Signs of a thaw in Pakistan-India relations By Zahid Hussain


Some recent developments have raised hopes for a thaw in the Pakistan-India relations. As the two countries agreed to restore the cease-fire along the Line of Control (LoC) last month, Pakistan’s civil and military leaders offered an olive branch to India by emphasizing the need to “bury the past and move forward.” There has been a visible reduction in rhetoric from both sides since then.

In a message to his Pakistani counterpart, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his government’s desire to have cordial relations with Islamabad. Such statements emanating from the two South Asian capitals are viewed as encouraging developments that can lead to a resumption of dialogue between them.

These positive messages have certainly provided a window of opportunity to the two nuclear-armed neighbors to return to the negotiating table. However, a major question relates to their ability to move forward on contentious issues like Kashmir and terrorism that have remained the main sticking points in the past.

Pakistan says India will have to create an enabling environment to move forward, but there is no clarity on what Pakistani leaders expect the Modi administration to do. The relations between the two countries hit the rock bottom after the Indian Air Force intruded Pakistani airspace in February 2019.

A few months later, the situation deteriorated after India unilaterally annexed the disputed state of Kashmir. Since then, the two countries have downgraded their diplomatic relations and cut off all official level communications. Pakistan wants India to reverse of its action in Kashmir for talks to resume. In that context, some latest statements by the Pakistani prime minister and army chief are viewed as a radical shift in the country’s stance.

Addressing the inaugural session of the Islamabad Security Dialogue last week, Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was ready to take two paces toward peace “but India would have to take the first step.” This was widely construed as a softening of stance, though the prime minister had pointed out that his country could not move ahead a peacemaking gesture from New Delhi.

However, it was a highly conciliatory speech by Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the same forum that captured greater public attention. While stressing the need to resolve the Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, Bajwa said: “We feel it is time to bury the past and move forward.”

Such offers of peace to India reflect the country’s emphasis on geo-economics that requires greater regional connectivity and enhanced trade relations with neighboring states. It also manifests the government’s changing understanding of national security that previously revolved around the military dimension of the concept.

The country now seems to be putting greater emphasis on other aspects of national security by thinking in terms of developing a more robust national economy. As the army chief pointed out, South Asian nations should “create synergy through connectivity, peaceful co-existence and resource sharing to fight hunger, illiteracy and disease instead of fighting each other.”

Pakistan’s worsening economic situation appears to be a major factor in its desire to deescalate the situation with India. As General Bajwa noted: “In this environment, developing countries like Pakistan, today face multi-dimensional challenges, which cannot be navigated single-handedly.”

The cease-fire agreement seems to have spurred the movement toward peace. In a surprise development, the two countries announced the resumption of cease-fire at the LoC after a “hotline contact” between the directors-general of military operations of the two countries last month.

Many believe that the agreement was made possible through backchannel contacts. No cease-fire violation has since been reported. In a further sign of thaw in their relations, the two countries held their first meeting in three years to discuss the water issues between them.

Prime Minister Modi’s March 22 letter to Imran Khan has also been seen as a sign of flexibility in India’s hard-line position. It was Modi’s first direct message to his Pakistani counterpart after a hiatus of more than two years in which he said that his country desired cordial relations with the people of Pakistan, though he also cautioned that an environment of trust — “devoid of terror and hostility” — was imperative.

There is, however, no indication that India will be willing to talk to Pakistan on Kashmir. There is also no sign that New Delhi will reverse its August 5, 2019, decision to end the autonomy of the disputed Himalayan state.

While there has been a lowering of hostilities between the two countries, it is too early to say that they will constructively engage each other on key contentious issues. For any peace process to start, India must take some tangible measures to restore human and democratic rights of the people of Kashmir.

– Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.