korea as well as permanently ban Iran from building a nuclear weapon, President Trump may want to pay heed to India and its neighbor Pakistan. The two nuclear-armed powers have gone to war three times since they achieved independence in 1947. And over the past year, regular skirmishes along their disputed border in Kashmir have killed dozens and displaced 50,000 civilians.
Pakistan and India each recognize a nuclear war would be mutually devastating. Yet they need help in overcoming a deep suspicion and animosity, driven in part by diverging narratives of their shared past, that could someday trigger a full-scale conflict.
With the border fighting in Kashmir getting out of hand in recent months, the two countries agreed May 29 to honor a cease-fire pact that was first put in place 15 years ago. The agreement is a welcome step. Yet it provides only a pause in hostilities without a commitment to a peace dialogue and, more important, the creation of a culture of reconciliation.
Iran and North Korea are still a long way from any attempt to reconcile with their perceived foes. Ending their nuclear threat has required outside pressure. Pakistan and India, however, have tried at times to come to terms with each other since the violent partition of British India into their respective countries, one largely Muslim and the other largely Hindu. Sometimes their leaders talk or the countries share a sports contest. Nonetheless, trade and travel between the two remain minimal given the size of their economies. And the Kashmir dispute as well as terrorist attacks keep them apart.
Religious differences have mattered less in their relations than the role of nationalist politicians who find it convenient to whip up hatred and fear of the other side. The ill will is generated in large part by competing histories of the 1947 partition – who started it, who killed more people, and who were the heroes and villains. Over the decades, the official history textbooks in each country have become political weapons to create an enemy and build up national unity.
Peace between India and Pakistan will require some sort of agreement on their shared history, one that must reduce old grievances and lessen the paranoia that could trigger a nuclear war. In Northeast Asia, Japan, South Korea, and China have tried in the past two decades to write a joint history in hopes of reducing the use of old resentments. The efforts have largely failed.
Yet this past winter, India and Pakistan achieved some success in transcending nationalist histories with the first citizen-level attempt at a joint telling of their shared history. Two history professors, one in Pakistan and the other in India, held a semester-long course titled “Introduction to South Asian History” that included more than 20 students from each country connected online. The teaching took place mainly over Skype and included a visit of 11 Pakistani students to India in May.
The two teachers, Ali Usman Qasmi of the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Pallavi Raghavan at OP Jindal Global University, reported that the students were amazed to discover what they did not know about the other country. They achieved an “overlapping consensus” on historical events with respect and understanding. The success of the course, they wrote, “shows that an alternative imagining of the past conducive to achieving peace and harmony in the region is ... possible.”
Cease-fires in Kashmir, even a peace dialogue or a full opening of trade, will help India and Pakistan avoid the worst kind of wars. But much of that may not matter until the two peoples can craft a shared understanding of the past in order to reconcile for a better future.