India-Pakistan bilateral ties can be understood as the interplay of geopolitical imperatives and the socio-political constructs operating at domestic and regional levels. Over the past seventy years, the two countries have experienced sporadic instances of peace and conflict, mainly resulting from the said factors. Of major outstanding issues, the dispute over Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IOJ&K) has remained at the forefront as one of the most defining areas of differences. This topsy-turvy relationship considerably ebbed in 2019 after India unilaterally revoked Article 370 and 35-A from its constitution, leading to a complete suspension of bilateral ties between the two states. However, recently, discourse over the ongoing backdoor talks has emerged, mainly gathering traction among Pakistani domestic circles. Also, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has claimed of having brokered the initiation of these talks. Amid speculations and ambiguities regarding the scope and structure of the talks, questions arise regarding the motivating factors bringing the two South Asian rivals to tables, conditionalities of sustainable peace, and the preferable position that Pakistan must take up during the process and ahead of it.
In a rather surprising move, the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan recommitted to the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) this February. The move was by and large seen as a welcome development, aiming to halt casualties at the LoC on an immediate basis. However, prior to this, ties between the two states had largely remained disarrayed over the years. A decisive impasse between India and Pakistan was arrived at following the 2016 Pathankot incident. Subsequently, the 2016 Uri attacks leading to India’s so-called reactive surgical strikes against Pakistan, and the 2019 Pulwama attack, prompting India’s crossing of the international boundary and aerial attacks on Balakot, deepened mutual mistrust. Most decisively, India’s unilateral revocation of Article 370, followed by its introduction of demographic changes in the IOJ&K under the provisions of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Order 2020, brought about a complete suspension of India-Pakistan bilateral talks.
With this backdrop, while peace talks between India and Pakistan may appear as an unlikely possibility, recent media reportage has indicated otherwise. In October 2020, Pakistan’s then Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on National Security, Dr Moeed Yusuf said that India had displayed its interest in holding talks with Pakistan. He also stated that Pakistan had put forward its conditions in response. Reportedly, having initiated in 2017, the ongoing talks only gained meaningful momentum recently in December 2020. Hence, in this regard, the underlying impulses that may be coming into play for both India and Pakistan in leading the two countries into revisiting their bilateral ties must be inquired.
Pakistan may not look forward to the normalisation of ties and initiation of bilateral talks if the question of IOJ&K’s autonomy does not qualify as the central theme of discussions.
In the case of India, the regional developments unfolding since 2019 in the shape of an antagonised neighbourhood coupled with a border confrontation with China may have urged India into reconsidering its regional policy outlook. In June 2020, the China-India Ladakh standoff, followed by India’s assertion of sovereignty over disputed territories of Aksai Chin, Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan, served as a reminder to India that its regional hegemonic designs might not go unchecked. Besides, since 2019, India’s domestic policies like the abrogation of Article 370, the Citizenship Amendment Act, and its official political map claiming the disputed territory of Kalapani, had, by and large, swayed the regional environment against it. Moreover, particularly vis-à-vis Pakistan, India’s escalation ladder has already risen to surgical and airstrikes in the past few years. Therefore, while a further escalation could be untoward, India might find it optimal to achieve de-escalation via talks. Moreover, it can be argued that the increasing localisation of insurgency in the IOJ&K has spared little incentive for India to engage in a border confrontation with Pakistan.
Another understanding regarding India’s posturing can be derived from international political dynamics, unfolding as a run-up to President Biden’s election into power. Historically, democratic administrations have encouraged India and Pakistan into developing peaceful ties. However, the current United States’ (U.S.’) desire for a peaceful South Asia also stems from its larger geopolitical visions of implementing its “Ind0-Pacific Strategy” to curtail the rise of China and ensure an exit from Afghanistan. In this regard, it may be argued that a peaceful rather than a confrontational South Asia better suit U.S. interests currently.
As for Pakistan, its policy re-orientation from geopolitics to geoeconomics can be understood as a factor motivating it to count on the chance of amplifying peace opportunities with India. Hence, the ongoing talks could be understood as an effort to improve regional integration and collective sustainable development as the PTI government is striving to improve its economic performance domestically. However, this explanation can only be one part of the answer, as it misses out on the larger socio-political and ideological constructs attached to the IOJ&K issue. Hence, in this regard, Pakistan’s welcoming posture towards talks with India can be viewed as an attempt at achieving an immediate draw-down in the brewing crisis in IOJ&K. Owing to the backdoor talks, Pakistan has apparently gone down its rhetoric of “no talks until the reversal of abrogation of Article 370”. However, the conditions laid down by Pakistan for accepting formal bilateral talks with India continue to hinge upon establishing socio-political stability and restoration of IOJ&K’s special status along with other demands.
So far, the backdoor talks have reaped little practical utility. Most recently, the ceasefire agreement signed in February was violated by the Indian Border Security Forces at the working boundary this month. Diplomatically, India has refrained from displaying any overt peace gestures towards Pakistan. However, on the eve of 23rd March, the Indian Prime Minister wrote a congratulatory letter to Prime Minister Khan. While the letter was signified as a peace gesture, Prime Minister Modi stated that cordial ties between India and Pakistan hinged on an environment “devoid of terror”. It is a position India has historically taken, despite India’s own established terror sponsorship against Pakistan. Similarly, active Indian lobbying against Pakistan on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) forum has continued unbridled in recent months despite backdoor talks.
As long as India remains defiant on holding discussions on the issue of Kashmir, peace talks may serve as optics and of no practical utility.
Here, it is pertinent to mention that following the revocation of Article 370, ground realities for Pakistan vis-à-vis its ties with India have dynamically altered. While Pakistan may display its goodwill for talks yet, the initiation and sustainability of any substantial peace initiative hinge on the magnitude of flexibility that India can allot to a formal peace process in tandem with Pakistan’s demands. While India may seek to hold talks, it remains in the prime interest of Pakistan to maintain the resolution of the Kashmir dispute as to the precursor to any peace initiative. Hence, Pakistan may not look forward to the normalisation of ties and initiation of bilateral talks if the question of IOJ&K’s autonomy does not qualify as the central theme of discussions. Consequently, the onus of translating backdoor talks into a substantiative engagement, if any, lies with India exclusively. For a sustainable peace dialogue to be arrived at, the Modi government has to display its commitment to the cause practically. As long as India remains defiant on holding discussions on the issue of Kashmir, peace talks may serve as optics and of no practical utility. Consequential provisions for enabling a lasting peace between India and Pakistan must be predicated on the resolution of mutual differences between the two, the Kashmir issue as the focal point. For Pakistan to achieve an advantageous edge over India during the ongoing talks, Pakistan must invest in building a stronger case in matters of the Kashmir dispute, India’s malignant disinformation campaign, terror sponsorship, and on Pakistan’s overall principled position vis-à-vis India.