In a televised interview last week, SM Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign affairs minister stated that Article 370 was an internal matter of India. He added that what concerned Pakistan was Article 35A, which implied changing demography of the valley. This is the exact opposite to comments made by him during the past two years.
Even during his MidApril visit to the UAE, he had stated, “Pakistan is ready to talk with India if it takes back its steps of August 5, 2019.” He repeated this demand on multiple occasions. Other Pakistani ministers followed suit. On 1 April this year, Pakistan’s minister for information and broadcasting, Fawad Choudhary commented, “Pakistan wishes to normalise ties with India, but it will not be possible until India changes its policy towards Kashmir and revokes its decision of abrogating Article 370.”
Qureshi had criticized the OIC last August on not questioning the changed status of Kashmir, leading to degradation of ties with Saudi Arabia. Such was the aura of Article 370 within the Pakistani polity that its cabinet on 1 April this year deferred demands to procure sugar and cotton from India till the article was reinstated. Suddenly, a month later everything reverses and Article 370 means nothing.
When India abrogated Article 370 in August 2019, Imran Khan, immediately downgraded diplomatic ties and withdrew his High Commissioner. He commented in every forum, including the UN, that removal of this article implied India was acting against UN resolutions, little realizing that Article 370 was invoked in end 1956 and became a law in 1957, while the UN resolution precedes it.
While addressing a rally in Kotli, POK, on Kashmir solidarity day, in February this year, Imran Khan stated, “Come resolve this Kashmir dispute with us. And for that, the first thing you must do is to restore Article 370.’ While Imran has yet to reverse his statement all his other ministers are doing so. China, on Pakistan’s request, attempted to raise the changed status of Kashmir in a UNSC closed door meeting in August 2019, but this was blocked by other members, claiming it to be India’s internal matter.
Turkey also backed Pakistan on Article 370 in international fora. To support Pakistan’s stance many paid pro-Pak senators in the US and few members of parliament in the UK adversely commented on India. The sudden change in stance of Pakistan has left them all embarrassed and silent. India had always maintained that this was its internal matter. This change in Pakistan’s stance is not without reason.
General Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief, had, during his iftar interaction with select journalists, stated that reading down of Article 370 is not an issue of concern for Pakistan as it never recognised this provision of the Indian Constitution as one of any value for the resolution of the Kashmir issue. He added that more important from Pakistan’s point of view was restoration of statehood, and that there should be no demographic change in Kashmir.
On the Cabinet’s decision of not procuring sugar and cotton from India, Bajwa had commented that the political leadership may have had its own compulsions, but there was no way forward towards peace other than trade with neighbours. If General Bajwa, the determiner of the country’s foreign policy towards India, professes this view, Pakistan’s politicians have no choice but to sing the same tune and loudly. They are seeking different ways to convey their message, but the bitter truth is that they have has been compelled to retract their statements.
This message has not been lost on India Backchannel talks between India and Pakistan involved members of the Pakistan army and ISI but not its polity. Hence, Bajwa would be more aware of Indian redlines than Pakistan’s politicians, who remain puppets of Rawalpindi. The most prominent fallout of the backchannel discussions is the ceasefire. Hence, the Pakistan narrative projected over the past two years has begun to change. Bajwa’s announcement of reality was a message for Pakistani politicians to reverse their stand.
The interview by Qureshi, displaying a change in stance, was aired a day before the visit of Imran Khan to Saudi Arabia. This could have been a pre-requisite for restoration of ties between the two states. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit “emphasised the importance of dialogue between Pakistan and India to resolve outstanding issues between the two countries, especially J and K, to ensure peace and stability in the region.”
There was no mention of any support by the OIC nor demands on India nor any criticism of India’s Kashmir policy. The Saudis had conveyed the strong Indian message to Pakistan, and it was accepted without a whimper. This change in Pakistan’s stance also displays that Pakistan has dumped its support to valley political parties and pro-Pakistani factions who have been demanding restoration of the article. Mehbooba Mufti had stated in April this year, “When Mehbooba Mufti says Article 370 should be restored why does BJP get angry. Should we ask Pakistan to restore Article 370?”
She added that her party would demand its restoration till its last breath. Farooq Abdullah had gone to the extent of stating, “I am hopeful that with their (Chinese) support, Article 370 will be restored in J&K.” Currently, with Pakistan changing its stance there is silence within the valley as politicians and leaders of the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat realise they have been used and dumped. Another message clearly sent is that the Hurriyat is no longer a party to any future talks.
This change in stance is a positive move for Indo-Pak dialogue, but uncomfortable for the Pakistan government. It will now have to convince its own hardliners on why it has changed tack. It will also not go down well with the valley political parties and pro-Pak elements who have been banking on Pakistani support for restoring the article. The Indian government played its cards well. We could witness forward movement on talks as the impact of Covid reduces.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)