Why Shehbaz Sharif offers talks with India without pre-conditions on reinstating Article 370 First Post 09 Aug 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar

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Why Shehbaz Sharif offers talks with India without pre-conditions on reinstating Article 370 First Post 09 Aug 2023

          On 05 Aug this year, Pakistan marked the fourth anniversary of abrogation of Article 370 as Youm-e-Istehsal (Day of Exploitation), with messages of support to the Kashmiri cause coming from the President, PM, foreign minister and its army media cell. They even held a few fake rallies in Islamabad and across POK, criticizing India and demanding a rollback of Article 370. Pak PM, Shehbaz Sharif tweeted, ‘Pakistan vows to continue extending its unwavering diplomatic, moral and political support to Kashmiris in their just struggle. We call upon India to reverse its post-August 5 actions.’ Meanwhile, in Kashmir, life was normal with no shut downs or protests. Political leaders were placed under house arrest and their offices closed to prevent instigation of violence.

A few days prior, speaking in Islamabad, Shehbaz Sharif mentioned, ‘(Pakistan is) prepared to talk to them (India), provided that the neighbour (India) is serious to talk (on) serious matters… because war is no more an option.’ He added, ‘It is equally important that our neighbour understands that we cannot become normal neighbours unless abnormalities are removed.’ There was no mention of reversing article 370 as a pre-condition in this offer. This is the second time that Shehbaz has offered talks in a similar fashion this year. The first was during an interview to Dubai based news channel, Al Arabiya, in Jan.

          The Indian spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, responded, ‘an environment free of terror and hostility is imperative’ for any engagement. India’s consistent stand on Pakistan has been that ‘talks and terrorism’ cannot go hand in hand. Shehbaz and Bilawal Bhutto, in different sessions of the recently concluded SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) summit, accused India of ‘weaponizing terrorism for diplomatic point scoring.’ India has raised cross-border terrorism in every global forum and bilateral meet.

          Post the Indian response, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, as also the former president of Azad Kashmir, Masood Khan, said, ‘There should be some resonance of reciprocity from New Delhi as well. It takes two to tango. It can’t be a monologue. It needs to be a dialogue.’ He also alluded that Pakistan’s offer has US backing, referring to comments by Matthew Miller.

          In his media briefing, the US Department of State spokesperson, Matthew Miller, was asked for US views on Shehbaz’s proposal for talks. He responded, ‘we support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on issues of concern. That has long been our position.’ This was construed by Pakistan that the US backs talks, whereas, the US had only clarified that all Indo-Pak issues are bilateral and it will not interfere.

          The LOC remains silent since the ceasefire agreement of Feb 2021. Infiltration attempts continue, though at reduced levels. Nityanand Rai, the Union Minister of State for Home, announced in Parliament, that there has been no successful infiltration into J and K till June end this year.  

However, Pakistan’s attempts at narco-terrorism are proving successful. Drug addiction cases continue to rise in J and K, parliamentary figures mention 13.5 Lakhs, while numbers joining militancy, reduce. Reports state that only 7 youth joined militant ranks this year, of which 5 have already been eliminated. The government’s counter-radicalization strategy is proving successful.

In desperation, Pakistan is attempting to resurrect the Khalistan bogey. It is trying to destabilize Punjab, while J and K stabilizes. Its drones have been dropping drugs and small arms in Punjab, while it backs the movement across the world. For India this is another red line.      

          Pakistan’s current government’s tenure concludes this week and a caretaker PM will assume charge. The caretaker PM is only responsible for supervising elections, with no powers for global negotiations. India is also moving into the election mode with elections scheduled early next year. Thus, there is no room for talks till new governments emerge in both capitals.  

In such a scenario, why did Shehbaz raise the subject? One view is that it could be an election gimmick, implying that the ruling Pak dispensation will seek votes on the promise to resolve Kashmir with India. A second view is that he is setting policy for the next Pak government. It could also be intended that deteriorated Indo-Pak relations will be exploited by the Indian opposition by accusing the BJP of failing to improve Indo-Pak ties. Statements of the Delhi leadership being responsible for the Pulwama attack continue making rounds.  

          It is also likely that the Pak army is behind the talks offer mainly due to Pakistan’s failing economic and security scenario. Currently, despite an IMF bailout, Pakistan is caught in a vicious cycle of borrowing to repay loans falling due. It has placed its national assets, including air and sea ports, on the market, to raise funds. The scenario is unlikely to change in the near to mid-term.

          Pakistan’s security scenario is also deteriorating. The TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan) and Baloch freedom fighters alongside the ISKP (Islamic State–Khorasan Province) are active in Pakistan’s western provinces. Daily attacks on Pak posts as also suicide bombings are threatening Pakistan’s integrity.  

The army is unable to bring the situation under control, mainly because of support provided by Afghanistan’s Taliban led government. The Taliban are also refusing to accept the Durand Line. In reality, it is Pakistan which is facing a two and a half front threat. Hence, Pakistan would prefer peace with India, while it concentrates on its western borders.

          Finally, is accepting realities of changing global dynamics. Pakistan is no longer a frontline state. It is viewed suspiciously by the west as it remains a close Chinese ally. It cannot dump China as Beijing holds most of its loans. Simultaneously, the west needs India to challenge China and hence would gladly dump Pak. Pakistan’s frustration was evident when Hina Rabbani, their deputy foreign minister stated, ‘India has decided to be the darling of the West, but at the same time, it is very belligerent to countries within its region.’  

          Currently, India is the global rising star. Every nation seeks collaboration and cooperation with India. India’s economy is ten times that of Pakistan, with 28 states/Union Territories richer than Pakistan. The best way to keep Pak on the leash is to ignore it, while continuously threatening to regain POK and Gilgit Baltistan by military means. This is exactly what the defence minister and his colleagues have been doing in the recent past. Hence, India can ignore Pak, while Islamabad cannot ignore New Delhi.    

          Shehbaz not mentioning reinstatement of article 370 in his offer is a change in approach though he raised it subsequently in his Youm-e-Istehsal address. Thus far, Pak had insisted that talks can only be held once the article is reinstated.

If Shehbaz was serious in his offer, then he should have announced recommencing trade with India as also proposed re-appointing High Commissioners. The Pakistan leadership only suggesting but not addressing Indian concerns implies it is waiting for India to blink first, which India will not do. If Pakistan is serious, it must display sincerity in its actions, not just in words. Till then, India will wait and watch.