Fighting between India and Pakistan hasn’t stopped entirely but the threat of nuclear war has receded for the moment.
On Saturday, heavy shelling and a dozen deaths of civilians and soldiers were reported along the border in the disputed region of Kashmir. Unfortunately, that is pretty normal, and the nuclear-armed neighbours do seem to have pulled back from any unusually provocative actions.
Anything else would mean a catastrophe, as the 64-country group International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War warned during the high tensions of the past week. Any use of nuclear weapons would “quickly kill millions” in South Asia, the federation of medical bodies said. It added that such action would cause “an unprecedented global catastrophe” because the blasts would “create firestorms, severely disrupt the global climate and lead to worldwide crop shortages and starvation” affecting at least two billion people.
For now, such a vision seems likely to be confined to the pages of a dystopian novel. But that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to worry. The dangers of a nuclear holocaust will remain acute when neighbouring countries with the appropriate weapons also have all of the following: an intractable dispute; an emotive list of grievances against each other; hyper-nationalist news channels and jingoistic social media warriors.
For India and Pakistan, there are two other key ingredients to add to that volatile mix. India is soon to go to the polls, which means prime minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP need to project a righteous, avenging fury and unyielding might. And there is little sign that Pakistan's powerful army is backing away from its self-serving doctrine of religiously infused paranoia, for all that prime minister Imran Khan graciously – and speedily – returned a captured Indian pilot on Friday as a "peace gesture".
Even so, three marginally positive points emerge from the tense situation of the past week.
First, neither India nor Pakistan really seemed to want all-out war, so much as a ritualistic war dance. It’s worth noting that New Delhi and Islamabad managed to lower the tensions largely on their own, although there may have been some quiet intervention by China. Pakistan’s foreign minister has since claimed the Chinese will send a special envoy to the region. Overall though, with the United States pretty much missing in action, it fell to India and Pakistan themselves to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. And that is exactly what happened. Mr Khan made a matter-of-fact announcement in parliament of the impending release of the captured Indian pilot. India followed this with low-key statements. Although some Indian and Pakistani commentators and social media armies on either side continue to gloat about the other’s alleged loss of face, prestige and bargaining chips, the two governments have been relatively restrained after all the histrionics.
Second, although international pressure was not much in evidence, it became clear there’s no longer any tolerance – even for reasons of realpolitik – of any support to declared terrorist groups. Australia and France issued exceedingly strong statements demanding that Pakistan take action against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and other extremist groups on its territory. Foreign ministers of the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Co-operation meeting in Abu Dhabi at the weekend disregarded the Pakistani foreign minister’s refusal to attend because his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj was the invited guest of honour. Even China, which habitually supports Pakistan, endorsed India’s decision to bomb what it said was a JeM training camp on Pakistani soil. “Fighting terrorism is a global practice,” China said, later joining with Russia to declare that “terrorist groups cannot be supported and used in political and geopolitical goals”.
Interestingly, prominent Pakistanis across the political divide have been speaking out too against their country’s inability or unwillingness to excise JeM, Jaish Al Adl and the Pakistani Taliban. Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former ambassador to Afghanistan who belongs to the governing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said on February 27 that Pakistan should rethink its attitude to these terrorist groups, which were not helping its cause. So did Husain Haqqani, former ambassador to Sri Lanka and the US, and once a spokesman for prime minister Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party.
Finally, the commentary in the aftermath may be an indicator of where things stand. Some of it remains intensely competitive. Indians insist that Pakistan bowed to pressure in releasing their pilot; Pakistanis claim their country won the overall perception battle as negotiators for peace. Both statements, incidentally, are probably true. But it is in the more sober assessments that one might find some idea of how Indians and Pakistanis see their yoked tomorrows. Many are expressing their opposition to war – all war – for any reason. Many more are calling out the good and bad deeds of politicians – their own and on the other side. That is exactly how a constituency for peace is built. It may still happen.