HOPE of easing of tensions between India and Pakistan and consequently, relative peace in Jammu and Kashmir, is discernible, after nearly four years.
India’s tough talk and response to terror attacks, almost-daily border skirmishes and militancy by separatists in the Kashmir Valley have aggravated bilateral relations.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has ruled out formal talks. Yet, there are signs of some welcome cooling. India and Pakistan, as recorded here earlier, will, for the first time, participate in a joint military exercise under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO). Pakistan will host and India will attend another SCO meeting soon.
They come as Pakistan moves towards its general elections at the end of July and the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has pursued a muscular tit-for-tat policy with Pakistan, enter the last of its five-year terms.
There is an endless list of mutual accusations. After a Pakistani minister-host walked away from lunch to which his Indian counterpart was invited, India pushed hard a policy of isolating the western neighbour, dealing only with Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan, nurturing sub-regional cooperation.
The Modi government has, along with some of the member-nations, scuttled meetings of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
New Delhi taking a tough line on the separatists in Kashmir, annihilating many, has invited months of violent street protests. The security forces have been given clear orders to use force, both against the militants, reinforced from across the border, and against the Pakistani forces. They even conducted “surgical strikes” across the border on two occasions. It is a no-war-no-peace situation.
Two new elements have governed the situation in the last four years. Since 2016, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for the first time, shares power in Jammu and Kashmir with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP). A Muslim-Hindu and Valley-Jammu divide, it is the most uneasy coalition one can imagine. But, neither party wants to quit for fear of losing the next election.
The other is building of a strong perception in other parts of India that the Kashmiri youth, by and large, are involved in violence and separatism and that countering them wherever they are is an act of patriotism. As part of the overall majoritarian approach, this narrative has widened the gulf. A generation of Kashmiri youth from the valley has lived under restriction on their movements. Kashmiri students in university campus outside the valley are told through local right-wing activists to go back to the valley as what happened earlier this year.
Continuing violence in the valley has given diplomatic and political handle to Pakistan and further vitiated India-Pakistan relations. A tired world community, with a myriad other issues to focus, has not gone beyond expressing occasional concerns.
Earlier attempts to bridge the gap in Kashmir based on findings of a group of interlocutors headed by journalist Dileep Padga-onkar were abandoned in favour of tough action and political management.
Some of this scenario may be changing, judging from some dramatic developments. Even as the Indian army continues the fight, some of its serving generals have stressed on a “political” solution. A ceasefire has been ordered during the current Ramadan.
Risking violent reaction from “miltablishment” that calls all the shots in his country and currently exodus of his lawmakers, Pakistan’s ousted premier Nawaz Sharif recently questioned the role of “non-state actors”, especially in the context of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, and muddying ties with India.
Former top spies of the two countries have jointly written a book, Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace. It contains a series of discussions conducted between the two former adversaries on a range of topics by Indian journalist Aditya Sinha.
Authors A.S. Dulat, retired chief of the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), and Lieutenant-General (Rtd) Asad Durrani, former director-general of the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), preach peace and a better understanding among the two neighbours.
The book was discussed in New Delhi. Significantly, the chief guests at the event were former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari. While these two represented the opposition congress, the star speaker at the event was Yashwant Sinha, former minister and a BJP stalwart, who has opposed the Modi government’s policy in Kashmir and with Pakistan.
“They are using this so-called muscular policy in Kashmir, and we all know that a policy that uses brawn lacks brains,” said Yashwant, who leads an independent fact-finding effort to understand the Kashmir situation.
These developments indicate growing opposition to the twin policies. The participants seek a much-needed review on both sides of the border, where hawks have ruled the discourse.
“By denying me a visa, they (Indians) have saved me from the wrath of my hawks,” Durrani said. But, have they? Expectedly, Durrani has been censured by the General Headquarters in Islamabad and prevented from travelling abroad.
The Modi government has not reacted to the book or to Dulat’s recommendation that India engage Pakistan’s military brass and invites the current army chief, General Javed Bajwa.
The debate is refreshing. Two years ago, protesters tarred the face of BJP intellectual Sudheendra Kulkarni when he promoted Pakistani politician Khurshid Kasuri’s book advocating an India-Pakistan rapprochement.
It is a long way strewn with diplomatic and military landmines. Each peace overture gets violently undone and it takes long to resume. Premiers from Nehru to Modi have faltered. So have Benazir Bhutto, Sharif, Pervez Musharraf, et al.
Manmohan and Musharraf did “think out of the box” a decade back. Sharif hosted Modi on an impromptu Lahore visit to attend a family wedding. He has been labeled “pro-India”, just as Manmohan, who wished to visit his ancestral home now in Pakistan, faced political music.
Making any prediction is futile. One can only hope, like the two book authors, that India-Pakistan people-to-people contacts are “a low-hanging fruit” that could be plucked easily. With the easing of visas and resumption of cricket ties, peace in Kashmir would follow.
Mahendra Ved is the NST's New Delhi correspondent. He is president of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (2016-2018) and a consultant with ‘Power Politics’ monthly magazine. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org