A page-turner peace narrative for India, Pakistan

Since February, the two nuclear-tipped rivals have held to a truce and made other overtures that hint of an end to seeing each other as enemies.

An Indian soldier stands guard on the outskirts of Srinagar, Indian-controlled Kashmir, March 25.

India and Pakistan have viewed each other as an enemy for so long that they are struggling with a potential new narrative: peace.

Since February, their two militaries have honored a cease-fire agreement in disputed Kashmir. Their officials have held talks over a treaty on sharing the Indus River. India offered COVID-19 vaccines to Pakistan. In March, Pakistan’s army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, called upon both countries to “bury the past and move forward.” The countries’ prime ministers exchanged letters of greetings and gratitude. In his letter, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said relations must now move toward an “environment of trust.”

Further steps are possible, especially as the United Arab Emirates is reportedly providing back-channel diplomacy. Mr. Modi could meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. The two countries might exchange ambassadors or hold a binational cricket match. If they open their closed border for commerce, trade could jump from about $2 billion to an estimated $37 billion. Pakistan’s prime minister, a former cricket star, said recently, “The only way the subcontinent can tackle poverty is by improving trade relations.”

Like past warm spells, India and Pakistan could again revert to hostility. Each has powerful domestic players with a stake in maintaining an enemy narrative. Resolving their differences in Kashmir will be difficult. While their governments are largely secular, each struggles over whether their nation should be anchored in a religious identity (Hinduism for India, Islam for Pakistan). Those internal debates make it easy to use the other as a convenient foe.

Each has compelling reasons for peace. Pakistan needs a peaceful neighborhood to boost a stagnant economy and reduce military spending. India lately worries about an aggressive China. Both foresee a new regional dynamic if the United States pulls out of Afghanistan.

The hardest part may be a mental one: moving beyond the enemy narrative to simply being friendly competitors. Real issues exist between them, many driven by previous conflicts. But as Nelson Mandela said after 27 years of prison in white-ruled South Africa, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

India and Pakistan are now addressing many of their points of friction with careful overtures, motivated by a mix of domestic and foreign pressures. Yet just as important is to project a new narrative of peace. It might actually devise real peace.

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