India-Pakistan friendship: the past, the future

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When an American drone strike inside Pakistan killed five in November 2008, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani condemned it in the parliament as a violation of their sovereignty. Pakistan also summoned the United States ambassador to lodge a formal protest.

Gilani, however, informally had told the US ambassador, Anne Patterson, in a private meeting, just months before his public condemnation, that he approved of the US carrying out drone strikes within Pakistan.

“We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it,” he had told Patterson, according to US diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks.

A decade later, a different government governs Pakistan which had been vociferous on the Kashmir-issue.

When New Delhi unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy in August 2019, Pakistan’s incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that he would “become the voice for Kashmir. I will be Kashmir’s ambassador.”

A month later, Kashmiris were boisterous when Khan made a spectacular speech at the United Nations General Assembly. He talked about Kashmir at length at a time when Kashmiris were facing the harshest ever lockdown.

Even as Pakistani politicians “unleashed a barrage of hostile polemic against India”, reports suggested that militant groups based across the Line of Control “continued to be muzzled, and violence remained in decline” giving India “enough reason to reopen the secret dialogue.”

The infiltration of trained militants was squeezed and the next year, 2020, marked the lowest ever number of attempts by insurgents to cross the LoC.

In Kashmir, people were taken by surprise in February 2021, when the Indian and Pakistani militaries announced a joint reiteration to uphold the 2003 ceasefire deal between the two armies along the LoC, the de facto border for decades now. The ceasefire was first agreed by Pakistan’s dictator Parvez Musharaf and India’s first BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The reiteration of the ceasefire was significant as it came with a deadly background: the preceding year had been extraordinarily violent on the LoC as Indian and Pakistani armies skirmished over 5000 times, about 14 times every day of 2020.

The pledge to cease the fire on the LoC was followed by other confidence-building measures that followed a rapid pace and culminated in a letter of congratulation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Khan on the occasion of Pakistan Day.

The improvement in bilateral relations is reminiscent of the Vajpayee-Musharaf era, when India and Pakistan had begun a process that, years later, had neared the culmination of the deal on Kashmir. There is, however, a new dimension this time: the absence — even if an illusion — of Kashmiri representation.

Going beyond Musharraf

What prompted the 2003 ceasefire deal was the determination of leaders of both countries in withstanding internal opposition and a change of government in New Delhi – as BJP-led NDA lost election and Congress-led UPA continued the process.

The two sides had discussed several options: to allow Kashmiris to freely move and conduct trade across the LoC and reduce military footprint gradually as violence ebbed; granting greater autonomy to J-K; and the formation of a joint body of Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri nationals overseeing matters pertaining to the region.

The talking process continued through much of the 2000-decade till Musharraf’s grip over Pakistan weakened with the controversies surrounding the military operation at the Lal Masjid and the nationwide lawyers’ protest over the dismissal of the then Chief Justice of Pakistan.

The subsequent return of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan had raised hopes for a popular government to seal a deal but her assassination in December 2007 led to the formation of a government of her unpopular widower Asif Zardari. In October 2008, Zardari had termed Kashmiri nationalists as “terrorists”, leading to protests and the burning of his effigy in J-K.

A month later, all hopes for the resumption of dialogue were extinguished with the 26 November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, blamed on Pakistan-based militants, in which 174 were killed and which soured bilateral relations between India and Pakistan. The US intervention helped avoid a repeated round of war rhetoric.

The successive governments in Pakistan, faced by the fall-off of the Mumbai attack, failed to establish consensus, mainly with the country’s all-powerful military and with New Delhi.

That seemed to be the case till Khan rose to power.

On his part, Khan has been consistent in his views regarding Kashmir, and putting it on the backburner. He has said it before assuming office and years later when Modi was eyeing a second term in 2019.

Khan had told foreign journalists: “perhaps if the BJP wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached”, and meanwhile all militant groups based in Pakistan, including but not limited to those operating in Kashmir, would be dismantled.

