India-Pakistan relationship signals seriousness, but optimism needs to be tempered with abundant caution

March 30, 2021 at 2:02 PM

The ceasefire that was agreed upon, seemingly out of the blue, by the Indian and Pakistani armies last month has been backed up by a quick succession of events that collectively convey the distinct impression that both countries are serious about trying to bury the hatchet and give peace a chance this time around. There is no guarantee that these efforts will eventually deliver the results they seem to aspire to, and any and all skeptics would be fully justified in believing simply on the basis of historical evidence that not much will come out of these labors. That notwithstanding, any move towards rapprochement that the two bickering neighbours initiate cannot but be welcomed, not only because of the rarity of their occurrence but also for the huge beneficial impact that their success, even partial, would have for hundreds of millions of people in the two countries as well as the wider South Asian region.

The planning and thought that seems to have gone into the current initiative renders it even more enticing to follow and observe for any votary of peace and prosperity in South Asia. The conscious attempt by Pakistan to put across while initiating the process that the civilian administration and the military establishment were on the same page and the decision of the Indian government to keep Pakistan out of the verbal exchanges in the four Indian states where  campaigning for forthcoming elections is currently underway signal intent and earnestness. The two countries have also refrained from making any big announcements at this stage, as that would unnecessarily raise expectations and complicate matters. They have wisely preferred instead to start with a series of small steps that together could set the stage for bolder measures towards a lasting peace.

Inaugurating the first-ever Islamabad Security Dialogue (ISD), a conference aimed at defining Pakistan’s new strategic direction, Prime Minister Imran Khan opined on 17 March that economic prosperity was only possible in a peaceful regional neighborhood. He said, “We would not take full advantage of our geostrategic location until we have regional peace and our trade relations with our neighbors restored”. Expressing a desire to improve ties with India, he added, “We are trying, but India would have to take the first step and unless it does that we cannot move ahead”. Khan did not specify what he wanted India to do.

Addressing the same conference the following day, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa presented a more detailed outline of what Pakistan had in mind while seeking peace and normalcy with India. Stressing that it was time for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward”, Bajwa echoed Imran Khan in suggesting that the burden was on India to create a “conducive environment”. Bajwa pointed out that lasting peace in the sub-continent will remain elusive until the resolution of the Kashmir issue. While asserting that “We had realised that unless our own house was in order, nothing could be expected from the outside”, Bajwa added that Pakistan was “ready to improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbours through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner”.

Bajwa also noted that stable India – Pakistan relations were the key to unlocking the potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia, and that unsettled issues in South Asia are dragging the entire region back into poverty and underdevelopment. He lamented that “It is sad to know that even today it (South Asia) is amongst the least integrated regions of the world in terms of trade, infrastructure, water and energy cooperation. On top of it, despite being impoverished, we end up spending a lot of our money on defense, which naturally comes at the expense of human development”.

Bajwa, significantly, emphasized that “It is time that we in South Asia create synergy through connectivity, peaceful co-existence and resource sharing to fight hunger, illiteracy and disease instead of fighting each other”. He averred that the geo-economic region was centered on four main pillars: moving towards lasting and enduring peace within and outside, non-interference of any kind in the affairs of neighbouring and regional countries, boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity, and bringing sustainable development and prosperity through establishment of investment and economic hubs. He concluded that “We have learned from the past and are willing to move ahead towards a new future. However, this is contingent on reciprocity”.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a 23 March letter to his Pakistani counterpart for the occasion of Pakistan Day, reciprocated the outreach of the Pakistani officials by asserting that “As a neighboring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan”. Modi also underlined India’s primary concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan when he added that “For this, an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility, is imperative”. Modi’s letter drew positive reactions from Pakistan, with Asad Umar, the Federal Minister for Planning, Development, Reforms and Special Initiatives, describing it as a “message of goodwill”. Prior to writing this letter, Modi had also wished Imran Khan a speedy recovery from COVID-19 after he was diagnosed last week, sidestepping previous hostility between the two leaders.

These encouraging exchanges at the highest levels of both sides were closely followed by a string of events and proposals that pointed to a broader peace process being in play. They also suggested that behind-the-scenes negotiators had been burning the midnight oil for quite some time in meticulously planning the roadmap for engagement. The Permanent Indus Commission that was set up in 1960 to allocate and monitor water rights from the Indus River and its tributaries that flow from India into Pakistan held its first meeting in 3 years on 23-24 March in New Delhi. Under the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty which was brokered by the World Bank, the two commissioners are required to meet at least once a year, alternately in India and Pakistan. The last meeting of the permanent Indus commission was held in Lahore in August 2018.

