The winds of a tentative peace are once again blowing in India and Pakistan. The two neighbours have renewed their commitment to a nearly two-decade-old ceasefire, which had existed in name only since 2013, but had started to fray from 2007-08. Will peace at the LoC pave the way for a wider process between India and Pakistan?
From what is publicly known or apparent, an active backchannel process over the last few months led to the point where Pakistan breached its own minimum pre-condition of a full reversal of India’s August 5, 2019 reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir for any peaceful engagement with India; and Delhi too set aside its long-held demand that talks could only be held after cross-border terrorism ends. This enabled the Directors General of Military Operations to arrive at the February 25 joint statement for adherence to the ceasefire. They have also agreed to discuss “core issues and concerns”, which may be an allusion to Kashmir (for Pakistan) and terrorism (for India).
It has also emerged in Indian media reports that National Security Adviser A K Doval was India’s backchannel representative and that he may have held talks directly with the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. If this is true, it would be the first time India has sidestepped the government in Islamabad during a period of civilian rule.
The last time India was in direct talks with the military was in the early 2000s, with military ruler General Pervez Musharraf. The present turn in India-Pakistan relations holds many similarities, but also some crucial differences. Seeing how much India has invested in Bajwa and his “hand of peace in all directions” doctrine, understanding that earlier phase of bilateral ties, how it progressed and sputtered out, long before getting totalled in the Mumbai 2008 attacks, may be instructive.
The 2003 ceasefire came at a time when Pakistan, in the wake of 9/11, was under tremendous pressure from the US to clean up its act. This unwritten ceasefire was preceded by a backchannel process that had begun around 2000. It led to the Musharraf-Vajpayee joint statement in which Pakistan declared it would not permit any terrorist group to operate in its territory or launch a terrorist attack from its territory on foreign soil. This time around, Financial Action Task Force pressures, the realisation of what it will take for an economic recovery amidst a pandemic, along with its role in the ongoing Afghan process, may have all worked to bring the Pakistan Army to the table with India.
The difference is that Musharraf was all-powerful as the army chief-cum-President of Pakistan. Bajwa is an army chief on an extension with less than two years left in office. Unless he has other plans, Bajwa’s term ends in November 2022. How should India see the process continuing after him? How invested would the next Pakistani Army chief be in this process, particularly if the view on the ground is — as it was during Musharraf’s last years — that there has been a sell-out to India on Kashmir?
Musharraf’s ISI chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was one of the few in a closed group who knew about the backchannel that continued alongside the bilateral “composite dialogue” that began in 2004. It was a time of many initiatives, including cross-LoC buses and trade. But after succeeding Musharraf as Army chief at the end of 2007, General Kayani appeared to disown the process. Ceasefire violations started shattering the four-year-long peace at the LoC. Musharraf’s own unravelling had begun earlier in 2007 when his sacking of the Chief Justice triggered a lawyers’ movement seeking the judge’s restoration. That became a wider movement with the slogan “Go Musharraf Go”, encompassing within it a number of political grievances, including the belief he had “sold out to India”.
Bajwa’s leadership of Pakistan’s most powerful institution is already brimming with tension — one, there is popular resentment at the Army’s “selection” of a civilian leadership that has proved inept; two, Bajwa’s extension as army chief was problematic within the army; three, in a trope familiar from 2007, he has been criticised by opposition parties since 2019 for “doing nothing” about India’s changes in Kashmir; and four, former PM Nawaz Sharif holds him responsible for his judicial ouster. Add to this the widespread belief that the powerful ISI was unable, despite frantic efforts, to secure a seat for the country’s finance minister in the Senate, the Pakistani upper House, earlier this week, and that it was gamed by ruling party members and allies, leading to a victory for opposition candidate and former PM Yusuf Raza Gilani. What you see now is a vulnerable government — Imran Khan has scheduled a vote of confidence today — and an Army with several exposed flanks.
At the moment, Pakistani reactions on the new India-Pakistan development have been next to non-existent. It has stirred no big debates in Pakistani media. Except for Imran Khan, who welcomed the ceasefire, political responses have been conspicuous by their absence. Sharif, who had made no secret of his desire to make peace with India while in office, spoke briefly about Kashmir during a meeting with his party workers, but appeared to ignore the latest agreement on the truce, only saying that once in power, his party would take up the “masla-e-Kashmir” with India.
The loudest voice came from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, where “Prime Minister” Raja Muhammed Farooq Haider Khan condemned the Pakistani parliamentary committee on Kashmir as “jahil” for its condemnation of a Kashmiri separatist who questioned the ceasefire as a “sellout” to India. Farooq Khan, who is from Sharif’s party, and other politicians in PoK aligned with the national opposition believe Imran Khan’s PTI will stop at nothing to win the election due in the territory this July, and Islamabad, under the guiding hand of the Army, will proceed to integrate it into Pakistan as a province, in actions mirroring those of India on August 5, 2019. Such a process is already underway in Gilgit Baltistan.
On the Indian side, the message from the security establishment is that there will be no reversal in Kashmir. All that Delhi can offer is statehood internally, and for Pakistan, the status quo along the LOC, with the dangler that the boundary issues may be left to future generations, similar to the India-China model in which the LAC differences did not impede other aspects of bilateral ties. India may make a noise if Islamabad integrates PoK and G-B as its fifth and sixth provinces, but do nothing more than that. There can be trade and visas, cultural, educational, sporting and people to people exchanges — not as “confidence-building measures” towards some higher resolution, but as an alternate, or “diversionary” vision of India-Pakistan ties. Of course, with the caveat that one terrorist attack or deliberate, planned ceasefire violations can take it back to zero.
In the 2003-2008 phase, the oft-repeated gripe on the Pakistan side was the lack of movement on “substantive issues”. Musharraf and others in the Pakistani establishment, including in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, repeatedly urged India to “seize the moment” before it was too late, and “show a big heart as the bigger country, and make a grand gesture”. This time around, the window is much smaller, no big hearts are on display, and no promise of grand gestures. Bet small.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 6, 2021 under the title ‘Ceasefire: Then and now’. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.