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Opinion

Opinion: Bad times for pragmatists

The constant feud between India and Pakistan is fueled by spy agencies, the militaries and religious fanatics that repeatedly sabotage any reconciliation efforts launched by prime ministers, writes DW's Florian Weigand.

Let's compare last week's headlines: India's PM Narendra Modi consults with US President Barack Obama and pays a highly publicized visit to the site of the Brussels bombings. In Pakistan, by contrast, Christians are killed in a suicide attack on Easter Sunday while going for a walk in a park.

Moreover, Islamists held a demonstration in the capital, demanding that the Pakistani government declare an executed murderer a martyr. The convict had killed a high-ranking politician who wanted to scrap Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

Considering such developments, India was the clear winner.

Let's be honest: We like to see India as a colorful country full of ashrams, holy men, Bollywood, and an increasingly stronger economy. We associate Pakistan, in turn, with long beards, terrorism and extremism. None of these images are technically inaccurate; they are just not very nuanced.

Florian Weigand

DW's Florian Weigand

The fact of the matter is that these two countries have more similarities than differences. Their cuisine, clothing, languages and traditions have much in common, and there are frequent stories about families living on both sides of the border.

In this context, film star Shahrukh Khan can be seen as representative for millions of people on the subcontinent. Khan, who is also a well-known actor in the West, was born in India to a Muslim family that has its origins in Peshawar, Pakistan.

But the two countries also share a dark side. The history of independence from the British in 1947 was hemmed on violence. The Mahatma Gandhi's pacifist project failed from the start. Muslim leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah proclaimed Pakistan - the "Land of the Pure" - a home for the Muslim minority in the subcontinent. Following the partition, Hindus were banished from Pakistan, and many Muslims from India.

Unheard atrocities were committed on both sides of the new border. And then there is the Kashmir issue. The Hindu prince, who used to rule the Muslim-majority region, opted to join India. Nowadays, Kashmir is divided and is the scene of repeated skirmishes. India and Pakistan have fought four wars, one of which Pakistan lost in its eastern enclave - today's Bangladesh.

These gloomy events still determine the narrative on both sides of the border. Today, both countries are nuclear-armed powers. While this represents a mutual threat, it can also lead to a policy of rapprochement as a matter of survival. The governments of Narendra Modi in New Delhi and Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad understand this and, as a result, have taken a cautious path towards reconciliation. Both have the economy in focus, both are business people and see the potential of a market with nearly 1.5 billion people.

A real prospect for peace could be determined by the two pragmatists. But currently, the chances of it happening are quite bleak. Whenever the two premiers shake hands, militant attacks take place somewhat magically.

Recently, terrorists attacked a military base in India, and some observers accused Pakistan's spy agency ISI of masterminding the assault. This week, Pakistani authorities arrested an "Indian intelligence official," who they say was helping separatists in Pakistan's volatile Balochistan Province.

It appears that the Pakistani military has no intention of dealing with the threat the country faces. Actually, the army thrives on the perception of threats from a powerful, anti-Pakistan eastern neighbor. Without the projection of an arch-enemy, the Pakistani military cannot keep dominating the country's affairs.

In addition, the military does not entirely depend on defense-related matters. Over the past few decades, it has become the South Asian country's largest employer, operating hospitals and schools. The military families live in protected cantonment areas that provide them with a privileged standard of living in an impoverished country.

Apart from that, there are a lot of similarities between India and Pakistan, but they, unfortunately, divide the two nations rather than connect them. The entire world is familiar with the level of Islamist terrorism originating from Pakistan, but India, too, has to deal with a surge in Hindu extremism.

PM Sharif appears to be in a dilemma. He cannot rein in Islamist groups because he came to power with the help of conservative voters. Same is the case with PM Modi in India. In Pakistan, extremists justify the foundation of the country in the name of an Islamic discourse, but the fact is that there are more Muslims living in India than Pakistan.

The main issue with India and Pakistan and their complex ties is related to a crisis of identity. Extremists in both countries are trying to find an answer in their own ways. The Pakistani right-wing groups want to purge everything "un-Islamic" from the country, whereas Hindu nationalists in India are simultaneously trying to impose the supremacy of religion over a growing Muslim population.

These are not good times for the pragmatist politicians. And the danger that the extremists could get close to the nuclear weapons is also rising.

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