Talk Is Not Walking

There hasn’t been any statement from Delhi and Islamabad in the recent past that indicates some form of an engagement is ongoing between the neighbours, writes Riyaz Wani

A group photograph of top security officials from SCO members in Tajikistan. India and Pakistan NSAs Ajit Doval (second from left) and Moeed Yousuf (third from right) do not want to be seen closer.

Pakistan has reiterated that it would not normalize relations with India until it rescinded the withdrawal of Article 370 that granted Jammu and Kashmir its autonomous status under India’s constitution. Speaking in National Assembly on June 30, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan took a renewed hardline on the issue. There was no longer the talk of “a roadmap” on Kashmir that took care of Pakistan’s concerns before bilateral talks could begin.

India, as has been the case over the last several months has not responded to Pakistan’s demands or offered any assurances on this score. Nor has it officially rejected Pakistan’s demand.  New Delhi’s boilerplate statement, now used with a little subdued force, is for Pakistan to stop terrorism in Kashmir. Hardly anything else has been said beyond this. But there has been one redeeming difference: the anti-Pakistan rhetoric has drastically reduced in the country. Ditto on Pakistan’s side. Pakistan Prime Minister has all but stopped harping on the alleged Nazi-moorings of the RSS and the BJP.

If anything, this alone is an indication that something has been brewing between the two neighbours. Or one could say, was brewing before the current silence.  There hasn’t been any statement from either country recently that indicates some form of an engagement is ongoing between them. Instead, Islamabad, which has so far been most vocal about outreach to New Delhi, has also gone silent. And what is more, as Khan’s statement underlines, the country has returned to a harder line on Kashmir, calling for a reversal of the Article 370 move before the dialogue could begin.

India and Pakistan troops exchanging sweets on the day of Eid. This photograph shows the bilateral, engagement somewhere on Aman Setu in north Kashmir on May 13, 2021. Th two sides have revived the ceasefire and stick to it.

The Ceasefire

But after re-affirmation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement in February, the two neighbours have failed to build on the goodwill. No further measures followed, nor does it look likely there will be any in near future. New Delhi seems in no hurry to do this. If anything, this only goes on to show that India feels little need to relent. Nor does it want to push the current engagement with Islamabad beyond a point. The unmistakable signal to Pakistan is to temper its expectation about the extent to which India can accommodate it on Kashmir.  As always, India wants terrorism to be the central issue and wants Pakistan to stop supporting militancy in Kashmir. Pakistan doesn’t accept it backs terrorism.

Anyways, if last year’s figures for infiltration and the killings of foreign militants in Kashmir are anything to go by, Islamabad has held back from supporting the local militancy. New Delhi, it seems, is unlikely to reverse the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir autonomy. It remains to be seen whether it restores statehood anytime soon. A sustained, meaningful dialogue between the two countries has the potential to lead to a positive outcome. So, the neighbours should restore it sooner than later.


But as is apparent there are some reservations on both sides as for conducting an open dialogue goes. The reasons for it are both historical and recent. The relations between the two countries have plunged to their lowest low since New Delhi withdrew Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Until before the dramatic ceasefire agreement, it appeared unthinkable that the two countries could come anywhere near to the resumption of dialogue. But they have done it, even, for a while, moving a few baby steps further towards a formal dialogue.

This is the Kishen Ganga (Neelum) rivulet that acts as the Line of Control between the two halves of Kashmir. Image Mahmood Ahmad

Now, both countries are putting the onus on each other to take the first step towards resuming engagement. And what that step would be in practical terms is still unknown. From Pakistan’s point of view, it would seem, if India agrees to restore full statehood to Jammu and Kashmir and enacts a law that protects the demography of Kashmir and also restores land rights to citizens of the former state, this could pave the way for dialogue. As for New Delhi, it would be interested in a public engagement right now – its terror condition, notwithstanding – as that would help normalize the Article 370 move. But in Pakistan, it would be seen as a betrayal of its Kashmir cause and has the potential to alienate Kashmiris from the country. Bilateral dialogue is thus a non-starter for Pakistan until India offers some basic guarantees.

But if we go by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent meeting with Jammu and Kashmir leaders, New Delhi seems in no mood to even consider statehood anytime soon.  The sequence offered for the restoration of the statehood “at an appropriate time” is what has already been on New Delhi’s agenda for Kashmir. The enhancement of the Assembly seats, the Prime Minister’s statement issued soon after the meeting indicated, would be followed by holding of the elections within the union territory framework.  And though the statement does not say it, the statehood is hoped to be followed by the elections. And it is not clear whether this statehood would be full or a truncated one where the real power would vest with the governor.

So actually there is nothing concrete that has come out of this meeting. The centre has more or less stayed true to its ideological course on Kashmir and ironically wants now Kashmiri leaders to be its partners in this pursuit.

This gives little hope for a resumption of the India-Pakistan dialogue. That is unless New Delhi offers some basic guarantees on Kashmir and Pakistan assures continuing check on infiltration and withdrawal of support to local militancy. Both seem difficult propositions as of now.

Going Forward

But for durable peace in the region, the two countries have to find a way to get along. This requires statesmanship on both sides. And this will only be possible if there’s a willingness on the part of the neighbours to resolve their issues. But if nothing is done, the situation looks set to go further downhill from here on. That is possible if the leadership in the two countries does not step back and seek to put their relationship back on rails.

Repatriation being discussed on the Kaman Bridge in Uri in 2017.

In the recent past, there have been some very significant developments that reflect the changing geopolitics in South Asia. The war in Afghanistan is certainly the top priority for the neighbouring countries including the US. The US, as President Joe Biden has also affirmed, is on its way out of Afghanistan. This is likely to pave way for the Taliban to regain power in Kabul, a development of profound import for the region.

India-Pakistan detente assumes some significance in this context. A normal relationship between the neighbours would go a long way to usher in regional peace.  A sustained, meaningful dialogue between the two countries has the potential to lead to a positive outcome. So, the neighbours should restore it sooner than later.

Also, given the prevailing situation, it will be interesting to see whether the new US administration will play any role in improving the India-Pakistan ties. Things, however, will be clear in the weeks and months ahead.  For now, the situation is fluid and it could either way. As for India, Pakistan relations much would depend on how New Delhi deals with Kashmir and whether the BJP government at the centre pursues its ideological agenda on the former state unhindered or seeks to restrain it as a concession to Pakistan.


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