Terms of re-engagement

Published March 18, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WITH a new government in place in Islamabad, what is the outlook for Pakistan-India relations? Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message to Shehbaz Sharif on his election as prime minister generated speculation in both countries about the future of ties between the two neighbours.

The message, however, was terse by past standards, as it contained no reference to any desire to improve relations. Sharif’s response was equally curt. In any case, reading anything more into a perfunctory exchange of messages would be a mistake given the complex and fraught nature of the relationship.

The diplomatic impasse between the two countries has persisted since August 2019, when relations plunged to a new low with India’s illegal annexation, bifurcation and absorption of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir into the Indian union — in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Formal dialogue and the peace process were suspended by India long before this. But Delhi’s 2019 action, accompanied by a prolonged lockdown in occupied Kashmir and sweeping restrictions, prompted Pakistan to suspend trade and downgrade diplomatic ties by recalling its high commissioner.

Islamabad made the resumption of dialogue contingent upon India rescinding its August 2019 action. Delhi showed no interest in any talks, and instead, continued its repressive policy and human rights violations in Kashmir. It undertook a slew of legal, demographic, and electoral changes aimed at disempowering and dispossessing Kashmiri Muslims, dismissing Pakistan’s protests in this regard.

A working relationship needs to be established without compromising Pakistan’s core interests.

However, back-channel communication between the two countries during 2020-2021 raised hopes of a limited thaw. This led to the re-commitment by both neighbours in February 2021 to observe the ceasefire on the Line of Control, in accordance with a 2003 understanding. This was not unimportant, as only two years earlier, the nuclear neighbours were locked in a dangerous confrontation in the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, triggered by Indian air strikes inside Pakistani territory.

The LoC truce has mostly held for the past three years. But back-channel talks made no headway on any other front, including Kashmir, that could pave the way for a resumption of talks. The diplomatic deadlock continued even though sporadic communication on practical issues did take place, including on exchange of prisoners and visas for visits to religious sites.

In January 2023 Shehbaz Sharif, in his first stint as prime minister, called for “serious and sincere talks” with India to resolve “burning issues”, including Kashmir. In an interview with Al Arabiya, he said neighbours needed to live peacefully and voiced his willingness for talks. A subsequent official clarification reaffirmed Pakistan’s position that talks could only take place if India reversed its August 2019 action. Delhi responded by saying the atmosphere wasn’t conducive for talks.

Nevertheless, foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s May 2023 visit to India to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit offered an opportunity for at least some tentative re-engagement. But this proved a lost opportunity as no bilateral meeting took place on the sidelines. Instead, both sides engaged in mutual recriminations, with India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, accusing Bilawal of being the “spokesperson of a terrorism industry”.

Meanwhile, another irritant was added last year to the troubled relationship already burdened by several unresolved disputes. This was over the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, which for six decades has survived wars, confrontations and tensions between the two countries. The stance Delhi adopted raised questions about the fate of the treaty that governs the sharing and management of trans-border rivers.

In early 2023, India notified Islamabad of its intention to modify the treaty’s dispute settlement provisions. It also boycotted a court of arbitration hearing at the Hague on Indian hydroelectric projects on Chenab and Jhelum rivers disputed by water-stressed Pakistan. The matter remains unresolved.

It is against this fraught backdrop that prospects for Pakistan-India relations have to be assessed. For a start, India is about to go to the polls with general elections expected in April-May. So, any diplomatic move would have to wait until after the outcome of the election. Whether Modi’s BJP resorts to its usual Pakistan-bashing during the election campaign may provide an indication of its intentions. Election rhetoric apart, India has already made it clear that Kashmir will no longer figure as a subject in any bilateral dialogue with Pakistan and that it is now off the negotiating table.

Dealing with India will pose an imposing challenge for the Sharif government in the face of this intransigent Indian position. There are two views about re-engagement with India. The first is that Pakistan should resume trade, restore diplomatic relations at high commissioner level and put Kashmir aside — a reversal of its well-known position.

This, however, would still be contingent on how serious India is on renewing formal dialogue with Pakistan. The second view is that such engagement will entirely be on India’s terms and tantamount to de facto endorsement of its August 2019 action and virtual abandonment of Kashmir.

India has long wanted normalisation of ties without any settlement of outstanding disputes; accepting these terms would imply Pakistan has given up on its claims in these disputes. This would be next to impossible for any government to sell to the public. Therefore, Pakistan should play for time until it has strengthened its negotiating hand and also built economic strength for substantive re-engagement. After all, Pakistan has lived without a dialogue for well over five years.

The question that arises is whether there is any space between these two views or options that can enable Pakistan to establish some kind of working relationship with India — obviously on the basis of reciprocity, while not compromising on its principled, legal position on Kashmir? The need for a working relationship between the two nuclear neighbours cannot be disputed.

Regular communication is essential to manage tensions and minimise the risk of miscalculation. There are also practical issues that need sustained dialogue. The restoration of high commissioner-level diplomatic relations, for example, can help in this regard and doesn’t compromise any of Pakistan’s core interests.

Even if this space is limited, it is worth exploring to find a way of extricating the relationship from its frozen state but without breaching Pakistan’s clearly articulated red lines on core issues.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2024

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