Of Optimism and Hope: Making Sense of Latest Thaw in India-Pakistan Relations
Have India and Pakistan finally decided to end the long-standing impasse in their bilateral relations, and to restore the halted communication links between the two countries? Looking at the thaw, beginning from the renewal of the LoC ceasefire last month, and subsequent encouraging statements from both sides, the answer seems to be a big yes. The talks between the two countries have been closed down since August 2014, when the BJP, soon after taking over the reins of power in New Delhi, had called off scheduled foreign secretary-level talks to show its strong displeasure at Pakistan’s intimacy with the Kashmiri separatists. Worse, the hostility between the two countries remained at its peak during the past more than two years, especially after the militant attack on Pathankot Air Force station, the suicide attack on CRPF convoy at Lethpora (Pampore), and the Balakot airstrike carried out by India in February 2019 and finally the abrogation of Article 370 of Indian Constitution in August 2019.
For the past few weeks now, the bilateral relations apparently are improving. The ice started melting on February 25, when the Directors General of Military Operations (DGsMO) of two sides surprised everyone with a rare joint commitment to respect a 2003 ceasefire agreement. Since then, not a single bullet was fired from either side on the 740 km Line of Control (LoC) and this has happened for the first time, at least in the past six years.
A brigade commander-level meeting between the two sides was held on March 26 to strengthen the commitment of truce further. Pertinently, on the day when DGsMO announced their commitment to adhere to the ceasefire, India allowed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s aircraft to use its airspace for his travel to Sri Lanka. Recall: just a few months ago, the hostility between the two countries was such that Pakistan denied India’s request to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flight to use its airspace to travel to the US for attending the UN General Assembly session.
It is not that talks have conducted at the military level only. The officials of both sides had a two-day meeting recently in New Delhi to sort out their differences about the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), and it was decided that Islamabad will host the second round of these talks next month. The meetings on IWT between the officials of the two countries are supposed to be held frequently, but due to the given circumstance, it took both countries almost three years to organize one.
Apart from these developments, the leaders of both the countries have noticeably softened their tone and tenor towards each other. Prime Minister Imran Khan, while pitching for trade with India, in his address at the launch of the two-day Islamabad Security Dialogue on March 17, said that peace with Pakistan will give India direct access to Central Asia. In the same function, Pakistani Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said that it was time for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward”. He asserted that peace between the two neighbors would help “unlock” the potential of South and Central Asia.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his recent letter to Imran Khan on Pakistan’s 70th National Day said that India desires cordial relations with Pakistan. A few days before, Modi had also tweeted a ‘get well soon’ message for his Pakistani counterpart who had got exposed to the Covid virus.
In addition to these positive statements of the leaders from both sides, the two countries are likely to take some initiatives to show their resolve to strengthen their bilateral relations. For example, India is joining an anti-terror military exercise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Pakistan in the coming days. China and other member countries of SCO, the eight-member bloc, will also join the event. Furthermore, some latest media reports, which neither side has denied, suggested that the foreign ministers of both countries are expected to meet on the sidelines of the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference in Tajikistan capital Dushanbe, on March 30.
Given this changing scenario, journalists and political analysts are guessing about the causes that made the two rival neighbors change their attitude towards each other. According to a Bloomberg report, United Arab Emirates (UAE) has played a mediatory role to break the ‘Peace Deal’ between the two countries, which resulted in the LoC ceasefire agreement and subsequent soothing statements by the leaders from both sides. However, some political pundits say that US withdrawal from Afghanistan and China’s aggression towards India are among the factors that made both countries change their behavior towards each other. They also say that the domestic challenges to both countries have forced them to end the hostility. For example, they say Pakistan is grappling with acute economic crises and wants to be out of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list; and likewise, India is facing defamation at the international level, especially in Western and European countries for diminishing its democratic institutions.
To look at the reasons and future prospects of changing bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, KASHMIR IMAGES spoke to several political analysts and commentators.
Several factors have forced India and Pakistan to change their stance towards each other. But, before talking about these factors, let me first tell you that the kind of relationship both countries have developed over recent years cannot be sustainable in a civilized world where countries are interdependent. Secondly, peace is always helpful for its economic, social, and cultural benefits.
