Late one winter morning five years ago, a polo-playing aristocrat arrived at an upmarket central London hotel, hoping to end the most savage matches he’d played. Former Inter-Services Intelligence deputy chief Major General Sahibzada Isfandiyar Pataudi had been hand-picked for the secret mission to meet with the man who had long served as India’s goalkeeper against Pakistani intelligence. Ethnic Tamil, but Punjabi-speaking, the General’s dour companion commanded the Research & Analysis Wing’s operations against jihadists in Pakistan.
Then-army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pataudi explained at the first of their three meetings, was committed to ending the ISI’s secret war across the Line of Control (LoC). To support his plans, he needed India’s help—in the form of concessions on Kashmir.
Earlier this week, Pakistani columnists Hamid Mir and Javed Chaudhry reported that the secret meetings of 2018 almost ended up changing the course of history. Following a pilgrimage to the Hinglaj Mata temple in April 2021, their accounts claim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to meet with former Prime Minister Imran Khan and announce a deal to freeze the status quo in Kashmir. The summit plan collapsed after Khan backed out of the deal, fearing political backlash.
There has been no response from either Islamabad or New Delhi to these dramatic revelations. There is plenty of reason, moreover, to be sceptical about the accounts, which rely largely on briefings conducted by General Bajwa himself.
Leaving aside the details, however, the reports underline the persistent pursuit of peace by leaders in both countries—and the reasons why negotiations have always failed on the cusp of ‘historic’ opportunities.
The secret Kashmir dialogue
Following his defeat in Kargil, military ruler General Pervez Musharraf escalated violence in Kashmir: India lost more soldiers in counter-insurgency in the years after the conflict than it did in the war. After the terrorist attack on Parliament House in 2001, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee threatened military retaliation—only, scholar Arzan Tarapore writes, to discover “the parlous state of Indian Army readiness”. Faced with the uncertain outcomes of full-scale war—and the risk of nuclear escalation—India backed down.
Even though he ought to have been exulted, General Musharraf changed course—agreeing to a ceasefire on the LoC in 2003 and authorising secret dialogue with Prime Minister Vajpayee and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Lieutenant-General Moinuddin Haider, who served as interior minister under General Musharraf, recorded that the decision was taken because incubating jihadism exposed the country to unacceptable economic costs.
In late 2007, Manmohan Singh’s secret envoy Satinder Lambah said that the two countries agreed on a four-point formula that froze the LoC as a border—but gave both sides of Kashmir a high level of autonomy. The agreement, however, collapsed after the 26/11 attacks.
The files on the secret dialogue were handed over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by his predecessor in the summer of 2014.
Even though tensions flared along the LoC that summer, efforts at peacebuilding soon resumed. Late in 2015, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval met his counterpart, Nasir Janjua, in Bangkok. The meeting was followed by a dramatic unannounced visit by PM Modi to Lahore to greet then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the occasion of his granddaughter’s wedding.
Like in 2008, however, this rapprochement came under attack: Terrorists attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot early in the new year, just days after PM Modi’s visit. Even though he sought to rescue the peace process—with Doval again meeting Janjua, this time secretly—escalating violence seemed to have snuffed out the prospect of peace.
The Bajwa peace bid
Efforts to resume the peace process seem to have begun in October 2018 when General Bajwa visited London—meeting with the United Kingdom’s then-Chief of Defence Staff General Nicholas Patrick Carter and National Security Advisor Mark Sedwill. General Bajwa had deep personal ties to the UK, which is home to his sister-in-law, Asma Bajwa, and brothers Tariq and Javaid Bajwa. London was also among the few world capitals willing to give Pakistan a sympathetic hearing.
Faced with a failing economy—and locked in a murderous confrontation with the Tehreek-e-Taliban jihadists—General Bajwa had come to the conclusion that he needed peace with India. The country had also come under growing international pressure, with the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placing it on a terror finance watchlist.
Like General Musharraf before him, the army chief responded to the pressure by beginning a secret dialogue. Encouraged by London, the ISI reached out to R&AW for a meeting. Few details have emerged on the dialogue that followed, but Kumar and Pataudi are believed to have discussed several proposals, including restoring the frayed ceasefire on the LoC.
This fledgling dialogue was derailed by the 2019 Pulwama terrorist attack. Trust in General Bajwa was among the casualties. New Delhi soon found itself pressured to give the army chief another chance, however. Following the air strike on Balakot, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Abu Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan called PM Modi and Imran. Al Nahyan, diplomat Ahmed Al-Banna later said, urged both leaders to “try to sort out the differences in a peaceful manner.”
Western capitals discreetly backed these calls. During a visit to London in June 2019, Bajwa urged the UK to facilitate a resumption of the secret dialogue. The General insisted he was unaware of the Pulwama attack plan and would prevent further strikes.
The Kashmir impasse
Early in February 2021, Doval secretly met with then-ISI chief Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed. Two factors shaped India’s decision to talk again. Even though politicians in Pakistan unleashed a polemical barrage against India following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, jihadist violence remained low. Islamabad did not exert military pressure on the LoC even as tensions between India and China spiked.
The Doval-Faiz dialogue prepared the ground for the reinstitution of the border ceasefire in 2021. Even though limited terrorist infiltration across the LoC has continued, levels of violence in Kashmir have diminished to the lowest levels since Prime Minister Modi took office. The data suggests General Bajwa has kept his word to muzzle jihadist groups—at least in significant measure.
Likely, New Delhi would have been delighted if Imran had agreed to accept the post-2019 status quo in Kashmir—but the Prime Minister wasn’t ready to bite. Last year, the UK’s high commissioner in Pakistan, Christian Turner, said in a closed-door meeting that General Bajwa was seeking the restoration of the scrapped Article 35A of India’s Constitution, which gave the state of Jammu and Kashmir the right to designate “permanent residents” entitled to purchase land.
General Bajwa argued that he needed these political concessions to push back against pressure to escalate in Kashmir from hawks in the establishment—among them, Imran.
For his part, Imran seemed to have feared the loss of political capital that might have come from appearing weak on Kashmir. Twenty-four hours after he approved sugar and cotton purchases from India, in his capacity as commerce minister, Prime Minister Imran shot down his own recommendation. And inside months of describing Modi as a good partner for peace, Imran was calling his government “Nazi-inspired”.
Even though the government has changed in Pakistan since then, the calculations in either capital have not. Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has made clear that the government will not talk Kashmir with Pakistan—a position that has wide support in the Cabinet.
Pakistan’s retreat on Kashmir, Indian officials argue, has come about because of its financial problems, the risk of international sanctions, and escalating military casualties in the country’s own wars against jihadists. Even though jihadist groups have been reined in, Indian officials note, they have not been dismantled—leaving Islamabad the tools with which to step up violence when it chooses.
Time, New Delhi believes, is on its side in Kashmir. History will decide if it has made the right call or missed an opportunity.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)