Updated: June 25, 2021 8:36:16 am
It is ironic that the mainstream political leadership of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, which was most strongly derided and incarcerated by the ruling dispensation in the wake of the constitutional changes of August 5, 2019, has been invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to initiate the political process in the Union territory — the talks were held on Thursday. This development concerns only Indian politics, just as the constitutional changes were within India’s domestic jurisdiction. However, J&K has an external dimension from India’s viewpoint because of Pakistan’s illegal and forcible control over Indian territory. Pakistan considers J&K as disputed and irrationally went all out to build international opinion against the constitutional developments but with practically no success. At the same time, there was disquiet, even if muted, in some global quarters at the administrative steps that accompanied the constitutional changes.
In sum, therefore, Modi’s step to talk to the mainstream political players of J&K will attract favourable attention in the West and will be welcomed by the Biden administration. More importantly, the point for consideration is if it is a part of the quiet and out-of-sight contacts between India and Pakistan which resulted in the February ceasefire along the Line of Control and the international border in J&K. The ceasefire has held and it would seem that infiltration levels are down. Further, while both countries have been reiterating their known positions on long-standing as well as current issues, both governments are taking care to tone down the rhetoric. Particularly significant is that Pakistan Prime
Minister Imran Khan is avoiding observations on the ideology of the Sangh Parivar.
While there have been no indications in the Indian media on the substance of current Indian-Pakistani contacts, there have been reports based on leaks in the Pakistani press. Some of these indicate that the pro-contact elements in the Pakistani army, including army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and Imran Khan want India to take some steps in J&K to show to their critics — and there is disquiet in sections of the army as well as the political class — that their endeavours with India are yielding results. At a minimum, they want the restoration of statehood to J&K and an indication that India has no intention to change the demographic character of the Kashmir Valley. The question is if this would be enough for them to override the objections of the critics to reverse some of the steps they took in the wake of the constitutional changes. Obviously, pro-contact elements would be aware that there cannot be a return to the status-quo-ante.
The Modi’s government’s preferred option is for Pakistan to turn its back on terrorism. Unless Pakistan does so, it is impossible for a peaceful and stable relationship to be established. The current ceasefire along the LOC and the border in J&K is important for it has brought relief to those living in border areas and led to a fall in infiltration levels too. But as army chief General M M Naravane recently said, there is no indication that Pakistan is winding up the infrastructure of terror. It does not appear that this will stand in the way of the Modi government agreeing to a return to the bilateral India-Pakistan situation that existed prior to August 5, 2019.
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What may, therefore, take place in the coming months, if not earlier, is a return of high commissioners and the restoration of some elements of bilateral trade. There may also be movement on restoring visits to the Kartarpur Sahib gurdwara and an easing in some areas of visa restrictions. The restoration of sporting contacts may be more difficult, for they arouse passions that both governments may wish to avoid. Certainly, it would be extremely difficult for Modi to think of the resumption of a structured dialogue as long as Pakistan holds on to the instrument of terror. For Bajwa and Imran Khan, the absence of a reversal of all steps taken on August 5, 2019 will invite the charge of a complete sell-out to India, which neither can afford.
While bilateral issues are under discussion in the quiet conversations between the two sides, it is not known if they are also focussing on the Afghanistan situation. Traditionally, Pakistan has been averse to talking about Afghan developments with India. It desires that India’s role be curtailed to the economic sphere only. This point has been recently reiterated by Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. It is also reported that it has been advising the Taliban against meaningful contacts with India at a time when Delhi is showing interest in talking to them. It is a different matter that Indian diplomacy was truly flat-footed on openly holding talks with the Taliban, even when the group was gaining global legitimacy. It is also known that it was signalling its interest in contact with India but at that stage, Delhi was rigidly glued to President Ashraf Ghani. A cruel price has always to be paid for diplomatic obduracy.
Pakistan is currently riding high on Afghanistan. It is a crucial player in the unfolding Afghan situation and it clearly wants the Taliban to be in the driver’s seat in Kabul. It certainly does not wish for a return to the 1990s situation for that may destabilise the arrangements it has made in the erstwhile Federally Administered Territories (FATA), which have been amalgamated with the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province as well as Balochistan, which is restless as it is. It would be prudent for Pakistan to look at Afghanistan with fresh eyes, especially if, as Bajwa said, it is giving priority to geo-economics. If that were the case, it should seek to reach out to India on Afghanistan and recognise that this country has major security and economic interests there. It should not forget that all Afghans want their country to have good ties with India. That said, there is no indication that there is any fresh thinking in Rawalpindi on India’s role in Afghanistan.
Some movement on India-Pakistan ties is on the anvil but not a change in its basic postulates.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 25, 2021 under the title ‘J&K talks through a wide lens’. The writer is a former diplomat.
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