The past few weeks have witnessed growing signs of a thaw in Pak-India relations. The process began with a goodwill message sent by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister Imran Khan on the occasion of Pakistan Day on March 23. There was a positive response from Imran Khan, who reiterated that Islamabad was ready to hold dialogue with New Delhi on all issues, including the long festering Kashmir dispute.
Earlier, the two militaries had already agreed to honor a 2003 ceasefire along the LoC. According to media reports, the initiative to break the ice between India and Pakistan was taken by the United Arab Emirates, which used backdoor diplomacy to reduce mounting tensions between the two nuclear-armed rivals. Senior Pakistani and Indian intelligence officials are said to have held a series of secret meetings in Dubai in January in an attempt to stem escalating tensions along the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir valley between the two neighbours.
UAE’s Ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba later confirmed that the Gulf state was mediating between New Delhi and Islamabad to help them reach a “healthy and functional” level. Addressing a virtual session with Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Otaiba said his country had a role in the ceasefire on the Kashmir border, which hopefully would get Indo-Pak relations back to normal.
When the Foreign Ministers of Pakistan and India visited the UAE, it was widely speculated that the two would meet to take the talks process forward. But both sides issued official denial that any such meeting was scheduled. In the course of his UAE visit, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the media that dialogue between Pakistan and India would only take place if the situation in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJ&K) improves. In an interview to the Khaleej Times, he said: “Kashmir is not bilateral; rather an internationally-recognised issue as there are numerous UN Security Council resolutions on it.”
He added that if India and Pakistan wanted lasting peace in South Asia, they would have to discuss the IIOJ&K issue to find a resolution according to the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, as the issue could not be put on the back-burner: “We want to move ahead, but in order to get there, India, which is responsible for vitiating the environment, will have to create a conducive and enabling environment for the dialogue to take place.” Qureshi also said that Pakistan would appreciate anyone and everyone, including the UAE, to play a positive and constructive role, but the initiative will have to be indigenous.
It may be recalled here that relations between India and Pakistan dipped to a new low after August 2019, when India scrapped the longstanding special status of Jammu and Kashmir, resulting in Islamabad downgrading diplomatic ties with New Delhi. Islamabad has since then consistently taken the stand that the normalization of ties is linked to a review of the Aug. 5 decision and ultimate resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
In the meantime there have been other positive developments, with India saying it wants to see a peaceful Afghanistan. According to experts, both countries have reasons to seek a rapprochement. India has been locked in a border stand-off with China for over a year and does not want its military stretched on the Pakistan front. On the other hand, Pakistan, mired in economic difficulties and on an IMF bailout programme, can ill-afford heightened tensions on the Kashmir border for a prolonged period. It also has to stabilise the Afghan border on its west as the United States withdraws.
In the context of a fast-changing regional scenario and new moves in the global power game, Pakistan has projected a new vision of peace in South Asia, which promises to usher in a new era of harmonious relations among neighbouring states. The “Islamabad Security Dialogue” (ISD), recently held in the federal capital, successfully projected Pakistan’s “new strategic direction based on a comprehensive security framework” encompassing regional connectivity and development partnerships across the region. The conclave was important for charting a new path for the realization of Pakistan’s regional and global aspirations for peace and development.
Pakistan’s new foreign policy stance has been welcomed both by regional and global powers, with America nudging New Delhi to mend fences with Islamabad. There now seems to be a tacit agreement between the two sides that before moving on to resolve the 74-year-old Kashmir dispute, tensions must be reduced to pave the way for a broader engagement. Given the nuclear status of the two countries, war is out of the question. Peace is the only option, which must be comprehensively explored in all its dimensions.