When Imran Khan was sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister five weeks ago, he vowed to do his utmost to bridge the 71-year-old impasse with India. Those wishes seemed sincere when Mr Khan wrote to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the words: “We owe it to our peoples, especially future generations, to peacefully resolve all outstanding issues.”
But as world leaders gather this week at UNGA to pursue diplomacy, hopes have again been dashed of finding a solution to this age-old rivalry on its sidelines. A day after agreeing to talks, India cancelled them, blaming its rival’s “evil agenda”.
This is not the first time talks have collapsed. When Mr Modi flew to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif in 2015, both returned to warlike rhetoric within barely a week. Those tinderbox relations speak to deep-rooted differences stretching back to Partition in 1947. Since then, the two nations have fought three wars over disputed Kashmir and have initiated – and squandered – innumerable chances for negotiation.
But even by those standards, the latest dispute seems gratuitous. India’s reasons – the killing of one of its soldiers in Kashmir and the release of Pakistani stamps honouring a Kashmiri militant – are unconvincing, since New Delhi knew about the soldier’s death when it agreed to the meeting and the stamps predate Mr Khan’s election. But Mr Khan’s reaction was unrestrained and unconstructive as he tweeted: “Disappointed at the arrogant and negative response.”
Meanwhile citizens on both sides – who share more commonalities of culture, food and language than they do differences – celebrated together while watching their nations compete at cricket in Dubai. It is hard to overstate the importance of peace between the two rivals but it begins with meaningful dialogue. The livelihoods of millions would be improved by greater trade and bilateral relations.
But with no consistency from their leaders, peace will remain elusive. There are also questions about the sway of Pakistan’s army. Yet again, an opportunity has been missed. Both leaders must abandon their enmity for real peace – for the sake of their citizens, who deserve nothing less.