A fresh start?

Published March 25, 2021

EFFORTS are clearly afoot to de-escalate tensions in South Asia, with most of the action taking place behind the scenes, though some aspects of the nascent process are being highlighted for public consumption. The Pakistan Day message received by Prime Minister Imran Khan from his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi certainly comes under the heading of public diplomacy, designed to bring down the temperature in the region.

“India desires cordial relations with ... Pakistan,” said the Indian leader, adding that “for this, an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility, is imperative”. Indeed, after several years during which the traditionally tense relationship was going through a particularly low phase, cordiality will be difficult to achieve. Yet the first, careful steps have been taken, and if things proceed without any glitch tangible progress in the peace process is possible.

Read: There is hope for Pakistan-India peace process

Mr Modi’s message to Mr Khan is only the latest in a series of moves designed to cool temperatures. The first sign that things were changing for the better came in the shape of the LoC ceasefire announced last month by the two countries’ respective military commanders, which was followed up by statements from Mr Khan and the army chief calling for better relations with India. Pakistani experts were also in India earlier this week after a long gap to discuss the sharing of Indus waters. Relations had of course hit rock bottom after India unilaterally annulled held Kashmir’s special status in its constitution in 2019.

This was followed by unsavoury exchanges, while both states — again — came close to armed conflict after Indian jets violated Pakistani territory two years ago in Balakot. At this point, various theories are doing the rounds to explain the change in tack. Some say a Gulf state that enjoys good relations with both sides is playing peacemaker, while the Biden administration may also be sending certain signals to Islamabad and New Delhi behind the scenes. Regardless of the trigger, the change in tone and desire for peace from the respective capitals is a welcome development.

The need right now is to move forward with guarded optimism as hawks on both sides — who thrive on confrontation — may well try and derail matters. This has been witnessed several times in the past; both countries were tantalisingly close to making peace, only for the process to be abandoned due to spoilers. This time things should be different. The next opportunity for a high-level exchange will come in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe, where both states’ foreign ministers are due to attend the Heart of Asia meeting later this month. That meeting may point the way forward for the peace process. As a former Pakistani foreign minister and an Indian expert have written in this paper, if there is seriousness of purpose, everything standing in the way of peace — including Kashmir — can be resolved. This latest opportunity for peace must not be lost.

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2021

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