From New Delhi to Islamabad and Kabul this week, new beginnings are being attempted to bring about regional stability in the subcontinent. On the face of it, some of these overtures seem like independent developments, but look a bit closer, and the unseen connections between them will soon appear.
First, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invited key political leaders from Jammu and Kashmir for a meeting on 24 June in Delhi to launch a delimitation process that could become the first step towards initiating a new political process in the erstwhile state.
Second, the talks between Delhi and the Jammu and Kashmir leadership are bound to have an impact on the ongoing but fitful back-channel negotiations between India and Pakistan, led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Moeed Yusuf as well as key leaders of the Pakistan’s military establishment. Doval and Yusuf are participating in a conference on the future of Afghanistan in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on 23 June, one day before Modi’s Kashmir talks in Delhi – they will be in the same room.
And later this week, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the key peace and reconciliation leader Abdullah Abdullah are flying to Washington DC for talks with the US on how the country can best deal with the Taliban that has taken at least 27 out of 38 districts since NATO troops began to pull out on 1 May.
The triangular connection
So what does the Taliban, you may ask, have to do with talks between Jammu and Kashmir’s political leaders and PM Modi? The answer lies in the complex, triangular connections between Afghanistan, Pakistan and India which bleed into each other at different moments.
Tying all these threads together today is the long arm of the US, which is hoping that a modicum of regional stability will allow a peaceful exit for US and NATO troops from Afghanistan and kickstart a process in which each side believes it can gain something from the ensuing peace.
First, Kashmir. The meeting between Modi and the Kashmiri leaders is taking place in the wake of three important political developments in the Valley this past weekend. First, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) leader and former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti’s key aide Naeem Akhtar was released from house arrest on Sunday; he had been placed under house arrest on 10 June, after being held for five months in preventive detention. Second, Mehbooba’s uncle, Sartaj Madani, was released from preventive detention on Saturday, in which he had been held since December 2020, one day ahead of the counting of the District Development Council election. And third, Waheed Para, the young and charismatic PDP leader, charged under the UAPA, was taken to Kot Bhalwal jail in Jammu on Friday – only to be brought back to Srinagar jail on Sunday evening; he may get bail later this month.
Clearly, these three moves on the Centre’s part are aimed at getting Mehbooba Mufti to the PM’s talks table; the Centre knows that if Mufti doesn’t show up, it could affect the credibility of the meeting.
Second, a Doval-Yusuf encounter in Dushanbe, even if it is informal, is expected to tie into the several back-channel talks that have been going on for some time with Pakistan’s military establishment. Pakistan is also believed to have toned down its own demands to resume a normal relationship with India, even reportedly dropping its insistence on the restoration of Article 370, which it knows could be a deal-breaker.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Tolo News, Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said that India’s presence in Afghanistan is perhaps “larger than it ought to be,” especially since Delhi and Kabul don’t share a border.
Qureshi’s complaint is not new; Pakistan’s refusal to allow overland trade between India and Afghanistan is linked to its unhappiness over the expanding Indian influence in Kabul.
But as the US leaves Afghanistan after 20 long years, it knows that Pakistan holds many cards. Not only has it used its special influence with the Taliban to ensure that Taliban leaders cut a deal with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, it has helped Taliban with the material resources it needs to expand its territorial influence in Afghanistan.
The US push
The US also wants India and Pakistan to reach a political understanding between themselves, including on Kashmir. It doesn’t want India-Pakistan tensions to inflame Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions, which could have an impact on its own presence in Afghanistan.
Today, it is an open secret that the Joe Biden administration quietly pushed the Modi government to not just restore mobile communications and 4G to Jammu and Kashmir in early February, but also nudged Delhi and Islamabad to restart a dialogue that resulted in both sides recommitting themselves to the 2013 agreement to keep the Line of Control quiet. Since 25 February, both infiltrations as well as firings are substantially down.
Talks between Jammu and Kashmir’s political leadership and the PM in Delhi this week, it is more than likely, are being nudged along by the US.
Modi also realises that the Centre hasn’t been able to break mainstream parties like the National Conference or the PDP or others in the Gupkar Alliance in the post-2019 upheaval; Apni Party, with former PDP leader Altaf Bukhari at its head and widely believed to have the blessings of the BJP, has hardly set the Jhelum on fire.
Can the 24 June talks in Delhi push all sides to begin talking about restoration of statehood in Jammu and Kashmir? If so, it is bound to go a long way in putting ballast into the India-Pakistani back-channel.
A new momentum to stability in the subcontinent is certainly in the offing. Next month, India and Pakistan will mark the 20th anniversary of their failed Agra talks. If the past is any guide to the future, both sides must look at why it has taken them so long to get here.
The author is a consulting editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)