By Abdul Basit
At last month’s UNGA session, Prime Minister Imran Khan in his address insisted on settling the Kashmir dispute as per the UN Security Council resolutions whereas Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not bother to even obliquely mention Kashmir.
Breaking the current bilateral gridlock is becoming increasingly difficult. This is despite the fact that the two countries surprised the world by formally agreeing on observing cease-fire on the Line of Control (LoC) in February this year. The back channel that was established a couple of years ago seems to have lost its relevance and is no longer intact.
I served in New Delhi as Pakistan’s High Commissioner for over three years between 2014 and 2017. The foremost challenge for me was putting the bilateral engagement process on an irreversible trajectory. The cycle of moving from stalemate to stalemate had to come to an end.
The first meeting between Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on 27 May 2014 was full of bonhomie. They agreed to resume the dialogue process. Accordingly, it was decided that the Indian Foreign Secretary would visit Pakistan in August that year to talk about talks. The proposed visit, however, could not take place. The new Indian government had found my meetings with the Hurriyat leadership offensive and unacceptable.
The two prime ministers met again, and this time at Ufa, Russia in July 2015 on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit meeting. They agreed on two parallel streams of talks. It was decided that Pakistan’s National Security Adviser (NSA) would visit New Delhi during the second half of next month to resume the engagement process.
That visit also could not materialize, because India refused to allow the Pakistan NSA to meet the Hurriyat leadership at a reception to be hosted by me. Thus, the two sides had again hit a deadlock.
It was the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan held in Islamabad in December that year that provided the opportunity to break the impasse. Earlier, the two prime ministers had a brief informal encounter in Paris at the climate change summit, which was followed by a meeting of the two NSAs in Bangkok on 6 December 2015. Modi also surprised everyone by making a brief stopover in Lahore on 25 December on his way from Kabul to New Delhi to greet Sharif on the wedding of his granddaughter.
While preparations were in hand for Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan on 15 January 2016, the attack on the Pathankot air base in the Indian Punjab on January 2 once again put the bilateral engagement process at risk. Jaishankar’s visit was postponed. India finally linked the visit to progress on the Pathankot investigations.
Indubitably, 2016 was a difficult year. The Pathankot attack; the arrest of Kulbhushan Jadhav by Pakistan in March; months’ long protests in Kashmir following the killing of Burhan Wani on July 8; the Uri attack on September 18; the Indian claim of carrying out surgical strikes on the Pakistan side of the LoC; and the postponement of the 19th SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad in November over the Indian boycott, left both sides in the vortex of uncertainty.
Hopes engendered by the new government in Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan also could not last long. The Pulwama attack on 14 February 2019 and then the Balakot episode witnessed another round of high tensions. Even Pakistan’s overture to return the captured Indian Wing Commander did not help break the ice. In fact, the worst was yet to come.
On 5 August 2019, India stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status through constitutional amendments. Pakistan reacted sharply, downgrading diplomatic relations, halting bilateral trade and closing its airspace for Indian commercial flights. While the last one has now been done away with, the two hostile countries are yet to find a way out of the present cul-de-sac. Pakistan is insisting that the status quo as existed on 4 August should be restored. For India, that is non-negotiable.
Islamabad and New Delhi have not been able to show any concrete progress on either Kashmir or even less complicated issues such as Siachen and Sir Creek. Even the confidence-building measures (CBMs) painstakingly worked out during the last two decades are gradually falling apart. So much so that there was no exchange of traditional greetings by the two premiers on the Independence Day of the two countries this year.
It is India that has added more complications to bilateral relations by its revocation of Kashmir’s special status. To break the current deadlock, India cannot escape taking some hard decisions upfront which could include the release of all Kashmiri leaders with permission to travel abroad, including to Pakistan. India must revoke all the black laws currently in place in Kashmir, including the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, must rescind over three million domiciles that have been issued to Indians making them eligible to settle down and purchase property in Kashmir; and the Indian Supreme Court must start hearing the petitions against the August 5 measures without any further delay.
These steps could help pave the way for reengagement, but reengagement should be taken as a means, not an end in itself.
It would be unreasonable to expect quick results. However, almost 50 years have elapsed to the 1972 Shimla Agreement. Pakistan will find it very difficult to spend 50 more years in talks that go nowhere.
The growing US-China rivalry, and the Taliban’s return to power are also having serious bearings on Pakistan-India relations. Should India fully align itself with US strategic objectives, prospects for bettering the situation in South Asia will further deflate.
If the past is any guide, avoiding settling the Kashmir dispute upfront will keep the bilateral diplomacy in disarray and future relations rickety and unpredictable.
(Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India. Twitter: @abasitpak1)