Thursday December 09, 2021

Re-engaging India: the promise and the peril

March 25, 2021

The writer is a senior journalist.

The two-year break in Pakistan-India relations has come to an end. The two nuclear states have re-engaged with each other. This is much like past phases. Every hiatus, mostly because of external prompting, is initiated and falls flat often because of differing expectations from the dialogue.

The current round of thaw in ties began with the welcome ceasefire along the LOC where casualties were rising and violations of the 2003 ceasefire agreement were mounting. What has followed since is the beginning of Pakistan-India talks on the Indus Waters Treaty. These talks have begun after a two-year break. On March 23, as a goodwill gesture, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote a letter congratulating Prime Minister Imran Khan on Pakistan Day. The Saarc Summit will likely be planned for Pakistan; if you recall, India had pulled out of the last one scheduled for 2017 in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, following the pattern, has called for dialogue with India to resolve the Kashmir issue, to improve bilateral relations including increase in trade and commerce, and to solve issues of water and climate change, as well as poverty.

Alongside Prime Minister Imran Khan’s invitation for dialogue, COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa also has remained committed to engaging with India. His commitment is based on Pakistan’s assessment that enhanced security and economic well-being requires improved ties with it's neighbours and beyond. This assessment was and has always been shared by Pakistan’s friends abroad including the United States, China and increasingly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, details of the back channel movement have highlighted the role of these countries, especially the UAE where some of the meetings reportedly between our top military command and the Indian national security adviser took place.

Army Chief Gen Bajwa has consistently looked at two aspects of national security: defanging and demobilising extremist groups and establishing the state’s monopoly over violence, and resolving outstanding problems with neighbours through dialogue. However, the soured Sharif-army relations and Sharif’s generally non-institutional approach to policy matters prevented them from pursuing this shared vision on security. Publicly recently at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, the army chief spoke of the impossibility of resolving problems through kinetic means – an unlikely statement by a general. The questions of a hurried timeline on the settlement of Kashmir, low-hanging fruits and how the world must not see Pakistan only through the CPEC lens were important observations coming from the army chief. On India, the army chief has been consistently advising the PM and also taking steps to improve relations – such as Kartarpur or studies on trade with India and on the future of the LOC by security agencies.

The question therefore is not how committed Pakistan is but rather what is the promise and the peril of this round of engagement – how much critical thinking went into this reopening; how much was past experience of Pakistan-India dialogue factored into Pakistan's decisions; how were risks and potentials assessed?

Four questions are important. One, is there a roadmap already decided between Delhi and Rawalpindi/ Islamabad on where this dialogue moves in the next few months? This question is an important one, given the history of dialogue between Pakistan and India in which dialogues have not resolved any outstanding issues ranging from Siachen to Sir Creek and to water issues. A roadmap is required to identify sequential moves on matters benefiting both countries to avoid unilateral gains for either party.

In this case, it is India that would be in a position to benefit from the act of dialogue alone, given that India seeks to work on it's pacification and conquest of the Kashmir project uninterrupted. Also, India right now globally is in a very dark spot for what it is doing to the Muslims in India; its overall human rights record is at its lowest since India's independence, as its own scholars point out and as international human rights organisations are documenting. It is in such a situation that India would like Pakistan to remain silent given that PM Imran Khan led the campaign of equating Modi to Hitler. It is also a fact of history that whenever India – supported especially by Washington – has diplomatically sought to engage Pakistan it is as a means to letting off pressure.

Two, is India willing to move ahead in any substantive manner on issues ranging from Sir Creek to Siachen? Before agreeing to the dialogue, some clarification could have been sought from India regarding its intention to proceed in matters already discussed on such issues. On Siachen, for example dozens of rounds have taken place between the two countries and yet every resumption of dialogue starts from square one. In every case, including the near agreement in 2007 on Siachen, it was India that pulled out after there was reportedly disagreement between the Indian political leadership and the Indian military command.

Three, has Pakistan gotten assurance from New Delhi that the latter will stop it's propaganda at home and abroad against Pakistan being a promoter of terrorism within India? This should have been an important starter for India to demonstrate its sincerity towards the dialogue. Has India also assured Pakistan that it will withdraw its lobbying against Pakistan at the FATF forum? These gestures are imperative after India's global disinformation campaigns against Pakistan vis-a-vis the EU disinformation lab.

Four, what are the immediate steps India is willing to take in Indian-occupied Kashmir? Since Aug 5, 2019 India has been rapidly working on demographic change in Occupied Kashmir. That is the most compelling argument for not putting Kashmir on the backburner. This is not the 80s or the 90s; this is post 2019 in which India's plans are no longer a secret. India has broken up the state of Jammu and Kashmir, it has continued its siege, and the oppression of Kashmiris. Without some initial understanding on whether India is willing to back-off on Occupied Kashmir, India will be buying time to proceed with its own dark objectives in violation of the UNSC resolutions. Meanwhile, on the Kashmir issue Pakistan must take Kashmiri leadership in AJK and Occupied Kashmir in confidence, as General Musharraf did while the Foreign Office team worked on the four-point formula.

The answer to the above questions will determine how advantageous this opening will be for Pakistan.

It is important to locate this re-engagement with India within the broader regional and global developments. China's containment is a lead objective for Washington and Delhi and their allies partnering in the QUAD, and is relevant for Pakistan's strategic calculations.

Pakistan's own geo-strategic and geo-economic calculations make it imperative that it makes no major policy moves which would undermine it's economic and security interests or undermine Pakistan-China relations. Also relevant is a reading of India’s own difficult economic situation and its eagerness for trade and energy security to access the overland route through Pakistan to Central Asia, Russia and beyond.

Peace in the region must be a shared Pakistan-India and China objective. Their security and economic well-being is interdependent. Meanwhile, no lasting peace is possible without a just and win-win settlement of the Kashmir issue acceptable to Kashmiris, Pakistan and India. This is the lesson of history – unless the Israeli solution to the Kashmiris is acceptable to Pakistan. For the Kashmiris and for Pakistan’s own geo-economic and geo-strategic interests, that must be unthinkable.

The writer is a senior journalist.


Twitter: @nasimzehra