India-Pakistan: Peace After the Earthquake?

Last updated November 1, 2005

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Could the October 8 earthquake help bring peace between India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan have clashed over the disputed region of Kashmir since 1947, when the two countries were partitioned into separate states following the end of British colonial rule. The devastating earthquake—which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and struck the Pakistan-controlled region of Kashmir—killed tens of thousands of people and left millions homeless. It has also triggered international attention on the region’s peace process, which experts say could be accelerated in the wake of the Kashmir quake. There are some precedents: The 1999 earthquake in the Marmara region of Turkey prompted Greek expressions of sympathy that improved relations between the traditional rivals, and the Indonesian government and Aceh separatists agreed to a peace deal after the December 2004 tsunami ravaged the region. “As a general rule, these kinds of large-scale natural disasters do tend to have an impact, directly or indirectly,” says Stephen Cohen, senior fellow in foreign policy studies and a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution.

Has India offered Pakistan aid since the earthquake?

Yes. Pakistan has accepted twenty-five tons of food, medicine, tents, blankets, and plastic sheets from India, but rejected India’s offer of helicopters to assist with relief efforts. Islamabad has also been cool to the possibility of conducting joint military-rescue operations. Experts say Pakistan has long been suspicious of its neighbor and will not allow Indian military helicopters to fly over its territory.  “It’s very telling which one Pakistan accepted,” says Mahnaz Ispahani, adjunct senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

What is the basic conflict over Kashmir?

Crisis Guide: Pakistan Each side claims the mountainous province, home to about 10 million people, as its own. At the time of partition, Kashmir’s maharaja chose to join India, a primarily Hindu state, though the majority of the prince’s subjects were Muslim. India claims this decision, as well as elections held since then in Kashmir, make the province an integral part of India. Islamabad argues that the people of the province would choose to join Pakistan if given the choice; in 1948, UN Security Council Resolution 47 called for a plebiscite to let Kashmiri citizens decide which country to join. This vote never took place, man experts say because India rejected the resolution’s plan for a truce.

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Islamic militants have led an insurgency in the Indian-controlled section of Kashmir since 1989. India accuses Pakistan’s government of supporting the militants; Pakistan denies the charge. The two countries fought wars over Kashmir in 1947, 1965, and 1971. In 2002, escalating tensions—caused, at least partly, by an attack against India’s parliament building by Islamic militants—led each country to amass hundreds of thousands of troops along Kashmir’s de facto border, the Line of Control, which brought the nuclear-armed nations to the brink of war.

Has any progress been made in negotiations?

Not much, experts say. Since relations began warming between India and Pakistan in the spring of 2003, the steps forward have been small and slow. Negotiations on issues from trade to transportation links have yielded some symbolic successes—like the April 7, 2005, opening of a bus line that crosses the Line of Control—but few concrete gains have been made on the most important areas of conflict. “The Indians don’t want to make concessions and don’t think they have to; the Pakistanis feel that after investing fifty-five years trying to get a change in Kashmir, they should get some concessions,” Cohen says. Pakistan has suggested India withdraw some of the 350,000 troops it has stationed in Kashmir; India refuses. “The criteria for an agreement is that both sides can declare victory,” Cohen says; experts say the two sides are far from reaching such a point, but remain hopeful some sort of reconciliation can be reached.

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Despite the October 29th bombings in New Delhi, which India blames on Pakistani militants who are against Indian rule in Kashmir, the two countries have made concerted and uncharacteristic efforts to maintain good relations. Just hours after the attack, which killed at least fifty-nine people, the two governments agreed to open five points along the Kashmiri Line of Control to help reunite families and transfer relief supplies to the devastated region. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who denies his country’s involvement in the attacks, was quick to condemn the terrorist act and promised "unequivocal support for the investigation."

How did the earthquake impact Islamic militant groups in Kashmir?

The leader of the militant group Hezb-ul-Mujahadeen called for a ceasefire October 11 in the Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir affected by the earthquake. While ceasefires are “always relevant,” Ispahani says, she and other experts question if this one will have a lasting impact. It could be a political ploy, they say, because most of the militant bases are on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control and likely have been destroyed by the earthquake. While Pakistan has repeatedly denied Indian accusations that it supports and arms Kashmiri militants, experts say it could do more to stop them. “If Musharraf wanted to crack down on the militants, he should do it now,” Cohen says. “But [he won’t], because people in his government would then say, ‘What leverage do we have over India?’”

Is there political will on both sides to reach an agreement?

Experts agree that, in order to reach an agreement on such a longstanding and intractable problem as the status of Kashmir, both Indians and Pakistanis must have a change of heart about their neighbors. This hasn’t quite happened, experts say. Ispahani says Pakistani news announcers still denounce the “Indian occupiers” in Kashmir, and India seems equally unwilling to compromise. “It’s an important time for those concerned with pushing [negotiations forward] to think about how to make that a priority,” Ispahani says. “[The earthquake] should have an impact. Whether it will or not depends on the political will on both sides.”

Is there precedent for natural disasters affecting politics in Pakistan?

The 1970 Bhola cyclone, which killed more than half a million people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and the 1974 earthquake that hit the northeastern Pakistani town of Patan, killing 5,000, hurt the credibility of the country’s leadership, under General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, respectively. In the current disaster, experts say the slow pace of relief efforts—which are increasingly being criticized by the earthquake’s victims—could hurt Musharraf. His critics and political rivals, including former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, could say, “It’s a military dictatorship, but where are the results?” Cohen says. That pressure, in turn, “might weaken Musharraf and make him less able to negotiate” with India, he says.

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