A wind of change seemed to be blowing across the India-Pakistan border towards the end of February and in March, raising hopes for normalisation of relations between the two ‘distant neighbours’, as Kuldip Nayar had once described them.

But that hope is disappearing fast. During his visit to Sri Lanka, Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing the Sri Lanka-Pakistan Trade and Economic Conference on 24 February, said that after being elected to the post in 2018 he offered India an opportunity to hold peace talks, but nothing came to pass.

However he was hopeful; Pakistan’s only problem with India is the Kashmir dispute and it can be resolved through dialogue, he said.

“The only way the subcontinent can tackle poverty is by improving trade relations”, he added. A sound judgement, though the realisation came a bit late. In response to the Pakistan Prime Minister’s offer for holding peace talks, the spokesperson of the MEA said India desires normal, friendly relations with Pakistan in an environment free of terror, hostility and violence and added, “The onus is on Pakistan for creating such an environment” (The Statesman, 25 February, 2021).

A casual reading of these statements may imply that India and Pakistan were really engaged in a game of one-upmanship to show which side was more righteous than the other. But subsequent events generated hopes for the better.

Because, quick on the heels of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s speech at Colombo, on 25 February, in a joint statement issued by India and Pakistan it was declared that in the interest of achieving ‘mutually beneficial peace along the border’, the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs), of the two states had “agreed to address each other’s core concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”, and to strictly observe all the bilateral agreements and understandings and cease fire along the LoC, with effect from the midnight of 24/25 February.

Both sides also reiterated that the existing mechanisms of hotline contacts, and border flag meetings would be utilised to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstandings.

The joint statement is really an attempt by the two states to adhere to the ceasefire agreement signed in 2003 and is significant against the background of souring of India-Pakistan relations over the last few years that reached the nadir after the abrogation of Article 370 giving special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and its bifurcation into two Union Territories ~ Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh ~ on 5 August 2019.

Following this decision, Prime Minister Khan announced the decision to suspend bilateral trade with India and review bilateral agreements.

He also suspended the Delhi-Lahore bus service and the Samjhauta Express train service ~ that were introduced to promote peopleto-people contact.

The diplomatic missions were downgraded and Pakistan made an all-out effort to isolate India diplomatically, and raised the issue in the UN Security Council, with help from its all-weather friend China, to put pressure on India to reverse its Kashmir policy. But Pakistan realised that bellicosity towards India has not brought it much benefits.

The decision of the two armies to adhere to the ceasefire agreement and strictly observe all the bilateral agreements and understandings was indeed a welcome move towards reduction of hostilities and violence along the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir and was applauded by the mainstream political parties in the region, as people living near the LoC were the worst victims of ceasefire violations.

It should also provide an opportunity for further negotiations for normalisation of India-Pakistan relations. It is important to remember that the joint statement of 25 February was not a sudden development; it was preceded by back-channel negotiations between the two sides that reportedly involved Ajit Doval, India’s National Security Advisor and Moeed Yusuf, the Special Assistant to Prime Minister Khan.

Both sides had their reasons to make such moves. For India, peace along the India-Pakistan border/LoC will provide breathing space for strategic planners and may reduce the possibility of a two-front war. In 2020, there were 5,100 instances of ceasefire violations along the LoC ~ resulting in the death of 24 security personnel and injury to 130, including civilians ~ at a time when Indian and Chinese forces were facing each other in eastern Ladakh. It is significant that the ceasefire agreement with Pakistan came weeks after the disengagement and withdrawal of Indian and Chinese forces from the flash points in eastern Ladakh.

Pakistan also had its own reasons for seeking to mend relations with India.

For one, Pakistan’s economy is in dire stress and it would be immensely beneficial for Pakistan if regional relations ~ particularly, India-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations ~ are stabilised. The pressure from the FATF to rein in terrorist groups is also an important factor, for if Pakistan’s name is not removed from the grey list at its next meeting to be held in June 2021, Islamabad may find it difficult to handle its multilateral economic relations, particularly relations with aid-givers, leading to over-dependence on China in matters both economic and political/diplomatic.

