Shifting sands

Published February 5, 2023
The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.
The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

TRAVELLING abroad often offers an opportunity to interact with influencers of public opinion in India, many of whom tend to believe that India’s attention has generally shifted away from Pakistan and towards its larger concerns viz Indo-Pacific strategy, relations with China, and the goal of making India a $5 trillion economy. Pakistan, they say, is not on the radar of Indian public consciousness as it once was.

Given its growing global and regional profile and economic weight, it appears that India’s appetite for dialogue with Pakistan has reduced. The impression in Pakistan, on the other hand, is that the pursuit of Hindutva-driven objectives of the BJP government are shrinking space not just for Indian minorities, especially Muslims, but also for ties with Pakistan.

Many do agree in principle, however, that a prolonged communication gap with Pakistan will not be cost-free for India, and that for the latter’s long-term prosperity, there is a need to engage with its western neighbour. Ideally, India would not want its growing profile to be undermined by a turbulent neighbourhood, and should, therefore, normalise ties with all its neighbours. Pakistan, too, would benefit from a peaceful neighbourhood as that would give it space to put its economic house in order. In the evolving global geopolitics, South Asia must not become a ground for camp politics. Instead, India and Pakistan would be better off focusing on the region itself. By working on peace constituencies such as connectivity, trade and people-to-people contacts, the two countries would not only help overcome mutual mistrust but also make South Asia a bastion of peace and development.

South Asia must not become a ground for camp politics.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan-India relationship is completely at a standstill; the two countries are not engaging at any level. Even the recent peace initiatives that Pakistan took elicited little reciprocity from India: the Kartarpur Corridor; responsible conduct after the Indian strike on Balakot; the voluntary release of the captured Indian pilot as a peace gesture; and a restrained response to the landing of India’s BrahMos missile in Pakistan. The only initiative where the Indian side was keen to engage with Pak­istan was in the context of maintaining a ceasefire along the Line of Control. Some reports indicate backchannel contacts but no tangible outcome has emerged.

The two core issues dominating the discourse between India and Pakistan are the Kashmir dispute and terrorism. On fighting terrorism, much of India’s concerns have already been addressed as Pakistan has achieved notable success in apprehending militants and terrorists. In fact, the shoe is now on the other foot, as Pakistan is discovering fingerprints from across the border on many of the recent terrorist incidents in this country. Nevertheless, this is one issue on which both countries should engage, as terrorism is a common enemy.

On Jammu & Kashmir, the positions of both sides seem to have hardened. Pakistanis are convinced of the political, moral and legal righteousness of their stance that the people of J&K ought to be given their right to self-determination. Indians insist that J&K is an integral part of India. The situation on the ground is that the freedom movement continues, and India is obliged to keep a large number of security forces in the held Valley.

The events of August 2019 have complicated matters. Pakistan believes that making J&K Union territories was a breach of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions which do not permit changing the status of the disputed territories. India, however, maintains that these were internal administrative measures and that Pakis­tan has also made administrative chan­ges in the territories under its control. The larger concern for Pakistan is that effo­rts are afoot to chan­­ge the demography of occupied Kashmir through new domicile rules and opening of voter lists to non-Kashmiri residents.

Clearly, some out-of-the-box thinking is required to break the logjam and find a solution acceptable to both countries. One possibility that could have traction on both sides is to revisit the four-point formula that was successfully negotiated in 2007 but could not be agreed on formally. That formula envisaged self-governance for the two units comprising areas controlled by India and Pakistan, gradual demilitarisation, joint mechanism on matters of interdependence, and review of the arrangements subsequently. The formula has potential for further negotiation and improvement. However, revisiting it can only be done when both countries engage in dialogue or take it up in the backchannel. This could happen after elections in Pakistan this year and India next year — provided the newly elected governments muster enough political will to move in that direction.

The writer is a former foreign secretary and author of Diplomatic Footprints.

Published in Dawn, February 5th, 2023

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