Any move that can push Pakistan and India away from the dangers of war offers a sense of relief, even if temporarily.
The unique feature of this positive development is that the two countries have formally announced a ceasefire along the LOC through military channels (DGMOs). However, before the two DG-MOs could speak on a ceasefire, backchannel diplomacy was quite discernible during the past few months.
One of the key parts of the statement that did not get much attention was the one related to the commitment to addressing core issues bedeviling the ties. “In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace, the two DGMOs agreed to address each other’s core issues/concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”. Does the “core issues/concerns” mean addressing the Kashmir dispute which has bedeviled the bilateral relationship for the past seven decades? Again, it is too early to hazard a guess given the distrust governing their relationship.
What are the next steps needed for bringing the two countries back on track? Commentators on both sides have offered a range of options: from upgradation of bilateral relationship with the exchange of high commissioners, to Prime Minister Modi’s attendance of the Saarc summit in Islamabad which could not be held since 2016 due to India’s opposition.
However, normalization of relations would depend on how the two sides choreograph the entire gamut to mutual satisfaction. Before the stage is set for the Saarc summit, certain CBMs would be required, such as restoration of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution which gave special status to Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Some commentators have suggested that the Supreme Court of India can reverse the decision if Modi finds it difficult or embarrassing to restore the status quo in the occupied state.
Many domestic and international factors, including domestic compulsions and international pressures as well as Biden’s election may have catalyzed a rapprochement between India and China on the one hand and India-Pakistan, on the other.
In the domestic realm, both Pakistan and India face many compulsions, the foremost being economic downturn due to Covid-19 which has brought painful strain on their economies with no positive outlook visible during the whole of 2021. Similarly, both countries have been facing a two-front situation; if India faced China and Pakistan along its 7000 km disputed borders, Pakistan also faced strains from India and Afghanistan, the latter being a launching pad for the TTP and Baloch elements with Indian assistance.
In the regional context, the added disadvantage for India was the straining of relations in its entire neighbourhood, barring Maldives and Bhutan. Nepal and Sri Lanka have displayed their annoyance with India and have visibly tilted towards China. Even Bangladesh, considered to be friendly under Sheikh Hasina, was shocked after 1.9 million Bengalis in Assam were delisted as Indian citizens under the National Register of Citizenship (NRC) on the plea that they are Bangladeshi citizens. Naturally, the Indian national security apparatus may have realized that an abrasive neighbourhood poses a far greater threat to Indian interests and may impede its ambitions of becoming a regional power. Hence it commenced Covid vaccine diplomacy to its neighbours – except for Pakistan.
As regards the India-Pakistan confrontation, India has always considered Pakistan an irritant to its geo-strategic paradigm. The Indian dilemma got compounded with the nuclearization of South Asia, which not only checkmated India to establish its hegemony in the region but also created greater challenges to its security and economic advancement.
From Pakistan’s perspective, a satisfactory resolution of the Kashmir dispute is sine qua non for peace between the two countries. Despite many contrivances, India has failed to compel the Kashmiri people to submit to its diktats. Even objective Indians acknowledge that the alienation of Kashmiris against India is complete. The goings-on in Occupied Kashmir are stark reminders of the serious nature of the dispute which can only be resolved through negotiations amongst stakeholders.
The India-China understanding to disengage their troops in the Ladakh region is another major development which took place soon after the Pakistan-India ceasefire. Although some Indian commentators attribute this to Biden’s election and his likely diplomatic challenge to China in the future, the fact remains that even American support would not be enough if India faces a hostile neighbourhood.
Finally, three intertwined factors may have contributed to the cooling down of temperatures between the three nuclear powers. First, by disengagement along the LAC, both India and China took the decision to resolve their issues without involving outside powers, including the US since continuation of tensions would ultimately harm both militarily as well as economically.
Second, Pakistan’s agreement to a ceasefire with India would be a signal to the latter that the military option is avoidable due to nuclearization of South Asia and a serious strain on their economies. Indian scholar Sumit Ganguly in his latest write up in Foreign Policy says: “Given that India has barely stabilized its northern border with China since a series of clashes last year, it can ill afford to have another escalation with Pakistan.”
Third, and more importantly, the Pakistan-China strategic partnership must have impacted Indian thinking not to push the envelope or put all their eggs in the American basket. While the US may be a strategic partner of India and may strengthen its defence needs, pragmatism demands to avoid confrontation with two immediate nuclear-armed neighbours in the hope of being rescued by an ally sitting far afield.
Note: This article appeared in The News, dated 18 March 2021.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.