At this week’s meeting, although the Pakistani delegation raised objections to the Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai hydropower projects being constructed by India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the Indian team reassured them that both projects were in compliance with the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty and pledged to provide documentation to establish this. Importantly, the joint statement issued after the meeting emphasized the “cordial” atmosphere in which it was held and informed that India’s Indus water commissioner Pradeep Kumar Saxena and his Pakistani counterpart Mehr Ali Shah had “reaffirmed their commitment to interact more frequently in an attempt to resolve the issues by bilateral discussions under the Treaty”.

India, indignant and exasperated at Pakistan’s reluctance to rein in its terror proxies, had for the past two years studiously avoided any bilateral engagement with Pakistan. Therefore, reports over the last week that have claimed that India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi will most likely meet bilaterally on the sidelines of the Heart of Asia conference in Dushanbe are significant. With issues as important as reinstating their respective envoys in New Delhi and Islamabad and resuming bilateral trade, both of which were casualties to the heightened tensions of 2019, remaining to be resolved, the two ministers will have their work cut out.

Judging from what India’s Commerce Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told the Indian parliament this week, the prospects for resumption of bilateral trade seem to have gotten brighter. Responding to a question on whether bilateral trade was likely to resume after the ceasefire agreement was reached between the two countries, Puri said emphatically that “India desires normal relations, including on trade with all countries, including Pakistan. Pakistan unilaterally suspended bilateral trade with India in August 2019. It is for Pakistan to review its unilateral measures on trade”. A 2018 World Bank study estimated the trade potential between India and Pakistan at $37 billion, but the actual trade figures last year were just a pittance.

In what could mark a major scaling up of faith and intent, media reports have indicated that India is considering participating in a multi-nation exercise under the aegis of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to be hosted by Pakistan later this year at its premier anti-terrorism centre in Pabbi in Nowshera district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. If this does happen, it will be the first time ever that Indian forces will travel to Pakistan for any military exercise, and that will signify a thaw of another level altogether.

Add to these the eagerly awaited resumption of bilateral cricketing ties that is likely to occur this year, and the impression of a relationship that has turned the corner and is marching towards normalcy comes across. Yet there is a stronger case for prudence than there is for unabashed optimism. India and Pakistan have been at similar junctures before when hope was built up only to be belied in due course. The inherent reasons why earlier efforts turned out to be in vain persist even today, and circumventing them will be no mean task for either side. Primary among these reasons is the trust deficit that engulfs the entire bilateral relationship, and India’s grudge that Pakistan has stabbed it in the back every time it has made sincere overtures for peace in the past is not unjustified.

While most other differences between the two countries may not become intractable stumbling blocks, from India’s perspective terrorism will remain front and center in any dialogue with Pakistan, whose establishment will have to irrefutably dismantle its jihadi infrastructure and punish groups and individuals responsible for terrorist attacks targeting India, especially in J&K. Pakistan will have to abide by its existing commitments under the 2004 joint statement to “not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner”. Whether the Pakistani military establishment is willing and able to ensure this will have a direct bearing on whether there actually was any point in starting the peace process in the first place.

The vexed issue of J&K will be another difficult hurdle to scale. At its core, the animosity that Pakistan harbours towards India is over J&K. While India would be open to discussing J&K with Pakistan, it is unlikely to yield to Pakistani demands regarding the region simply because it holds the legal title to J&K, which Pakistan does not. From Pakistan’s point of view, unless it is open to taking the huge risk of disregarding the strong emotions on J&K that its government and military establishment have themselves drilled into the psyche of Pakistanis, it would find it very difficult to dilute its positions on the issue. While alternate options such as the 2007 draft framework agreement that was almost agreed upon by then Indian PM Manmohan Singh and the Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf could provide templates that could be built upon, that would perforce require sincerity, dexterity, commitment and courage, at the very least.

The 2007 draft framework agreement may, indeed, be a good starting point for discussions on J&K as it envisaged substantial demilitarization of all parts of the former princely State, and it sought to ensure that people of J&K had the rights, freedoms and self-governance necessary for a sustainable solution. Above all, along with the requirements of Pakistan and India, the 2007 draft framework agreement took into broad consideration the wishes and aspirations of the people of J&K. If any meaningful agreement and lasting peace is to be achieved by the ongoing process, it too must give due cognizance to the wishes and aspirations of all stakeholders, including the people of J&K, who must feel included and secure.

The path that the leaders of India and Pakistan seem to have embarked upon is ambitious and fraught, and for the sake of the people of the two countries and the wider South Asian region the peace process deserves the full support of all concerned.