New Delhi: On Thursday, Indian Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane said the Line of Control (LoC) has been silent for a month, adding that this was a first in five to six years. This came exactly a week after Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa’s remarks that India and Pakistan should bury the past and move forward.
Earlier this month, India allowed a Pakistani equestrian team to participate in the International Tent-Pegging Federation World Cup qualifying match at Noida even as the 116th meeting of the India-Pakistan Indus Water Commission went through in a “cordial manner”.
Later this year, the Indian armed forces could participate in a multi-nation exercise to be hosted by Pakistan at its anti-terrorism centre in Pabbi in the Nowshera district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In recent weeks, there seem to have been some signs of easing tensions between India and Pakistan, which appeared to come on the edge of war after the February 2019 Pulwama attack and the ensuing Indian airstrikes on terrorist camps across the border.
However, experts see in this a “pattern” that has marked bilateral relations over the past seven decades. They say the recent overtures suggest India and Pakistan have realised that the lack of dialogue is proving to be costly for both sides, with the issue of terrorism continuing to loom large.
It is high time, they add, that both sides begin talking to start the larger rapprochement process, when issues like Kashmir and terrorism are taken up.
“There is a pattern in the India-Pakistan relationship. It’s been like this for the last more than 70 years. In my view, both governments will have to view how they will take the process forward,” said T.C.A. Raghavan, Director General, Indian Council of World Affairs, and former Indian envoy to Pakistan.
“Kashmir will remain on the agenda but there is always a difference between substance and optics. There are many issues to discuss with Pakistan in terms of what will be next steps and how the issue of terrorism will be handled,” he added.
Aparna Pande, Director for Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, said, India and Pakistan realise that holding a dialogue in a positive and conducive manner will benefit both but “there are reasons why that knowledge has not translated into a workable strategy for positive engagement. Those reasons will not disappear simply because of another ceasefire.”
“For those asking why the ceasefire and subsequent events happened right now, the answers lie more in domestic reasons than international. Pakistan is under considerable pressure. The civilian government is weak and not interested in foreign policy. As the institution that in effect has dictated Pakistan’s foreign and domestic politics, the Army feels there is too much pressure on the country and that there is a need to alleviate that pressure,” Pande added.
‘India, Pakistan moment has not yet arrived’
The first signs of a potential thaw in tensions between both sides came on 25 February, a day before the second anniversary of the Balakot airstrikes, when India and Pakistan issued a joint statement agreeing to the strict observance of the ceasefire along the borders. The statement followed talks between the two directors general of military operations (DGMOs), who agreed to “address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”.
“The ceasefire announcement and general easing of tensions were expected. Yes, it is true that relations were bad and tensions were extremely high in between 2016 and 2020 but it was incorrect to think that this will continue forever or that this was permanent,” added Raghavan.
According to Ayesha Siddiqa, a renowned Pakistani political and defence analyst and author of ‘Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, “This is not a paradigm shift. Tactically both countries needed a breather and this is that breather. This is not as if a moment has arrived in Indo-Pak ties.”
Siddiqa, who is also a research associate at SOAS University of London, stated that Pakistan, and especially Gen Bajwa, is now looking for a “some kind of a face-saver” and that is the reason why he did not mention scrapping of Article 370 when he spoke of burying the past.
“Bajwa also needs political support and the civilian government cannot always show that (Pakistan Prime Minister) Imran Khan is completely with the Army chief. Then there are economic compulsions. Economically, Pakistan is weak but it knows it can still survive. But both Pakistan, as well as India, know it is expensive to fight when you don’t have money.”
Agrees Pande, who believes this is simply the Pakistan Army seeking “temporary reprieve from Indian pressure on Pakistan’s border, and international pressure on the country’s economy”.
“There is no sign that the army has given up its strategic vision or view on India as an existential threat. India currently has a live border situation with China and would like at least one of the two borders to be cold,” added Pande.
Reports have also emerged that it was the UAE that may have brought these two countries closer, giving rise to questions about whether India will agree to third-party intervention, something it has been staunchly opposed to always.
“The UAE appears to have urged the two sides to ease their tensions, and India was receptive to that urging. But I can’t imagine New Delhi agreeing to a formal third-party role for the UAE, or any country. Both sides had their own reasons to agree to the ceasefire. So if you have a third party come in that coaxes them to ease tensions, that’s like pushing on a door that’s already slightly open,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington DC, told ThePrint.
He added, “Domestic factors in India and Pakistan were likely the main drivers. It’s very unlikely the ceasefire and detente were sparked by an external player. That wouldn’t make any sense. India has been more cautious and coy in its messaging than has Pakistan. India and Pakistan may well experience a thaw that allows for more cooperation in the realm of low hanging fruit-trade, public health, and so on.”
Siddiqa said the UAE is looking at “the US’ and India’s interests rather than Pakistan’s. They have to now act on their own interest and may not so much act for Pakistan.”
‘Heart of Asia’ conference
All eyes are now on a proposed meeting between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who are likely to have a pull-aside at the ‘Heart of Asia’ regional conference to be held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on 30 March.
Both sides are likely to upgrade their diplomatic ties, which had witnessed significant reduction after the Narendra Modi government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated the state into two union territories in 2019.
New Delhi may allow the SAARC Summit, which has been pending since 2016 following tensions between India and Pakistan over the Uri attack, to take place in Islamabad later this year. In such a scenario, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Islamabad to attend the meet.
ThePrint had earlier reported that the DGMO-level talks took place in the wake of a series of dialogues held between National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s aide on national security, Moeed Yusuf.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, a Pakistani media outlet reported that Yusuf may be appointed as the next High Commissioner of Pakistan to India. Yusuf, however, denied the report on Twitter.
According to Siddiqa, these are signs of “tensions” going on inside Pakistan’s top leadership and the forever tussle of power between the civilian government and military establishment.
(Edited by Neha Mahajan)