The Choice is India’s

The Choice is India’s
A discussion over the established hotline between Directors-General Military Operations of  Pakistan and India has led to a joint statement, announcing a ceasefire along the Line of Control starting midnight 24/25 February 2021. Most reports call it a surprise development. It is not. A way out of the logjam created by India’s ill-conceived decision to remove even the fig leaf of Occupied Kashmir’s little-left autonomy began a while ago.

But before we get to that, let’s see what the statement says: “Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb 2021.” The two sides have also “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence” in order to achieve “mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders”.

This is the first military-to-military joint statement since the 2003 understanding over a ceasefire and the first Pakistan-India engagement since the July 2015 Ufa joint statement and the March 2019 statement on Kartarpur Corridor.

Let’s go back to the October 13, 2020 interview of Dr Moeed Yusuf by Karan Thapar. Yusuf, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on National Security and Chairman Strategic Policy planning, made the following broad points. India’s policy of pushing a unilateral agenda is unsustainable (the reference being to India’s February 2019 aggression and August 2019 revocation of Occupied Kashmir’s little-left autonomy); India is a polar opposite of Pakistan (while Pakistan is looking for geoeconomic space, peace and connectivity, India is in conflict with almost all its neighbours. In this he also referred to what he (Yusuf) stood for and what the Indian NSA, a former spook, stands for); India’s Hindutva agenda is eroding its soft power; Pakistan wants peace but is prepared for a drawn-out pushback if it comes to that; Pakistan is fully prepared to discuss India’s state-sponsored terrorism; Kashmir and Kashmiris are a party to the dispute and India cannot brush that fact under the carpet. And then Yusuf said something else: India has sent a message showing a desire for conversation.

Thapar, who was trying to take the interview in other directions, never fully grasped the significance of what Yusuf had said. All Thapar managed, somewhat incredulously given his journalistic credentials, that since he had no way of knowing that, he couldn’t say if what Yusuf had stated was a fact.

But while indicating that India had sent this message, Yusuf also said that such a dialogue is contingent on certain concrete actions by India: release of political prisoners in Occupied Jammu and Kashmir, making Kashmiris a party to the talks, ending restrictions in the region, rescinding the domicile law that allows non-Kashmiris to settle in the region, and stopping human rights abuses.

It took the Indian Ministry of External Affairs two days to put out a statement saying India had not approached Pakistan. On October 15, at his briefing, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said: “The statements made by him [Yusuf] are contrary to facts on the ground, misleading and fictitious. As regards the purported message that was referred to, let me make it clear that no such message was sent from our side.”

Diplomacy is generally about withholding truth, but in this case, taken by surprise, the MEA lied about the message for obvious reasons.
While multiple rounds of talks have resulted in a disengagement process, Indian military is stretched since it now has to hard-man the LAC round the year

There have been other contacts since then. There’s a reason: for all the braggadocio, India is stuck in Occupied Kashmir. It had estimated that it could control the situation after its illegal annexation but that hasn’t happened. The use of force has only served to further alienate people. Even politicians that have played ball with New Delhi for more than seven decades know that without asking for the restoration of the state’s autonomy, they have no future with the people. The motley crowd of low-level leaders India has been trying to prop up since the illegal annexation have gained no traction with the people.

The world capitals, international media and UN bodies have begun to take increasing note of both the situation in Occupied and Illegally annexed Kashmir as well as rights abuses across the Indian mainland. From CAA protests to Delhi riots and now ongoing farmers protests, Modi’s government has had to grapple with multiple challenges at home. With India’s soft power eroding, while realpolitik has somewhat shielded India from being censured directly, big state actors have begun to nudge India privately to do something positive because the current stalemate and instability cannot continue.

Add to this mix the standoff in eastern Ladakh along the Line of Actual Control. While multiple rounds of talks have resulted in a disengagement process, Indian military is stretched since it now has to hard-man the LAC round the year. Regardless of the disengagement process, India knows that the LAC is now a permanent headache. Reports suggest that it has had to reorient one of its strike corps, 1 Corps, to the north. Two infantry divisions of that corps will now have to operate along the LAC. That would require new operational plans for the divisions, retraining, acclimatisation etcetera. While top Indian generals have been talking about a two-front war (in fact, two-and-half-front war), the fact is that even very strong states would like to avoid such a situation. A two-front war is good only for sand models.

So, there have been messages through interlocutors, MEA’s denials notwithstanding. India’s ask has been for Pakistan to dial down the rhetoric and the diplomatic offensive so the Narendra Modi government gets some space. The ask on Pakistan’s side is for India to reverse the August 5 unilateral action as an irreducible minimum, and get down to meaningfully talking about Kashmir and the future of Kashmiris. Interestingly, Modi has also been concerned about attacks on his person with reference to fascism and Hindutva.

Pakistan also told the interlocutors to ensure some guarantees. The initial response was pegged on the good-faith argument. The response this side was that that wasn’t enough.

There’s many a slip still betwixt the cup and the lip but it seems that some progress has been made. The Chief of Army Staff’s speech at the Pakistan Air Force Academy was a signal. This is what General QJ Bajwa said: “It is time to extend [the] hand of peace in all directions…..Pakistan and India must also resolve the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir in a dignified and peaceful manner as per the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and bring this human tragedy to its logical conclusion.”

On Wednesday, speaking at a virtual seminar, India’s COAS, Gen MM Naravane is reported to have said, “With our continuous engagement with Pakistan, we will be able to prevail over them (for border peace) unsettled borders help no one.”

The attempt now is to dial down hostilities, take some steps and build confidence. But, as Pakistan has made clear, Modi needs to find a way to reverse August 5. The only way to do that is through the Indian Supreme Court. The issue is already before the court, though it has been dragging its feet on it. If there is to be any real movement to return the region to normalcy, we should see the Indian SC become more active in dealing with petitions calling for the reversal of that decision. That would open up the space for going back to a dialogue that addresses a range of issues and disputes between the two countries.

The choice is India’s.

The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider

The writer has an abiding interest in foreign and security policies and life’s ironies.