Since the start of Narendra Modi’s second term, Pakistan-India relations seem to be stuck in a slow-moving downwards spiral – moving from one low-point to another with the possibility of a re-engagement a distant dream. However, over the past few weeks, there has been a hint of a thaw, that is fast turning into a trickle of conciliatory statements (mostly from the Pakistani side). Can we expect something concrete to emerge from this, or will this be yet another false dawn to be chalked up in the extensive list of failed re-engagements?
A steady trickle of statements
On February 24, quite unexpectedly, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Indian Ministry of Defence released a joint statement saying “The Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) of India and Pakistan held discussions over the established mechanism of hotline contact. The two sides reviewed the situation along Line of Control (LOC) and all other sectors in a free, frank and cordial atmosphere.” The statement added that a complete and immediate ceasefire on the LOC would be observed from midnight and that “both sides reiterated that existing, mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilized to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding.”
Analysts wondering what prompted this joint statement received their answer soon after. On February 26 the United States welcomed the joint statement saying its diplomats had “called on the parties to reduce tensions along the Line of Control by returning to that 2003 cease-fire agreement,” the spokesman for the United States Department of State Edward Ned Price revealed in a press conference.
On the Kashmir question, Price said: “We continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and other issues of concern” and that “we continue to follow developments in Jammu and Kashmir closely. Our policy has not changed. We welcome steps to return the union territory of Jammu and Kashmir to full economic and political normalcy.”
On March 17, unprompted, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that Pakistan is ready to provide India access to the Central Asian states if New Delhi agrees to give Kashmiri people the right to self-determination. He urged India to “take the first step”, as the current government in Pakistan took the initiative to improve ties with India, but the efforts were not reciprocated.
Soon after on March 18, Prime Minister’s Adviser on Commerce Abdul Razak Dawood said that he hoped that trade with India will resume soon. Addressing the National Security Dialogue in Islamabad, the PM’s aide said that the recent economic engagements with Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republic were a step towards regional stability via trade.
On the same day, in a not-so-implicit reference to India, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Javed Bajwa said Pakistan’s geostrategic location positions it to promote regional connectivity and operate as a trade and transit hub for the region, but without resolution of conflicts, the regional development will remain impossible. Throwing the ball in India’s court, Gen Bajwa said without the resolution of the Kashmir issue through “peaceful means,” the region will remain susceptible to tensions and conflicts. He added that it is up to India to take steps to make the regional atmosphere conducive for peace.
The highest positions in the executive, diplomatic economic, and military circles have repeated the same message: Trade, connectivity, and peace is possible if we solve the Kashmir issue, India must take the next step.
However, the message remains one-sided. The DGsMO meeting remains the only bilateral statement talking peace, since then India continues to maintain its belligerent stance.
Will this approach lead to cooperation?
Having watched such olive branches refused before, former diplomats remain cautious, tempering their hope with the reality of the current Indian political leadership.
Speaking to The Correspondent, Former Ambassador Ali Sarwar Naqvi said the army chief’s statement should be viewed in the context of a paradigm shift in Pakistan priorities from geo-political to geo-economic. However, he said despite the truce on the Line of Control and the possibility of restoration of limited bilateral trade, a major breakthrough in bilateral relations between two countries is not on the cards.
“Until and unless India does not restore the special status of Occupied Kashmir granted under Article 370, I don’t see any major improvement in the relations of two countries,” he added.
Former Ambassador Ali Sarwar Naqvi, speaking to The Correspondent, held a more optimistic view. He believes that the army chief offered India a way to sort out other outstanding issues such as withdrawal of forces of both countries from Siachen, resolution of water disputes in the Indus Water Treaty and Sir Creek as well.
“Once these issues will be settled talks on Kashmir can be more meaningful and focused,” he observed. He said special status to Kashmir by India holds no importance for us because we never consider it a part of India in the first place.