he Indian media has been awash with stories of “backchannel” contacts, mediated by UAE/Saudi Arabia, between India and Pakistan for some sort of “normalisation” of bilateral relations. These turned sour in August 2019 following the BJP government’s abrogation of Article 370 about Kashmir’s autonomous status. But both governments are mum. Some tentative speculation of the “normalization” thesis – return of High Commissioners, resumption of trade, restoration of visa facilities, possibly even a dialogue on outstanding “core” issues – has now started in the Pakistani media too because of a series of events in the last week or two. How credible or realistic is this conclusion?
We can be sure that some prolonged backchannel negotiations between military officials led to the sudden announcement on February 25 of a strategic ceasefire on the LOC. This was just two days ahead of the second anniversary of India’s aggressive “strikes” in the Balakot region of Azad Kashmir followed by Pakistani retaliation exacting a high price from India. Indeed, recent months have witnessed some of the worst shelling and greatest casualties along the LOC. But beyond that, what?
A series of events has fueled talk of “normalization”. Last month, the National Security Division of the GoP provided a platform to COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa, to make a “paradigm change” statement on national security issues, especially relating to India. “We feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” said Gen Bajwa, “but for resumption of (sic) peace process or meaningful dialogue, our neighbour will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Indian Occupied Kashmir”. Bury the past, meaning forget about the “unfinished business of Partition” and the core issue of Kashmir? Conducive environment in IOK, meaning restoration of Article 370 or withdrawal of the Indian military from IOK, or end to human rights violations, or what?
Last week, even before any answers were forthcoming on the meaning of this weighty statement, the PMs of India and Pakistan – who had been bad mouthing each other constantly – were suddenly exchanging letters of good wishes. The Pakistan government then announced that it was ready to import sugar and cotton from India, a signal that was widely interpreted to herald resumption of trade and revival of diplomatic and people-to-people ties. That’s when the old hawks in Pakistan woke up and sent the PTI government scurrying for cover.
Since it was Pakistan that ruptured all relations with India after the abrogation of Article 370 by the BJP and it was Pakistan that had constantly thundered “no normalization” until Article 370 was restored, what was the import and substance of these steps for “normalization”, especially since there was no possibility of any restoration of Article 370? Unable to clarify, the government quickly U-turned on its decision to import cotton, scapegoating a wretched minister who was simply following the PM’s orders, and reiterated its policy of no “normalization” until Article 370 was restored. Meanwhile, the Pakistani civil-military officials who negotiated the ceasefire on the LOC and formulated or backed the army chief’s paradigm-changing statement remained silent, both when the government decided to import cotton and sugar and when it U-turned.
For some answers, we should go back to August 6, 2019, when the corps commanders met under the army chief to formulate Pakistan’s response to the revocation of Article 370 by India. The ISPR noted that “Pakistan never recognised the sham Indian efforts to legalise its occupation of Jammu & Kashmir through article 370 or 35-A decades ago, efforts which have now been revoked by India itself… We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfil our obligations [to the Kashmiri people].” In other words, India’s action had no significant bearing on our stand based on the legality of the UN Resolutions and our perception of the core dispute and its settlement. This was a brilliant and wise formulation, protesting the action without closing the door for continued dialogue on disputes with India. But, in a bid for cheap popularity, PM Imran Khan quickly upped the ante by cutting all diplomatic and trade links with India, taking personal pot shots at “fascist” Narendra Modi and boxing himself in by demanding the restoration of Article 370 as a pre-condition for “normalcy”. Now comes the realization that this condition isn’t going to be fulfilled even as the pressure to end hostilities and “normalize” – as articulated by General Bajwa in his quest for regional peace – grows by the day. So the PM succumbed to another pressure – allow cotton imports to facilitate value-added exports to redress balance of payments problems and sugar imports to bring down prices and relieve the distress of the people during Ramzan – and gave a green light to Hammad Azhar. Unfortunately, however, since he hadn’t coordinated and taken all civil-military stakeholders on board, including the hawks in his cabinet and media supporters outside, all hell broke loose and he was forced to make a U-Turn.
The Indian national security establishment, meanwhile, is flummoxed by the speed at which the “normalization” speculation is moving ahead of any backchannel agreement to this effect and is therefore silent, even though it would like nothing more than for Pakistan to climb down on its earlier decisions. It is certainly not thinking of making any quick or significant concessions in Kashmir for the Kashmiris – let alone on Kashmir for Pakistan – to ease Pakistan’s dilemma.
The military conflict on the LOC and LAC was hurting India, Pakistan and China. The national security establishments of the three countries have jointly negotiated stability on their borders without abandoning their positions on territorial or core disputes. But only Pakistan’s government has boxed itself in by insisting on pre-conditions for “normalization”.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s “strategic reset” requires strong and popular civilian shoulders to bear the burden of “burying the past”. Both the PPP and PMLN in turns have tried to accomplish as much but were thwarted by the general’s predecessors. Since Imran Khan is neither popular nor capable of carrying the ball to the goal post, General Bajwa might be advised to change horses for courses.