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The way ahead for India and Pakistan The Statesman 16 Mar 2021
The DGMO’s of Pak and India announced ceasefire, negotiated by high level backchannel diplomacy between the Indian NSA and senior Pak army officers, is currently holding. It is possibly the first time that India bypassed the Pak political leadership and discussed options directly with their army. It is winters still and passes remain closed, reducing attempts at infiltration. Infiltration, to be successful must largely be supported by firing. While welcoming the ceasefire, both nations continue to state that there is no change in their existing policies, Pakistan on Kashmir and India on terrorism. India desires talks sans support to terrorism while Pak demands return of status quo on Kashmir.
Simultaneously, there has been a reduction in rhetoric by the political leadership on both sides. Pak had always termed India as a spoiler in the Afghan peace process and insisted that it had no role to play in any discussions on Afghanistan. Post the recent US announcement of including India is the talks, the Pak spokesperson stated, ‘As for India’s inclusion in the Afghan peace process, Pakistan supports regional approaches to solving the conflict in Afghanistan.’ Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper also stated, ‘Pakistan has been taking a softer stance with regard to India since the two arch-rivals last month agreed on reviving their accord on ceasefire at the Line of Control and addressing the ‘core issues’ and ‘concerns’ that could imperil the regional peace.’ A much welcome step.
However, no attempts have been made to restore diplomatic relations to normal by reappointing High Commissioners, which were withdrawn post the abrogation of Article 370. It may possibly be the next logical step, as restoring High Commissioners would reduce the existing trust deficit.
There have been multiple reasons quoted on why the nations agreed to a ceasefire. These vary from Pak’s precarious economic situation due to internal economic mismanagement and impact of FATF restrictions to the arrival of the Biden administration which would push Pak towards creating a conducive environment for peace in Afghanistan. There is also mention of the same being linked to current India-China talks for restoration of status quo ante along the LAC and Pakistan’s failed Kashmir policy. For India, a stable and friendly Pakistan is an essential pre-requisite for development.
Whatever the reason, the ceasefire is long overdue. It would be a major relief for the residents of both countries living close to the LoC, who have suffered destruction and death as a result of cross-border firing. In case it continues, India would be able to deal with the existing terrorists in the valley, thus ushering in an era of peace and development.
Two major differences have stood out while accepting the ceasefire, ignoring the immediate rhetoric which followed its announcement. Firstly, there was no insistence by India on the ceasefire being subject to Pak stopping support to terrorism in the valley. Secondly, Pak did not demand any pre-condition of restoring Article 370 prior to the ceasefire. However, these issues continue being highlighted as pre-conditions to talks.
Simultaneously, Pakistan has begun the process of converting Gilgit Baltistan into its sixth province by the region’s legislative assembly passing a unanimous resolution in this regard. There have been no adverse comments from India, though this action would dilute Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir and also complicate talks concerning the Kashmir issue.
With both nations advocating a change in approach is there a way forward. There is no doubt that the best resolution of issues is by dialogue. It does not imply that for dialogue to succeed one side has to bend. Both nations must accept reality, that a war to regain what is claimed to be territory under the control of the other state is not feasible nor winnable, especially in a nuclear environment. Further, inciting violence or employing terrorism would never lead to a nation losing control of its territory. The concept of one nation seeking to exploit the fault lines of the other, an example being so-called Khalistan, would only enhance distrust and distance without any tangible gains. Finally, the current enmity can only be reduced by getting over fixated mindsets and discussing with an open mind with an intent to seek solutions were possible and accepting reality on other issues.
Both nations should initially seek to build trust by stopping offensive rhetoric and strictly adhering to the terms of the ceasefire. Simultaneously, should be backchannel discussions on subjects towards which a consensus can be reached, territorial claims being left for much later. These could include trade, health, economic, sports and use of Pak roads for connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Financial benefits to Pakistan from reaching an agreement on these issues could be substantial. Once consensus is close during backchannel discussions, these could be inked by respective leaders.
This could signal Indian willingness to attend the SAARC summit in Islamabad, which has been pending since 2016, when India backed away post the Uri terrorist strike. This would boost Pakistan’s global standing. There is a concern on whether the next Pak army chief would accept agreements endorsed by his predecessor, as each has his own perceptions. General Kayani rejected peace talks pushed by Musharraf as president and army chief. Hence, would the successor to General Bajwa, in all probability, the current ISI chief, General Faiz Hameed, a party to the current ceasefire, adhere to it. It is this guarantee which India would be seeking.
As time passes, multiple minor irritants once set aside, would doors open for discussion on major issues. Xi Jinping had stated on the India-China border dispute, that it should best be left to the next generation to resolve, mainly due to both nations possessing an unrelenting approach. Similarly, the border dispute between India and Pakistan should not be the first item on the agenda but the last. A resolution on other aspects of disagreement would enhance trust and bring the two nations closer.
There are no issues which cannot be resolved through dialogue. What is needed is determination by both nations as also accepting reality that apart from talks, there is no other solution.