Now coming to the external causes, I believe the US and China are the most important factors responsible for this change. The US has several challenges in this region and it wants to lose neither India nor Pakistan. On one hand, it wants to enter into a larger alliance with India, and on the other, it does not want to lose Pakistan entirely to the Chinese influence. The US also needs Pakistan on board in Afghan, because the Chinese and Russians are eagerly trying to maneuver the situation and getting involved.
Also, India needs connectivity to Central and East Asia, which is where the Pakistan factors in. Earlier, India wanted to bypass Pakistan and go through Iran, but that was unattainable because of US sanctions on Iran and now due to Chinese investment there. Similarly, the Modi government had thought that it would woo China through friendship, and then take Pakistan head-on. However, this calculation got shattered because of what happened on borders with China.
Given the confrontation with China, India needs outside support, especially from the US, and the Democrats in the US somehow acknowledge that Kashmir is a dispute and that should be addressed. The push has come after Biden come to power. I think this push has motivated India to accept that Kashmir has to be discussed. We cannot say what could be a solution to Kashmir and what concessions Prime Minister Modi could be willing to give to Pakistan on this count. For sure, India will not leave Kashmir; however, I think it will surely come to some middle ground. I guess that Kashmir will get some relief in terms of expansion of connectivity, the decline in the militarization, and some political empowerment.
But remember, the India, Pakistan bonhomie remains susceptible to so many things; we have seen, in the past, a single provocation just tearing apart everything!
We have seen India and Pakistan fighting wars, both big and small ones, and then starting peace processes and talking to each other. However, this time the circumstances, in which talks and the peace process between the two countries have started, are entirely different. Some new factors have also popped up. For instance, both sides decided to go for a ceasefire but this was not proclaimed by political leaders, rather it was announced by the Armies of two countries. That indicates the increased role of the militaries of India and Pakistan, over the years. The Balakot strike and the surgical strikes have also given prominence to the role of the military in India.
Moreover, it is not Pakistan that has taken Kashmir to the UN Security Council during the past two years; rather, China took the issue there in the recent past. It is pertinent to mention here that China is an expansionist and assertive power and its strategic footprints are expanding in the region through its BRI project. These are new circumstances and new factors in which the resumption of talks between India and Pakistan have started.
Furthermore, a non-Arab Muslim alliance consisting of countries like Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan is emerging and attaining a role in terms of Afghan stability and settlement issue, and China is aligned with this alliance. Possibly, these countries will get more and more role in Afghanistan settlement, and then the changing scenario will have its implications for India. I think India is cautious about this possible scenario, and hence wants to open up to be receptive to new challenges.
India also knows that even though the US supports it, yet China is like an elephant in the room. Also, there are some realist people within the Indian power structure who do not want the country to lose its strategic autonomy by fully coming under the US’ umbrella.
In given circumstances, I think it suits India to resume talks and the peace process in the region. Second, the states always go for the talks keeping in view their own national interest, and both — India and Pakistan — cannot afford to stop talking to each other forever. I think both countries have realized their compulsions and that is why the ruling regime in India has also stopped using Pakistan’s name in the ongoing assembly elections in four states for electoral benefits. This is the new template in which the two countries are going to resume talks.
Therefore, I think we need to locate the resumption of talks and peace process in this larger scenario and emergent circumstances.
I am optimistic about improving relations between India and Pakistan. The voices coming from New Delhi and Islamabad are promising and hold hope. I think the two countries have finally realized that talking to each other would be beneficial to them. The two neighboring countries are interlinked not only geographically and culturally but critically as well. Therefore, they cannot live in hostility forever. This realization should have come much earlier.
The question, why this realization has come now, is not difficult to answer. Simply, because the emerging geopolitics and the changing American landscape has made both the countries realize that they are under the scanner; Pakistan for its involvement in Afghanistan through the Taliban and for its terror networks, and India because its democracy has downgraded in the eyes of the world, particularly in western countries’ analyses. Both countries have understood that they cannot live in isolation in this deeply connected world and it was not the time to create further hostilities and then to live in these hostilities forever. General Bajwa’s recent statement where he said “let us bury the past and move forward” is indicative of this direction.
The Pakistani Army chief, indeed, also talked about Kashmir and said that the onus lies on India for creating conducive atmosphere. However, I think he has been adequately and politely answered by Prime Minister Modi, who in his letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Pakistan’s National Day, has underlined that creating an “environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility” was imperative. This statement is a fact and every person in this subcontinent would recognize and appreciate it. I think that should be the guiding principle now for India and Pakistan.
