ISLAMABAD – Pakistan’s military chief Thursday advocated a “stable” relationship with archrival India, saying unsettled disputes between the nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors are “dragging the region back to the swamp of poverty and underdevelopment.”
Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa told a conference of experts and academics in Islamabad that their territorial dispute over Kashmir is “at the heart” of bilateral tensions and a lack of development in South Asia.
“However, we feel that it is time to bury the past and move forward,” Bajwa said. “But for resumption of peace process, or meaningful dialogue, our neighbor will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Indian-occupied Kashmir.”
Bajwa said that without the resolution of Kashmir, regional “rapprochement” attempts will always remain vulnerable to derailment.
There was no immediate comment from India on the peace gesture.
‘Synergy through connectivity’
The Himalayan region of Kashmir is split between India and Pakistan. Both claim all of it and have fought two wars over the area since the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947.
New Delhi accuses the Pakistani military of backing separatists fighting Indian rule in the majority Muslim region. Islamabad rejects the accusations as an attempt to divert attention from what it says is Indian suppression of Kashmiris.
“It is time that we in South Asia create synergy through connectivity, peaceful co-existence and resource sharing to fight hunger, illiteracy and disease instead of fighting each other,” Bajwa said.
Bilateral tensions have worsened since August 2019 when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government revoked the semiautonomous status of its administered Kashmir and broke it into two union territories.
Pakistan denounced the move and downgraded an already strained relationship with India, fueling military tensions.
Thursday’s comments by Bajwa to the officially sponsored conference, known as the Islamabad Security Dialogue, came a day after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told the same forum the entire region, including India, would benefit if Kashmir were settled.
“This (Kashmir) is the one issue that holds us back. We will try our best (to resolve it) but it is for India to initiate a move (in that direction),” Khan said on Wednesday.
The flurry of peace gestures by Islamabad comes a month after Indian and Pakistani border commanders jointly agreed to restore a years-old cease-fire along their de facto Kashmir frontier, known as the Line of Control. Both sides maintained the truce was meant solely to protect civilian lives on both sides of Kashmir.
The largely unexpected move has apparently eased strains in relations as Indian and Pakistani officials are readying to resume engagements at bilateral as well as multilateral forums.
Next week, officials from both countries are scheduled to meet to discuss issues related to their bilateral water distribution understanding, known as the Indus Water Treaty.
Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers also have been invited to a conference on Afghanistan being hosted by Tajikistan later this month. Until now, top officials from both sides have avoided such interactions.
The South Asian rival nations have not held formal talks since 2015.
‘The onus is on Pakistan’
India’s The Hindu newspaper noted in an article published Thursday that New Delhi has toned down some of its rhetoric on Islamabad in response to a visibly “softened tone” by Pakistani leaders.
“India desires good neighborly relations with Pakistan and is committed to addressing issues, if any, bilaterally and peacefully,” the paper quoted Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla as saying in a speech earlier this week.
“However, any meaningful dialogue can only be held in a conducive atmosphere and the onus is on Pakistan to create such an atmosphere,” Shringla said.
The Hindu noted Shringla stated India’s official stance, but without the usual reference to state-sponsored terrorism on Indian soil being allegedly plotted from Pakistan.
Senior Pakistani officials in background discussions, however, say the recent Kashmir cease-fire was being given “too much, and unnecessary importance” by media, and that it was a “tactical” development based on the situation on the LOC.
An official dealing with matters related to national security said there was “no grand plan” behind the development of it in terms of furthering the relationship unless India reverses its August 2019 Kashmir-related actions, ceases human rights violations against Kashmiris and releases political prisoners there.
Pakistan has “listed the actions it expects India to take to create the enabling environment” for resumption of talks and forward movement, the official said.