India–Pakistan: A State of Perpetual Confrontation?

Following the recent sentence to death of an Indian national by Pakistan, Dr. Roshni Sengupta takes a gloomy view on future relations between both countries.

Relations between India and Pakistan have teetered on the brink of complete breakdown on a number of occasions, culminating in two full-scale wars – in 1965 and 1971 – and a semi-war in 1991, also known as the Kargil conflict. Arbitrary troop build-ups on the border as a corollary to terrorist attacks on Indian soil are commonly witnessed, the most recent instances being the amassing of military arsenal by Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) which followed the brutal terrorist violence in Mumbai that left close to 200 civilians, policemen, and military personnel dead in 2008, and the latest attack by Pakistan-based militants on the Indian military camp in Uri in Jammu.

The more immediate reason why a brief overview of the volatile relations between the sub-continental neighbours begs attention is this: the sentencing of Indian naval commander Kulbhushan Jadhav to death by a military Field General Court Martial in Pakistan. Jadhav is accused of being an Indian spy. While observers and South Asia watchers have blamed Pakistan for being adversarial, belligerent, provocative and attempting to escalate already elevated tensions between the two countries that have not seen eye to eye since the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, this recent development must be located within the broader framework of geopolitics in the region.

Not seeing eye to eye

Pakistan – emerging out of the burning cinders of Partition which resulted in arguably one of the largest and bloodiest mass migrations in human history and categorised by several global institutions and departments as one of the most dangerous places on earth – has somehow been unable to shake off the cloak of being the pariah state in South Asia. Much of this finds its origin in its capricious relationship with India and was evidenced by its ruthless and bloody take-down of the armed uprising in the erstwhile East Pakistan in 1970, leading ultimately to the liberation of Bengali-speaking East Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh in 1971. India’s full-fledged support of the Liberation War did no service to normalization of ties with Pakistan, which now saw in India not only a historical adversary but also a territorial and regional behemoth, capable of challenging and defeating its military prowess.

The neighbours had already fought a full-fledged war in 1965, which ended with the signing of the Tashkent Agreement. Viewed in the larger context of the Cold War, the 1965 military engagement brought about a decisive shift in the balance of power in the region, with India emerging as the significant military powerhouse in the sub-continent. Not only did the war squarely put forward Pakistan as the progenitor of the conflict – which officially began with the launching of Operation Gibraltar by the Pakistani army, designed to infiltrate the Kashmir Valley with its soldiers to initiate an armed insurgency in the area – it also led to a state of geopolitical confusion among the two power blocs: the United States and the Soviet Union. Although India – owing to the socialist character of its founding leadership – at times viewed the Soviet Union as a natural ally, it nonetheless upheld the basic tenets of non-alignment. Pakistan, in contrast, wholeheartedly accepted American and British military, civilian and political support.


The story of hostility between the two often warring neighbours, however, began as both the countries were trying to find their feet as new nation-states, albeit with a conjoined destiny – Kashmir. The invasion of the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley by armed Pushtun warriors from across the border necessitated its Hindu ruler to seek military support from India. As has been well documented, this came at a price: Kashmir, along with Jammu and the Buddhist-majority Ladakh, had to accede to the Indian union. Thus were laid the foundations of one of the longest-sustaining movements for azaadi (freedom) in the world, with neither India nor Pakistan willing to give up their territorial claims over the region. It was around the mid-1980s that the mostly ideological and sporadic movement transformed into a gory armed insurgency, aided and abetted in no small measure by Pakistan. In spite of the moral and political high-ground occupied by India through the years, bilateral relations have not been helped by the often prickly position taken by the most powerful nation in South Asia. The most recent case in point being the launching of what India termed as ‘surgical strikes’ against terrorist camps across the Line of Control after the attacks in Uri in late 2016.

However the fate of Commander Jadhav turns out in the end, the death sentence would only serve to solidify the bonds of political hostility and cement the lack of trust between the sparring neighbours. A previous instance was the case of Sarabjit Singh, who was accused by Pakistan of being a spy and incarcerated in a Pakistani prison where he succumbed to injuries following an attack by fellow inmates in 2013. There has been no thaw in the frigid relations between the two countries since the Uri attack in 2016 and Pakistan, by playing agent provocateur in this particular instance, is making things worse for an explosive region, particularly since the present government in India – majoritarian and predicated on the premise of confrontational nationalism – is not likely to take a mild position in the matter.

Dr. Roshni Sengupta is a lecturer in South Asian Studies at Leiden University.

Photo by Navnetmitt