The reiterated ceasefire at the LoC between India and Pakistan is less than two weeks old. Speculation does continue on why and how it came into place rather than on ensuring that it works without hiccups and progressively ushers in a peace process. The feasibility of that is what I examine here.
Most analysts have it that it was a back channel that got the ceasefire in place. A possible Biden nudge is being spoken of so that Pakistan, free from LoC tension, can play a more positive role in Afghanistan. Since the source or issue triggering the back channel is unknown, there is expression of doubt on whether such a ceasefire can sustain due to the type of political instability that exists in Pakistan. Ayesha Siddiqa, one of Pakistan's most authoritative analysts, is confident that with General Bajwa, Pakistan's powerful army chief having backed it, the ceasefire will not be affected by any political disruptions within that nation. There have been some noises within Pakistan about it having handed over the advantage secured after Balakot and the international brownie points it had scored after India read down Article 370. These perceptions remain wedded to Pakistan's ill-conceived self-perception but also do indicate that there isn’t universal acceptance within it that a ceasefire at the LoC is a positive development. Perhaps opinion in Pakistan may also allude to a belief that both Beijing and Islamabad had New Delhi in a pincer in the J&K and Ladakh region and this wasn’t the time for both to let go. This lobby is both dangerous and ambitious.
Events do not follow a natural progression in the strange environment that exists in India-Pakistan relations. I was a division commander in Kashmir in 2008 when the ceasefire was in its fifth year and holding well except for a few violations in the Rajouri sector. When Mumbai 26/11 occurred, I braced for violations to increase manifold. Yet, nothing happened; it was all peace and quiet. It’s also true that Musharraf’s backing to a ceasefire with India did not find support within the Pakistan Corps Commanders, the deepest of the deep state. So there is no guarantee that the support of the Pakistan army chief will ensure that the ceasefire continues with full backing. The ceasefire needs fleshing out in different ways. I, however, do not doubt the ability of the Pakistan army to give this continuity even if there is a change in political leadership anytime in the near future. The stakes this time for Pakistan are higher than ever before. A quiet LoC symbolises an environment of accommodation and Pakistan will start getting viewed more positively by the international community. It helps with FATF certification and in undertaking various measures to shore up the financial stability of Pakistan. The problem of political, social or economic fleshing out of a peace process is that Pakistan has one more complexity: the recall of its High Commissioner on grounds of objection to the reading down of Article 370. It implies that restoration of full diplomatic relations would be a virtual dropping of Pakistan’s objection to it. Is this likely to be a diplomatic obstacle? Simultaneously India’s well-known pre-condition for talks is the abrogation of all Pakistan-supported proxy terror activity in India and particularly J&K. The start point for any process, which will be needed to give substance to the ceasefire for its longevity, is mired in these complexities. Can this problem of initiation be overcome by two things: first the inclusions of a formal back channel possibly backed by informal back channels, and second the feasibility of looking towards the conduct of the long-delayed SAARC summit in Islamabad later this year.
A back channel helps, just like it helped the 26 November 2003 ceasefire stay in place at least five years; its absence progressively ensured increasing violations, of course triggered by the Mumbai 26/11 attacks. Analysts have always believed that a peace process between a strong and politically stable government in India and the deep state-oriented Pakistan army is the best bet for success. As long as its army can ensure that no incidents that have the potential of drastically upsetting opinion in India occur, some kind of peace process can be thought about. Such a process cannot be commenced without preparation, preliminary meetings and some creeping confidence-building measures. Parachuting into such a process without adequate buildup will actually produce more negativity than chances of progress. Informal back channels sometimes help in finding ways to overcome hesitation and can also bring more detail to some proposals on and off the table.
The hung SAARC meeting is a good event to reactivate. Post-pandemic geopolitics and economics should be regionally understood and cooperative ways of overcoming some of the challenges must be discussed. It should be set for the end of the year giving enough time to see how the situation in J&K pans out in the next six months. There will be many spoilers awaiting an opportunity, wishing for backtracking by both countries. None in India should expect that Pakistan is going to pull back from the proxy support it extends to networks and perpetrators of violence in J&K. However, India has a threshold of tolerance that must continue to be clearly demonstrated. Similarly none in Pakistan should imagine that Kashmir has slipped from India’s hands after the Article 370 decision. It is notions such as these that will act as insurmountable obstacles. India has already made it very clear that the current agreement is a reiteration of the 2003 ceasefire and does not extend to any operations within the UT of J&K. With so many complexities involved, getting anything such as a peace process off the ground is a monumental task for which diplomatic and goodwill ‘sherpas’ of substance are needed. Success can also be assured if a code of conduct is agreed upon as war of words and one-upmanship are never helpful.
The ceasefire itself needs better definition of terms and conditions. The issue of improvement of fortifications or construction of new ones at the LoC has always been a sticking point. Clearly, physical DGMO-level talks (at Delhi and Rawalpindi) followed by talks between corresponding sector commanders in frequent flag meetings will be helpful. It’s a little early to speculate on chances of progressing on all this which sounds a bit like wishful thinking.
(The writer is Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir and can firstname.lastname@example.org)