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Sharat Sabharwal’s ‘India’s Pakistan Conundrum’ explores the nature of the state in Pakistan

The former High Commissioner to Pakistan analyses bilateral issues to examine what impacts the relationship between India and Pakistan

Sharat Sabharwal’s 'India’s Pakistan Conundrum', ties between India and Pakistan, book, book review, eye 2022, sunday eye, indian express newsIndia’s Pakistan Conundrum: Managing a Complex Relationship; By Sharat Sabharwal Routledge India; 228 pages; Rs 995 (Photo:

The book under review, written by a scholar-diplomat, reflects on the nature of the state in Pakistan and explores intricately complex ties between India and Pakistan. As a practising diplomat, Sharat Sabharwal had literally grappled with several intractable problems between the two countries as he served in Pakistan as Deputy High Commissioner (1995-99) and High Commissioner (2009-13) of India. Sabharwal initially unravels the nature of Pakistan’s polity, society and economy before dealing with a wide range of bilateral issues in Indo-Pak ties, including border and water disputes, the status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), cross-border terrorism, hurdles in trade ties as also Pakistan’s external ties with the US, China and the Islamic world.

Thanks to its acceptance of the two-nation theory, Pakistan emerged as a religion based, geographically non-contiguous state that was built on the plank of anti-Indianism. The complexities within Islam has prompted Sabharwal to write about Sunni Wahabism, Deobandi seminaries and the status of Shia and Ahmadi sects. Most of the regimes in Pakistan have deployed Islam as an instrument of nation building. Simultaneously, education was equally used as a tool to write history that deliberately created a sense of hatred for India. In essence, Pakistan aggravated the difference with India by playing identity politics that divides people, according to Sabharwal, between “us” and “’them”.

The army that has functioned like “state within the state” was keen to manage the clerics and the role of the religion because it has been an overwhelmingly powerful state organ. It exercised control over the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the diverse terrorist outfits including the Lashkar-e -Taiba (LeT), alias Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) as well as the Taliban regime (1996-2001) in Afghanistan. In essence, Pakistan used terror as an instrument of state policy. The army personnel also showed interest in business through Pakistan’s largest business conglomerates like Fauji Foundation Trust and Army Welfare Trust. Since the army’s capacity to twist political actors has been self-evident, there is an imbalance in civil-military power in Pakistan. The side effects of the army dominance also are perceptible in illicit exchange of drugs for arms, the impact of drug culture causing seven million drug addicts amid the radicalisation of Pakistani society.

Sabharwal has succinctly drawn “ethnic fault lines” in Pakistan where Punjabi ethnicity is playing a dominant role while the populations belonging to Sindh, Balochistan, Muhajir community, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile Bengal (before 1971) were marginalised. Inability to delineate powers between the Centre and units in a federal arrangement has led to continued tensions and even insurgencies in Pakistan.

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Sabharwal believes promoting trade between the two countries can be a game changer but it is harder to arrive at a solution of any bilateral issues because both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. (Photo:

Pakistan’s economy has been characterised by low growth, high inflation, high debt service ratio and inadequate foreign exchange reserves. To bail its economy out, Pakistan has relied on either an external power like the US or funding agencies like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Further, Sabharwal has critically discussed Pakistan’s reluctance to grant Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India and its penchant for blocking transit routes to India. Evidently, neither Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) nor Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline projects have got off the ground.

While Pakistan’s ties with the Islamic world are cordial, it has had “transactional” relations with the US in different times. Similarly, owing to Sino-Pak entente, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is on the anvil as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India is opposed to CPEC because China wants to build a road via Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Sabharwal observes that the status of J&K and the trifurcation of the J&K after the amendment in the Indian Constitution of the Article 370 no longer resonates in the elections in Pakistan.

Sabharwal believes that promoting trade between the two countries can be a game changer but it is harder to arrive at a solution of any bilateral issues because both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Besides, attacks from Pakistan based and sponsored terrorist outfits continue to destabilise India. However, due to Sabharwal’s intrinsically sober disposition, the book gives clinical treatment to all themes without being critical of either politicians or the governments on either side. Hence the writing, at times, does not have sufficient bite. For instance, critical understanding was required of the events like the release of three terrorists after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC814 in 1999, Mumbai attacks of 26/11 in 2008, the surprise visit of Modi to Pakistan in 2015 and the Pulwama attack of 2019. On the whole, the work is excellent and an indispensable reading for scholars, diplomats and policy makers.


Rajen Harshé is former vice-chancellor, Central University of Allahabad, and a leading scholar in African and International Affairs

First published on: 03-12-2022 at 12:00 IST
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