If India-Pakistan relations improve, Pakistan will be able to argue that its moves against terrorist outfits is succeeding. Equally important has been the dramatic improvement in India-US defence and security relations in recent years, with strong bipartisan support.

After the change of guard in Washington in January, the Biden Administration has been emphatic in its appreciation of India’s “leadership role” in the Indo-Pacific and its growing engagement with “like-minded partners” across the region to promote shared goals, as was mentioned by Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin during his three-day visit to New Delhi in March.

No less significant was the fact that West Asian partners of both the states ~ particularly, the UAE ~ also wanted the two South Asian neighbours to normalise relations for the development of peace in the region.

Within three weeks of the ceasefire agreement between the DGMOs of India and Pakistan, in mid-March, both Prime Minister Khan and the Chief of Pakistan’s Army Staff, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, spoke in favour of improvements in India-Pakistan relations. Speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue on 16 March, Mr Khan pitched for improvement in trade relations with neighbours, particularly India, as it will promote regional peace and prosperity; peace with Pakistan will also help India to access the resource-rich Central Asian countries, he said.

He reiterated that although Kashmir was the most important problem in relations between the two states that had been severely jolted by India’s decision to abrogate Article 370, he was hopeful that the problem could be resolved through dialogue. Speaking at the same forum the next day, Gen.

Bajwa went a step further and said Pakistan was keen to “bury the past” and move forward for improvement of bilateral relations with India through negotiations on all outstanding issues, including Kashmir. Significantly, neither Khan nor his Chief of Army Staff set any pre-condition for resumption of dialogue on Kashmir and other issues.

Gen. Bajwa also talked about the CPEC and the opportunity it provided for economic cooperation for the states in the region, including India. And to give a boost to these conciliatory gestures, friendly letters were exchanged between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart during the last week of March. On the occasion of Pakistan Day (23 March) Prime Minister Modi wrote to Imran Khan extending India’s greetings to the people of Pakistan.

As a neighbouring country, India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan for which “an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility is imperative”, he wrote.

Greeting the people of Pakistan on Pakistan Day is, of course, a routine matter, but this year the Prime Minister’s letter acquired special importance in view of the developments mentioned above. In his reply to Mr. Modi’s letter a week later, on 29 March, the Pakistani Prime Minister, while reciprocating India’s desire for peace emphasised that durable peace and stability is South Asia “is contingent upon resolving all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, in particular the Jammu and Kashmir dispute”, for which an “enabling environment” is imperative for a constructive and result -oriented approach.

In the context of these developments, there was also speculation that Prime Minister Modi may visit Islamabad to attend the 19th SAARC Summit, which was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016, but could not because of India’s refusal to attend it after the attack on the Army Camp in Uri by Pakistan based terrorists.

However, the possibility of an improvement in India-Pakistan relations received a jolt when the Pakistan Cabinet in a volte face rejected on 1 April, the recommendation of the Economic Coordination Committee to import cotton and sugar from India, which disappointed Pakistan’s textile industry.

The decision came a day after the highpowered committee under then Finance Minister Hammad Azhar decided (on 31 March) to import the two items from India virtually lifting a two-year old ban on their import. Explaining the reason behind the decision to import cotton from India, the Finance Minister said that Pakistan’s textile industry would suffer because of a shortfall in cotton production in Pakistan.

Importing cotton from the neighbouring country ~ which is the world’s largest producer of cotton ~ would help the Pakistani textile industry, a big exporter of textiles, and would also be cheaper compared to other sources, which is also true of import of sugar. This was a sound economic decision but was rejected by the Cabinet.

The obvious question is why did this happen?

(To be concluded)

(The writer is Professor (retired)of International Relations and Dean, Faculty of Arts, Jadavpur University)