Review Details

Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum

Stephen Cohen
Brookings Institution Press, 2013, Hardcover ISBN: 978081572186

Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum

Stephen P. Cohen

Brookings Institution Press

237 p

Prof Cohen’s writings on the India and Pakistan have always elicited great debate in both the countries since his first work on the subject. Though an outsider, along with scholars with India and Pakistan, he has authored some of the most outstanding accounts of the multiple conflicts between the two countries. This book – Shooting for a Century should be read along with his earlier works, to appreciate the basic arguments, explanations and the future projections.

This book is neatly divided into seven essays – focussing on the context, conflicts, an account of positions of India and Pakistan, set of explanations as reasons for the conflicts, prospects of them getting resolved, and finally a critique of American strategies and interests vis-à-vis India and Pakistan.

Cohen’s basic contention is while much of the India-Pakistan conflict lies in the realms of high strategy and identity, it also revolves around the absence of trade and normal discourse, size disparities and three geo-strategic issues: Kashmir, water and the Siachen glacier. Though Kashmir issue has been there since the partition, its intensity waxed and waned as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. So is the divide between the two countries over the sharing of Indus waters. Siachen is a post 1980s issue, which many in India and Pakistan consider is not a intractable conflict and could be resolved. Clearly, Kashmir, Indus and Siachen are expressions of an inherent problem between the two countries and not the only reasons for the conflict.

How to explain the above? What are the primary reasons for the conflict between the two countries. Cohen provides six explanations: Culture and Civilization; State Identity; Kashmir; Identity and Creating an “Other”; Outsiders; and Strategies. Since this section, along with future projections are the most important ones, these explanations need larger discussion. Cohen starts his first explanation disputing Huntington’s thesis – Clash of Civilizations,  rightly so, for contributing “world’s stock of misinformation about India and Pakistan.” Cohen repudiates the Huntington thesis by citing how Muslim populations lived peacefully under Hindu rulers and vice versa, and also underlines the widespread commonalities between two communities from social intercourse to cuisines. The Cohen conclusion on this issue is not to confuse the differences between Indians and Pakistanis with differences between India and Pakistan. While the former may be very small, the latter are quite large with respect to adherence to constitutional norms and some political values. How true! Perhaps, this point needs more reiteration and further research to understand why there is so much difference despite so many similarities.

On the issue of identity as an explanation, Cohen contends that “the Indian State is neither entirely democratic nor entirely secular, while Pakistan retains many of the secular foundations of the British Indian political and judicial system and aspires to democracy.” While there would be a general agreement on the first contention on India, it is surprising that a scholar of Pakistan like Cohen make an argument that Pakistan retains the secular foundations of political and judicial systems. True, it may have the system, but what about the spirit? And more importantly, what about the secular performance? Some of the recent responses of the political and judicial systems from hanging the killers of the TTP, Salman Taseer’s assassination and the persecution of Ahmediyas highlight the absolute failure of these two systems to fight for secular objectives.

On J&K, Cohen’s explanation reflects the frustration that most of us share in the sub-continent and elsewhere. For him, it is practically useless to talk about solving the Kashmir problem, when there are many Kashmir problems, most of which are not amenable to any solution over the long or short term. Further, Kashmir is not, as it is widely assumed, only an India-Pakistan problem, since China has claimed and occupied a good chunk…And he concludes, China is in fact a real component of South Asia’s hard core security conundrum.

The crucial question, however is: are the Indians, Pakistanis and the Kashmiris worried about China’s position on J&K? True, China looms large in the larger strategic calculations of India and Pakistan, but when comes to J&K, issues over China is more territorial in nature, and not emotional. China will remain a real component of Indo-Pak conundrum along with the US, more at the larger strategic environment but less on J&K. For China, its interests in J&K are a means to a larger objective vis-à-vis India and Pakistan, especially India-China relations.

An interesting explanation, perhaps as a self critique, Cohen then asks, how have outsiders, notably the Unites States, tried to influence this dispute? Cohen makes two interesting points on the issue: “more realistically, outsiders have been critical in sustaining the dispute,” and “at times outsiders have made normalization more difficult if only by holding out the promise of support for one side or the other and thus reducing the incentives to compromise.” And then he concludes, on the whole, outsiders played a decidedly greater role in “tilting” toward India or Pakistan, than they did in promoting cooperation between the two. An important assertion indeed which needs further research, given the fact that the US and UK are extremely involved on Indo-Pak dialogues at the track-I and track-II levels today. And an equally important question that needs to be looked from Indian and Pakistani perspectives is – why did and do the two countries allow outsider to play that role?

Now what about the prospects? Cohen first looks into the track-II and people-to-people contacts and concludes that the former “may be the last refuge of a desperate political leadership”, the latter is often the last resort of angry frightened citizens.” As a conclusion, his best prediction is: a huting stalemate will likely to continue, albeit with less tensions, as the trade and visa agreements of 2012 indicate. There will be cautious movements toward dialogue, punctuated by attempts on both sides to press unilaterally their advantage in Kashmir and in international forums. This is a conflict that Pakistan cannot win and India cannot lose.

Much would depend on how Pakistan sees the emerging security environment after the American withdrawal in 2014. The nature of security architecture the Americans would leave behind in Afghanistan with a likely role for Islamabad will greatly determine the next steps of Pakistan’s military and its ISI towards the region and also towards India. 

The review was originally published by the Book Review