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Are India and Pakistan really heading towards peace?

Screenshot 2021-03-26 074018


Are the winds of change finally blowing across Sir Creek, the narrow strip of water dividing India and Pakistan?

After years of tension, violence and even aerial bombings that have brought the two countries to the brink of war, a series of moves have rekindled a hope for peace between the two nuclear-armed nations.

Last month, the two countries made a surprise announcement that their armed forces had agreed to halt all cross-border firing across their shared border, The Line of Control.

The Line of Control is a heavily militarised, turbulent border where frequent exchanges of firing and heavy shelling take place. In 2020, 36 people died and 130 were injured in 5,100 instances of firing and shelling, the most in the last 18 years, according to Indian government data.

Since the announcement, the two countries have moved swiftly – yet quietly – to consolidate this thaw in their relationship.

The two countries have even signalled a soft resumption of sporting ties. Last week, a Pakistan team visited India to take part in the equestrian International Tent Pegging World Cup qualifiers. The same week, Pakistani Usman Chand was granted a visa to participate in the shooting World Cup.

Meanwhile, a delegation of Pakistani bureaucrats is in New Delhi to hold talks on implementing a water-sharing agreement, the Indus Water Treaty. The talks, supposed to be held at least once a year, last took place in August 2018.

And on Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote to his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan on the occasion of Pakistan’s National Day, reiterating that “India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan”. 

This upswing in ties might get a boost when the two foreign ministers, India’s S Jaishankar and Pakistan’s Shah Mahmood Qureshi, visit Tajikistan’s Dushanbe next week for the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process conference. Sources said there were hopes the two would hold the first bilateral meeting in years.

Later this year, there will be a further opportunity for engagement at the multi-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s anti-terror military exercise in Pakistan.

 Does all this mean peace is finally descending on a region described by former US President Bill Clinton as the “most dangerous place on Earth”?

 Not quite.

“I think we are reading too much in it,” said Kriti Shah, an associate fellow in the department of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

According to Shah, the water-sharing talks were “necessary” for Pakistan to convey its opposition to India’s plans for hydroelectric projects in Jammu & Kashmir that Islamabad believes might affect the flow of the rivers downstream.

The Indus Water Treaty, signed between the two countries in 1960, allows India “unrestricted” use of the rivers Sutlej, Beas and Ravi whereas Pakistan is allowed similar use of the rivers Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. However, the use of the waters has led to disputes between the two countries in the past.

Before the talks, the head of the Pakistani delegation, Syed Muhammad Mehr Ali Shah, the commissioner for Indus Waters, had told Pakistani media they planned to discuss two “controversial” projects which India planned to construct – the 1,000MW, US$1.18-billion Pakal Dul project on the Chenab’s tributary Marusudar and the 48MW Lower Kalnai, also on a tributary of the Chenab river, in Doda district.

Similarly, Shah, the ORF associate fellow, said that even the ceasefire between the two countries was unlikely to be sustainable. Pointing to rising tensions following India’s move to strip the Muslim-majority, disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir of its autonomy, Shah said, “Nothing has changed for there to be a thaw in relations – Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir has only hardened since then. India’s stance on Islamabad’s support for militants has also not changed.”

Even so, both sides have softened their tones.

Last week, Prime Minister Khan pushed for more trade and connectivity between the two countries and said that Pakistan would “try our full efforts but it is for India to make a move”.

A day later, Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said Islamabad believed “it is time to bury the past and move forward” – though he added that New Delhi would have to create a “conducive environment” for this to happen.

Both these statements came just days after Indian foreign secretary Harsh Shringla toned down New Delhi’s position, saying that India “desires good neighbourly relations with Pakistan” and that it was “committed” to addressing all issues peacefully.

The China factor

According to Aparna Pande, a research fellow and director of the India Initiative at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, the softening of stances might be guided by New Delhi’s strategic interests, specifically India’s ongoing border stand-off with China.

Soldiers from both countries have been locked in violent hostilities at the de facto border, leading to casualties on both sides. The stand-off, Pande said, would have stoked New Delhi’s fears of fighting a ‘two-front’ war against both China and Pakistan.
“New Delhi might be keen to take up the offer of a ceasefire because it does not want a hot border with Pakistan even as it has a warm border with China,” Pande said.

But she isn’t sure just how sustainable this ceasefire can be. “It will last only till the time there are no terror attacks; if there is one, everything will be off,” she said, pointing to India’s often-repeated stance of “terror and talks not going together”.

Driving the rapprochement between the two neighbours might also be global and regional factors, Pande added. Pakistan’s economic woes have been mounting – the country continues to languish on the ‘grey list’ of the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which in June 2018 asked the country to curb money laundering and terror financing.

Being on the grey list has been damaging to Pakistan’s economy – prompting economic sanctions and making it difficult for Islamabad to gain funding from international bodies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Last year, the IMF put off releasing a tranche of a bailout package to Pakistan, pointing to the unfulfillment of previous agreements for reforms.

“Pakistan’s moves could also be aimed at trying to convince India and other countries to not push too hard on the FATF,” she said. Similarly, ORF’s Shah said the rapprochement could have been shaped by the administration of President Joe Biden in the United States and its increasing footprint in the region – from its bolstered ties with New Delhi to its planned troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

“By showing they are eager to be ‘friends’ with India, they help placate the US who are desperate to leave the subcontinent,” said Shah.

Low-hanging fruit

No matter what the motivation, many experts hope further reconciliation is possible. A Delhi-based academic, who asked not to be identified citing the sensitivity of the matter, said that the two countries were looking for a fresh start.

“After Modi’s nationalistic rhetoric on Pakistan, Islamabad seemed to have written off any engagement with his government. But, it has discovered in the last few days that it was still possible to engage with the Modi administration and make beginnings,” the academic said.

Pande agreed and said the two countries had a plethora of options for confidence-building measures that could elevate ties. “From allowing sports ties to resume fully to granting visas, to medical tourism and religious tourism, the two countries can really pick a lot of low-hanging fruit, if they want to.”

The key to the relationship lay in the Dushanbe conference next week when Jaishankar and Qureshi come face-to-face, she said.

“It will be interesting to see – do they shake hands, do they hold a meeting or do they not acknowledge each other at all? Either way, we will know a lot from what happens there.”