Khan has made good on that promise. Inferring the data tabled in the Indian parliament, the infiltration of militants from Pakistan into Kashmir in the past year has been the lowest in three decades, since the eruption of the insurgency in the late 1980s.

Weeks after the joint announcement of reiteration of ceasefire, in his speech at the inaugural session of the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa, in a rare public expression by a Pakistani military commander, called for India and Pakistan to “bury the past and move forward”.

“The Kashmir issue is obviously at the heart of this,” Bajwa said. “It is important to understand that without the resolution of Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, [the] process of sub-continental rapprochement will always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity.”

Modi’s India

Modi’s infamous vanity and simultaneous popularity in India despite the poor track record on human rights, particularly for religious minorities, makes the prospect of sealing a deal with Pakistan the most likely.

Soon after seizing power in New Delhi, Modi hit out at Pakistan in his maiden speech at the UNGA where the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had blamed India for the talks process running aground between the two.

The conditions for talks put forth by Modi then, and today has remained the same: “an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility”. Modi then made a surprise visit to Pakistan in 2015 to attend the marriage of Sharif’s granddaughter.

No Indian premier had visited Pakistan since Vajpayee’s participation in the 2004 SAARC summit there and Modi’s unannounced detour to Lahore meant that Modi could also walk like Vajpayee. The militant attack on Pathankot airbase in Punjab, however, again brought a freeze.

In the five years since then, there have two major fidayeen attacks on Indian forces, retaliatory military strikes in Pakistan in 2016, the 2019 suicide bombing in south Kashmir, rare dogfights and high drama over the capture and return of an Indian fighter pilot.

According to reports, the two countries had been coming close for peaceful relations but were derailed with the February 2019 bombing of an Indian paramilitary convoy in south Kashmir. At least forty troops were killed and relations worsened between the two countries, which also carried out retaliatory airstrikes before agreeing to deescalate the situation.

The events of early 2019 and Modi’s massive propaganda machinery, feeding on hyper-nationalism and willingness to publicise military strikes within Pakistan, won him a second term after his party won a landslide victory in the general elections that year. The hopes for settlement of the Kashmir issue were rekindled as Khan had hoped.

Kashmiris caught in-between

Another departure from the Vajpayee era is Modi’s hardline policies and the silencing of Kashmir, under threat of legal prosecution and arbitrary arrests of Kashmiri leaders and civilians accused of being anti-India since August 2019.

While the peace deal was welcomed by observers and civil society, in both India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s response remains cautious. Amid the eerie silence just days after the announcement, prominent Kashmir’s pro-Pakistan politician Syed Ali Geelani, through his representative, denounced the talks as “disturbing as it is surprising.”

Referring to 5 August 2019 and newer impositions on Kashmir by New Delhi continuing ever since, Geelani pointed out that “we have been hearing assurance after assurance that there would be no engagement with India until it rolls back everything it did on August 5” and questioned the “contradiction” in Pakistan’s political posturing and actions.

The current peace deal between the two countries would fail to stop bloodshed or New Delhi’s plans for Kashmir, the statement said. “The pact therefore does not reflect the interests of Kashmiri people,” the statement attributed to Geelani, issued by his Pakistan-based representative, said.

The pro-freedom leaders, however, aren’t opposed to peace overtures between India and Pakistan but the overlooking of Kashmiris in it. The stand of the Kashmiri parties has always been in favour of dialogues — tripartite, with Kashmiris having, some if not equal, say in the future. The “moderate” faction of the Hurriyat have played their part in the illusion.

More than a month after the joint announcement this year, two Indian paramilitary troopers were killed in an attack in broad daylight in the outskirts of Srinagar.

But New Delhi’s actions on 5 August 2019 and its crackdown on the Hurriyat, as well as Kashmiri unionists, coupled with Pakistan’s willingness to engage with India has left little doubt that Kashmiris no longer have a say.

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