Two years ago, Pakistan and India were on the brink of a war. “We were on the verge of nuclear threshold” were the words of a senior security official, who had briefed a group of journalist two days after Pakistan shot down the Indian fighter plane.
But as Pakistan observed the second anniversary of Operation Swift Retort, are the two countries nearing another peace initiative?
On February 25, Pakistan and India, in an unprecedented and unexpected move, decided to honour the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Both put out a joint statement, agreeing to “address each other’s core issues/concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”. The announcement immediately triggered speculations that the agreement was the result of ‘backchannel’ contacts between India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Dr Moeed Yousaf. One Indian media report claimed the two even met in a third country. Moeed, however, rejected the claim as baseless, insisting the LoC agreement came after direct negotiations between the military authorities of both countries.
But notwithstanding his rebuttal, such an agreement would not have been possible without approval from the highest level. The move may look dramatic but developments leading up to this announcement suggest it was not an out-of-the-blue decision. Relations between Pakistan and India continued to deteriorate over the past few years but the real dip started after the Pulwama incident, in February 2019. The situation worsened when India, on August 5, 2019, revoked the special status of occupied Kashmir.
By then, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was hoping for better ties under Modi’s second term, lost all hopes and launched personal attacks against the Indian PM often equating him with Hitler. He slammed Modi relentlessly till January 17 this year — the last time he did a scathing tweet against Modi. After that his Twitter handle suddenly stopped attacking Modi as a person. Similarly, on February 2, Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa gave a telling statement, offering India a resolution of the Kashmir dispute through a “peaceful and dignified manner”. He went on to say it was time to extend a hand of friendship to all directions.
Three days later, PM Imran offered an olive branch to India, stating his government was ready to take two steps forward if India took one. On February 23, despite hostilities, India permitted the PM’s special aircraft to use its airspace for a visit to Sri Lanka. On February 24, Indian army chief said unsettled borders were not in India’s interest, and New Delhi wanted peace at LoC and LAC. On the day Pakistan and India agreed to a ceasefire, the Indian external affairs ministry was more nuanced in its answer on the possibility of talks with Pakistan. “India desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. We have always maintained that we are committed to addressing issues, if any, in a peaceful bilateral manner,” the Indian MEA spokesperson said. For a change he did not opt for the usual rhetoric that talks could only take place in an environment “free from terror”. All these cannot be mere coincidence and appear to be well choreographed.
The question arises: why are the two countries now seeking a thaw? One explanation is that it has to do with the change of administration in the US. Also, India, despite its public claims of managing both fronts with Pakistan and China, wants to calm things at least with Pakistan. The ceasefire is seen as a relief for India that Pakistan will not take advantage of its standoff with China. This is the major concession India has been able to extract from Pakistan, according to Indian commentators. But what will Pakistan get or has got in return for this favour? We may get an answer in the coming days or weeks!
Published in The Express Tribune, March 1st, 2021.