Pakistan-India Relations through the Prism of Constructivism

Realism’s materialistic approach has made a resurgence and become the dominant theory to explain international relations. The concepts of power, self-interest, and statism have become prevalent in academia. The anarchic or somewhat unchecked state of international affairs does depict some of the tenets of realism, but materialism is not the sole explanation for contemporary world politics. Constructivism provides an alternative theory to examine international affairs. First coined by Nicholas Onuf in 1989, constructivism received recognition after the work of Alexander Wendt in 1992 and Peter J. Katzenstein in 1996.

Constructivists believe that international relations are socially constructed, and therefore determined by constantly evolving beliefs, ideas, and norms of state actors.  They disagree with realism’s insistence that material forces or innate nature alone drive international relations.

To prove the importance of non-material forces in international relations, Wendt provides the example of the difference in the United States’ perception of the UK and North Korea’s nuclear arsenals. Although both countries have nuclear weapons, the United States is much more threatened by North Korea because of their hostile relationship. The difference in the United States’ reaction demonstrates the importance of non-material factors in driving international relations.

The constructivist approach can also be applied to the two arch rivals in South Asia.


Pakistan-India: Hostile since Inception

The relationship between India and Pakistan is often studied through the lens of Realism. Multiple wars, countless border clashes, and an almost constant state of hostility depict the nature of their relationship. Political elites on both sides are turning to realism to discuss and implement policies influenced by realism.

An examination of the historical relationship between Pakistan and India shows that the enmity is not just because of material objects (such as territorial disputes or nuclear weapons), but is rather explained by deeply-rooted differences in beliefs, ideas, and norms. Examples of these non-material divides include the pre-partition Urdu-Hindi language controversy, Muslims and Hindus’ conflicting views on cow slaughter, or the violence during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947.

Understanding these non-material and often historic factors driving the India-Pakistan relationship is important, even if material factors have some influence in the relationship. The hostility that exists at the military and political levels has been discussed at length, but the hostility at the social and grassroots levels is largely being ignored. In the contemporary world, people-to-people contact is inseparable from regional and global politics; but in the case of Pakistan-India relations, this aspect is often ignored.

Although cultural differences between India and Pakistan are deeply rooted, there are a number of common threads to help bridge the gap, including sharing a common social structure, culture, and norms for thousands of years. In addition, adopting policies like Track II and Track IV diplomacy can help bring people closer. The biggest barrier to furthering relations is a lack of trust. Current campaigns to improve relations at the grassroots level have been unsuccessful so far, but show promise.

Another barrier to improving relations is extremism. Extremism and incidents like the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the Samjhota Express bombings detract from efforts to improve relations. Indian extremists find it hard to accept Pakistan as an independent nation. In Pakistan, radicals use issues like Kashmir and the Gujarat Massacre as trump cards to prevent progress.



  • Track II and Track IV diplomacy need to be utilized more effectively. These tools should be expanded and used into the small cities of both states.
  • The media, with its cross-border access, should promote positive – instead of hate speech.
  • People-to-people contact must be enhanced through cultural, educational, and civil society delegations on regular basis.
  • Propagation of mutual social norms, ideas and ideals must be adopted for improving relations at the grassroots level.



Constructivism may not be the central approach to explain Pakistan-India relations, but it certainly has the capability to explain and establish close ties, especially at social level. In spite of political and military clashes, people-to-people relations can be improved through the building of mutual beliefs, ideas, and norms. This will not only be good for people-to-people relations, but will also pave the way for a stable South Asian region.


Image: Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Flickr


Posted in , Constructivism, Culture, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Pakistan, Security, Theory, Track II

Sulman Ali

Sulman Ali is completing his M.Phil. in International Relations at the University of Punjab, Lahore, Pakistan. Ali’s research interests include the Indian Ocean, Regional Security, Water Security, and Insurgency. He has taught a course on International Law at the University of Punjab, and has been working as a Research Assistant with Dr. Iram Khalid since 2012. His hobbies include reading, travel, and music, and he is learning the guitar. With passage of time research has also become a hobby as he loves to read, analyze and to know about new issues, history, and different international incidents.

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4 thoughts on “Pakistan-India Relations through the Prism of Constructivism

  1. Hi Sulman,

    Reading your recommendation, I’m interested in your point re: the role of media. I imagine they have a role to play in your other three points as well.

    You also mention that campaigns to improve grassroots connections haven’t succeeded in the past – has there been an overriding reason for the lack of progress here? Has there been a lack of will to see it through, limited funding, etc?


  2. Well argued…No doubt rivalry between both India and Pakistan can be explained through the prism of Constructivism.. The historical old clashes or perceived clashes…However, we can not ignore realism i.e. the neo-neo debate that relations among States does not only depend upon structure but also upon the perceptions of leaders…moreover, about your recommendations..very good suggestions..but if not sponsor by State, interactions among communities is very hard to establish, while development in present information technology is also used as propaganda to create more gaps among them..unless Kashmir issue is not solved realistic cooperation is hard to expect…..

  3. The suggestions are not new. They have been tried to some extent. i think the most important factor in the two countries not hitting it off between them is a lack of trust at all levels. India being the larger and stronger state has the greater responsibility to establish trust. On the contrary, it is often seen to behave in a fashion which enhances this mistrust even more. India needs to accept the fact of partition whole-heartedly and preemptively resolve its outstanding issues with kashmir without the usual excuses it puts up to avoid any serious engagement. The Indian leadership needs to begin to assuage the anti-Pakistan sentiment in India and stop blaming all that goes wrong in India on Pakistan.
    Pakistan on its part should concede to India the face it needs to come to terms with its larger ego and leave it manouvering space. There can be some realistic give-and take on the issues between the two ngnations: all that is needed is a relinquishment of the hard line approach both take on these issues.
    The achievement of peace between the warring states is possible only through conceiving a new dynamic vision of progress and development for themselves , which is to deliver their respective people from the curse of poverty and ignorance.

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