Furthermore, both countries need to understand that they cannot escape the harsh realities. For example, the COVID pandemic has deteriorated the economies of both countries. I think COVID, besides some other factors, has provided the two countries an opportunity to realize that they should search for a middle ground. Both countries have been spending money on buying defence armaments and strengthening war machines. These resources could be diverted towards development and eradication of poverty.
As far as Kashmir’s resolution is concerned, I think Modi alone can change the course of history in Kashmir. There has been no other leader in the modern history of India, who could change things like he can. If you remember his first speech in Kashmir, on December 8, 2014, he promised that his team was to make Kashmir a world destination. I think he is conscious of this and he will do it.
Realistically speaking, it is fine if Pakistan develops infrastructure in the territories under its control, but it cannot handover any territory of J&K to China. This is the violation of international law.
The sudden change in the behaviour of India and Pakistan towards each other is surprising. Change in New Delhi’s stand, given its hard posturing from last many years now, seems a big departure so far as rhetoric of the current dispensation is concerned. As we know, the Imran Khan regime in Pakistan had taken a tougher stance towards India, especially, after the latter unilaterally changed the status quo in Kashmir on August 05, 2019. And from this side the sitting regime was always heard drawing red lines by giving statements like “zero tolerance for terror” and “terror and talks cannot go together”. However, now we see that both the countries have not only started opening up the communication links but, if reports are to be believed, track-two level diplomacy between the two is also going on. The renewal of the ceasefire agreement at the LoC and talks on the Indus Waters Treaty are the outcome of these overt and covert talks. This indicates drastic changes in the attitude of both countries, especially India.
Earlier, we were made to believe that the only workable policy vis-a-vis Pakistan is of an iron fist. The surgical strikes, for example, and the August 05, 2019 decision were the results of this policy.
The August 05 decision had its repercussions. The government may have calculated the reaction of Pakistan and Kashmir before implementing this decision, but I think China reaction was a bit of a spill-over. It first took the matter to the UN Security Council and then a war-like situation emerged in the Ladakh region. What prompted such tough stance of China is a matter that needs quite an explanation, but for sure this was the first time since 1962 that the dragon acted so aggressively in the Ladakh region. May be the convergence of China-Pak relations is a factor.
Moreover, the Biden administration in the US has changed its stance on the issues in South Asia. Soon after Biden took office, some statements from the US State Department clearly indicated that the new US administration wants an end to hostilities in this region. I think these changes have forced India and Pakistan to change their behaviour towards each other. The current thaw has also a strong Afghan connection. Biden’s withdrawal vow mixed with Taliban’s persistent assertion provides an important context to these developments. Afghanistan is and has always been an important factor in setting the context for many policy overtures in the region.
While we do not have access to information or know for sure what India and Pakistan has to offer to each other to resolve disputes, especially over Kashmir, there are enough signs that both countries are willing to move forward. I strongly believe that this change could not have taken place without the interference of the major powers. It will be interesting to see what the consequences of this new process will be.
The relations between India and Pakistan have always been difficult. That is why the communication links between both countries have been blocked for quite a long time. However, an evident change in a positive manner has been occurring for the past few weeks.
For me, it is satisfactory to see that finally the neighbouring countries have started rejuvenating their relations. Ceasefire violations on the Line of Control have stopped and the communication links between the two countries have reopened. One must be optimistic about all these changes.
These changes were imperative and expected. The normalization of relations between the two neighbours was likely at some point of time. Therefore, I am not surprised to see the sudden change. The earlier peace process in Vajpayee’s era was also started in the same way.
As far as the details and assumptions about this process are concerned, we should not talk much about all these things. Firstly, these issues are not be discussed in the public domain, rather it is always a prerogative of the state to see what to do and when to do it. Secondly, we do not have the actual information about matters such as who pushed for this change and on what terms. These are sensitive issues and are always be decided behind the curtains by those who are at the helm.
Also, we should not jump to the conclusions about these developments at this stage. Because we have seen in the past that things were moving ahead then suddenly something happened and everything derailed again. That is why I say we should have cautious optimism. Let us not be apprehensive and let’s not ask questions right now. Whatever progress occurs, one should have satisfaction over it and one should be thinking in a more positive manner. I am cautiously optimistic about improving bilateral relations between India and Pakistan.