he recent peace overtures between Pakistan and India have caught hawks and doves on both sides by surprise. Since 2016 when India claimed to have carried out “surgical” strikes against Pakistani border posts “harbouring terrorists” across the Line of Control, the Indians had heated up the LoC in a very aggressive manner. In early 2019 they upped the ante by launching “air strikes” against alleged “terrorist camps” in Balakot, AJK. After Pakistan hit back by downing two Indian jets and capturing an Indian pilot, both sides backed off from further physical aggression. However, India renewed its aggressive designs last August when the BJP government announced the abrogation of Constitutional Article 370 and annexed Jammu & Kashmir. This provoked Imran Khan to launch a blistering personal attack on Narendra Modi, calling him a fascist and racist. BJP leaders retaliated by threatening to attack and “liberate” AJK, all the time arming, training and funding anti-Pakistan Baloch secessionists and Tehrik-e-Taliban terrorists to bomb targets in Balochistan and FATA. Both sides withdrew their respective High Commissioners and ruptured all links, including trade and people-to-people contacts. Then, while analysts were worrying themselves sick thinking of an impending war between the two countries, it was suddenly announced last month that the two military leaderships had signed a ceasefire agreement on the LoC to renew the last one in 2003. Some serious head scratching followed. Why and how did this come about? What or who was the secret back-channel that clinched it? Which country benefited most from it? Was this a one-off development? No one paid any attention to a passing hint from Moeed Yusuf, the Pakistani NSA, to the Indian journalist Karan Thapar in October last year, that Pakistan had received some “messages” from India, suggesting a desire for a “conversation”. The Indian Foreign Office immediately denied any such messages had been sent.
But movement was definitely afoot. Last month, on February 3rd, speaking at the Pak Air Force Academy, the Pakistani army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, broached the subject of regional peace. “It is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions”, he said, “Pakistan and India must resolve the long-standing issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner in line with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people and bring this human tragedy to its logical conclusion”. To this overture, India responded by a routine statement that for such talks to begin Pakistan must first end “cross border terrorism”. Undaunted, on March 24, General Bajwa went further. “We feel it is time to bury the past and move forward,” he said, adding that the onus for meaningful dialogue rested with India. “Our neighbour will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in occupied Kashmir… we are ready to improve our environment by resolving all our outstanding issues with our neighbours through dialogue in a dignified and peaceful manner”. A day later, India responded via a letter from Narendra Modi to Imran Khan facilitating Pakistan’s National Day!
Suddenly, the media in both countries is rife with expectations of an “Indo-Pak spring” in the offing. Speculation is focused on a forthcoming meeting between the two Foreign Ministers in Dushanbe; on the revival of trade, sporting and people-to-people links; on the selection and return of High Commissioners; on holding the SAARC Summit in Islamabad, and so on. It is now revealed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia played a key role in facilitating back-channel diplomacy to break the ice. Analysts are also jumping in with reasons explaining the compulsions on both sides to walk the talk of “peace”.
Mr Modi is not in a particularly happy situation at home and abroad. Kashmir remains a bloody sore with unprecedented human rights abuse that has seriously dented India’s soft power in the international arena – the EU recently threatened trade sanctions if such abuse continues – no less than violent majoritarian Hinduism that has suffocated liberal secularism and gagged media freedoms. The militant and continuing farmers protest follows widespread outrage at the CAA anti-citizens, anti-Muslim bills. India’s bruising at the hands of China up in the LAC in the Ladakh corridor in recent months hasn’t done its hard power much good either. The surging Covid-19 casualties, lockdowns and resultant joblessness have laid vast populations low. Economic recovery is still far away. An unwinnable war with Pakistan, under the circumstances, has lost its tactical appeal. Prodding by the US to patch up with Pakistan and concentrate on the common QUAD strategy to contain China must also have played an important role.
On the Pakistani side, General Bajwa now seems to think that without “putting our own house in order first”, there isn’t much to gain by beating the war drums against the old arch-enemy. How he intends to do that has escaped even his hard core supporters, forget the hounded political opposition in the country that has now embarked on a plan to erode his credibility and destabilise the PTI government that the Miltablishment is propping up. Indeed, what is even more surprising is the Miltablishment’s readiness to abandon any pre-conditions for a dialogue with India. There was no such mention in General Bajwa’s plea for improving the environment for peace. Certainly, there was no reference to what National Security hawks in Islamabad have been telling journalists constantly: that there can be no dialogue with India until Article 370 is restored, political prisoners in J&K are released, Kashmiris are made a party to any talks, restrictions in the region are ended, the domicile law that allows non-Kashmiris to settle in the region is rescinded and human rights abuses are brought to an end.
No one can criticize any movement for peace between India and Pakistan. No one can deny the pure relief and joy of living in a “normal” neighbourhood. The harsh truth, however, is that, notwithstanding such tactical moves, both the Pakistani and the Indian Establishments have not demonstrated any evidence at all of changing their strategic spots or putting their houses in order.