February 26, 2021 4:30:33 am
INDIA and Pakistan have been holding back-channel talks for the last three months, with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval leading the Indian diplomatic initiative with Pakistan’s civilian-military leadership. Sources said “more steps” towards peace are likely in the coming weeks, with both sides “engaged” and “cautiously optimistic”.
Sources told The Indian Express that while Doval had met his counterpart Moeed Yusuf, the Special Assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on security affairs, in a third country, he had also kept communication channels open with Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. Yusuf, courtesy his proximity to Khan as well as the military, and Bajwa due to the power the Pakistani Army wields were both crucial links in the chain.
On Thursday, Yusuf denied any meeting with Doval, tweeting “no such talks have taken place”, and calling such claims “baseless”.
However, sources said that given the weight of the “public opinion” that needs to be “managed”, neither side is expected to come out with details of what led to the current thaw.
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The first signs of a change were visible just hours after the two armies announced adherence to ceasefire agreements along the Line of Control. Asked about it, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, “India desires normal, neighbourly relations with Pakistan. We have always maintained that we are committed to addressing issues, if any, in a peaceful bilateral manner.” More importantly, he added, “On key issues, our position remains unchanged. I don’t need to reiterate it.”
There was no repetition of New Delhi’s constant stress that “terror and talks don’t go together”.
Srivastava also skirted a question on the Financial Action Task Force action against Pakistan, making no mention of Islamabad’s record on terror financing. The FATF has its “own procedures to take decisions”, the MEA spokesperson said. .
About the decision to maintain ceasefire on the Line of Control, Yusuf tweeted, “The welcome development on the LoC is a result of discussions through the established channel of DGMOs. Obviously these are by their very nature not in the public eye and done privately and professionally through the direct channel.”
The Pakistani minister hoped that the LoC understanding will be followed in “letter and spirit”. “Doing so will save innocent lives so no one should question the intent. Nor should wrong inferences be drawn. There is nothing more than meets the eye here.”
But, in the light of Thursday’s development, a source pointed to Bajwa’s comments on February 2, while on a visit to the Pakistan Air Force Academy. “We stand firmly committed to the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence. It is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions… Pakistan and India must also resolve the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner as per the aspirations of the people of J&K, and bring this human tragedy to its logical conclusion,” he had said.
The source noted that this was one of the most conciliatory remarks coming from Pakistan since the abrogation of Article 370, and that too from its Army chief.
Then, on February 11, Yusuf was quoted as saying, “If you want peace, we have to move forward. If we want to move forward, everybody has to be rational, not ideological.”
There were other signs too as the levers fell into place in the background. On February 18, Pakistan participated in a meeting of Health Secretaries of nine countries in South Asia and Indian Ocean, while earlier this week, Delhi allowed Imran Khan’s plane to fly over Indian air space on way to Sri Lanka.
What spurred both sides on, to put one of the lowest points in their ties in five years behind, were their other “hot” borders. If Pakistan has an Afghanistan post-US exit on its hands, India is on the edge over the Line of Actual Control issues with China.
Another source said the long hiatus in talks was not tenable either. There has been a break since the Pathankot terror attack a week after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise halt at Lahore in December 2015 to meet then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. The attacks in Uri and Pulwama, and the abrogation of Art 370, had sent any possibility of talks into deep freeze. Both sides had consequently scaled down their diplomatic presence, curtailing it even further last year.
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