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April 5, 2021

Building on the detente

Opinion

April 5, 2021

The revival of the ceasefire agreement last February has set into motion a series of events on the Pakistan-India front that have created cautious optimism as well as reservations on the possible way forward.

To begin with, it is interesting to note how an event apparently as insignificant as the restoration of a ceasefire pact in the presence of more complicated bilateral issues has turned things around by shining a fresh light on the importance of peace between Islamabad and New Delhi.

The fact that the need for peace and good neighborly relations is back in the mainstream across the borders, misgivings and apprehensions notwithstanding, is no mean achievement. Even going by the optics, this marks a departure from an environment of jingoism and recrimination that witnessed its lowest ebb post the Balakot misadventure by India.

A couple of opinions expressed by security analyst Ejaz Haider and veteran diplomat Ashraf Jehangir Qazi in their recent op-eds in The Friday Times and Dawn respectively have cautioned against betting on Modi as a partner for peace-building.

In his article in TFT on March 26, Haider made a case for Pakistan to stay away from talking about the ‘low-hanging fruit’, secure in the knowledge that any such reference is likely to be twisted by wily Modi whose politics is “squarely grounded in his Hindutva ideology that is both anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan”.

His chief contention was that, while it is alright to express a desire for peace, Pakistan must state unequivocally that IOK remains fundamental to any effort for normalisation of the bilateral ties.

Likewise, in an op-ed in Dawn on March 26, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi also painted a dark picture of the future of Pakistan-India relations. Stating that the world is not likely to pressure Modi into restoring the pre-August 5 status quo in IOK and the Indian PM not being “inclined to risk RSS, BJP, Sangh Parivar and general Hindu outrage to reach a Kashmir deal with Pakistan”, neither the current backdoor discussions nor even revival of a formal dialogue between the archrivals can result in a peace roadmap. However, he did indicate that restoration of the pre-August status of IOK can become the basis for the resumption of a more serious dialogue.

These are weighty arguments, shaped as they are by the history of interactions between Pakistan and India. They rightly question the intentions as well as the conduct of the successive Indian leaders that engaged Pakistan, only to add to the complexity of the bilateral relations. Anyone with a fair idea of how India used the dialogue process to buttress its ‘democratic’ credentials and ward off any criticism of its human rights abuses in IOK can easily spot the method to its madness.

However, it will not be wise to dismiss the present development out of hand, howsoever minuscule it may be. Irrespective of whether the present opening leads to some kind of outcome or dies its death in infancy, it does indicate that stalemate in the relations between the nuclear powers is just not sustainable over time.

For whatever reasons, dialogue offers the only pathway to a predictable and relatively secure bilateral future, free of panic. The fact that the nuclear hangover shapes strategic decision-making in South Asia makes it all the more essential to have a communication channel working.

If Indian PM Modi referred to an environment “devoid of terror” in his letter of greetings on Pakistan Day to his counterpart, PM Imran Khan was quick to highlight how “durable peace and stability in South Asia is contingent upon resolving all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, in particular, the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”

A careful review of the speeches by the prime minister and the chief of the army staff at the Islamabad Security Dialogue makes it eminently clear that Jammu and Kashmir continue to be the core element of Pakistan’s India policy including how a constructive dialogue is conditional on an “enabling environment”, as PM Khan put it in his letter to Modi.

Both the speeches by Pakistan’s civil and military leadership are significant on so many levels and to describe them as an expression of interest to engage India is to play down their importance. For one, they represent the continuation of a national consensus for a peaceful neighbourhood both towards its east and its west.

More than offering a blueprint for India-Pakistan rapprochement, they laid greater emphasis on the factors that can shape an era of prosperity for the country, provided it has the capability to set its own house in order and come to grips with the world undergoing fast evolution. A pivot to a new future based on geo-economic considerations is driven by an emerging understanding of the imperatives of comprehensive national security, one that is not exclusively defined by geopolitics and the notion of hard power.

At another level, the changes in Pakistan’s policies and approach to the region, be it Afghanistan or India, are too pronounced to be ignored by the international community. The signaling employed by Pakistan’s leadership articulates a strong national urge to set a new direction in line with contemporary requirements.

The desire to contribute to the development of a peaceful neighbourhood is part of a larger framework. The new thinking on display offers a contrast to present-day India that has turned its back on the foundational principles and ideals of its founding fathers and increasingly tied itself to a regressive ideology.

The translation of the broad contours into specific sets of actions and plans may take time and, more importantly, concerted action by all stakeholders to keep the ship steady and focus intact right on the goals.

As India and Pakistan inch forward towards evolving some rules of the game, it is important for them to be aware of the enormity of the future challenges as well as the burden of the past. The ball clearly lies in India’s court to provide an enabling environment for a result-oriented dialogue.

Pakistan has shown its intent to take the process of normalisation with New Delhi forward. India is obliged to incentivize the engagement so that the baby steps can be expanded into a relatively broad framework for a more meaningful conversation around the disputed issues.

For this to happen, the past shenanigans of fighting it out in a parallel world of media and narrative formation to paint the adversary in a bad light will have to be shed. Sooner or later, India will have to give serious thought to reversing some of the actions taken in IOK to show that it means business this time. Without creating strategic space for Pakistan, the nascent process of engagement runs the risk of getting derailed.

Building on the detente requires a strong political commitment, a vision of the future, and a pragmatic approach rooted in concern for the welfare of teeming millions that have suffered endlessly due to conflicts, principally in IOK. It is a tall order but not an insurmountable one. South Asia deserves better.

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222