The Joint Statement by the Directors-General of Military Operations of India and Pakistan calling for a ceasefire can be attributed to both internal and external factors on both sides of the border and follows the decision of both India and China to disengage. For both countries, the best way ahead will be to get results from low-hanging fruit, such as bilateral trade. Looking further forward, it will be important to see if bilateral tensions can be reduced and whether the ceasefire – if it holds – can provide an impetus for the revival of the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which now has been in limbo for nearly five years.
- The Joint Statement by the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMO) of India and Pakistan calling for a ceasefire is being attributed to various reasons, both internal and external. It comes days after the decision of both India and China to disengage.
- Days before the statement by the DGMOs, there were some indicators of a thaw, if one were to go by the statements of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, and even Prime Minister Imran Khan, during his visit to Sri Lanka.
- For both countries, the best way ahead would be to get results from low-hanging fruit like bilateral trade.
- It will be important to see if bilateral tensions can be reduced and whether the South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which has been in limbo for nearly five years, can be revived.
The ceasefire on 24 February that was agreed upon by India and Pakistan is important for a number of reasons. First, it comes a year-and-a-half after the already strained ties between India and Pakistan had deteriorated even further after New Delhi revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution in Kashmir. Second, it comes days after India and China decided to resolve tensions after a period of almost nine months by withdrawing their troops from the North and South Banks of Pangong Lake at the Line of Actual Control. Third, this ceasefire was declared a little over a month after US President Joe Biden took office as President of the US. Several commentators believe that behind the scenes it was the US that nudged India and Pakistan towards the ceasefire.
The statement released by the Directors-General of Military Operations of both countries stated that they agreed to address each other’s key concerns with the aim of fostering peaceful relations. It also said:
Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight, February 24-25, 2021.
India and Pakistan had signed a ceasefire in 2003, but that has been violated on a number of occasions, 2020 being a case in point.
A United Nations (UN) spokesperson, welcoming the decision of both countries, said that the Secretary General hoped that this would pave the way for further dialogue. The US welcomed the joint statement of India and Pakistan. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said:
This is a positive step towards greater peace and stability in South Asia which is in our shared interest and we encourage both countries to keep building upon this progress.
There were some indicators that a thawing of bilateral relations could occur. First, a representative from Pakistan attended a South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) Secretary-level meeting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was allowed to use Indian airspace en route to his visit to Sri Lanka. While Mr Khan called for greater economic co-operation within South Asia during his Sri Lanka visit, weeks earlier Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, while addressing a graduation ceremony of Pakistan Air force cadets, also spoke about the need for harmonious ties between India and Pakistan and the need to amicably resolve disputes.
Numerous reasons have been cited for the declaration of the ceasefire. One view is that this is an attempt by Pakistan to send out a message to the new Biden Administration that it is keen for peace with India. By doing so, Pakistan is keen to improve its relations with the US, which have been strained in recent years and also to send the right messaging to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) which only recently placed Pakistan on its “grey list” of risk-laden countries. The second reason cited for the thaw between India and Pakistan as well as the reduction of tensions between India and China is the recognition of all three countries that the Biden Administration would follow a fundamentally different policy from Trump’s and would be more pro-active in Asia. In fact, given the ties between India, Pakistan and China it would be amiss to overlook the conversation, a day after the ceasefire, between the Indian Foreign Minister, S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
When asked to comment on whether the US played any role in brokering the ceasefire between India and Pakistan, US State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said:
I can say and what you’ve heard me say from this podium and others from this administration say is that we had called on the parties to reduce tensions along the Line of Control by returning to that 2003 ceasefire agreement.
There is also a belief, that even if Washington has not been the main catalyst behind this ceasefire, it does benefit in the regional context and Islamabad would be able to work with Washington in the peace process in Afghanistan.
Some believe that the ceasefire should be welcomed, albeit with guarded optimism. South Asian economies have suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and a reduction in tensions would benefit not just India and Pakistan, but the whole of South Asia, which could pave the way for the revival of the SAARC Process. As mentioned earlier, India had invited a Pakistani representative to attend a SAARC workshop on COVID-19 on 18 February 2021. The SAARC process was suspended in 2016 after the Uri terror attacks, and while several regional countries called for the revival of the peace process, India declined – until now.
Interestingly, Pakistan is also set to receive Indian vaccines under the United Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, or GAVI. Even bilateral options for supply of the vaccine by India to Pakistan are being explored given the fact that “life-saving medicines” can be provided bilaterally, in spite of the disruption of bilateral trade.
India-Pakistan Snap Ties
India-Pakistan ties spiralled downwards after the Pulwama terror attack; India withdrew the Most-Favoured Nation status that it had granted Pakistan. After the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, Pakistan snapped not just trade ties. All transportation links, including the Samjhauta Express train service and the Delhi-Lahore bus service, were stopped and Pakistan expelled the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Ajay Bisaria. On the other hand, despite the tensions between both countries, the Kartarpur Religious Corridor was inaugurated in November 2019. In February 2020, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Corridor and called it a “Corridor of Hope”.
After the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, that corridor has been closed by India, although Pakistan decided to leave it open.
Low-Hanging Fruit for Both Countries
Forecasting developments in India-Pakistan ties is always a fraught undertaking. Nevertheless, both countries could improve their bilateral ties by adopting an incremental approach and reviving trade through the Wagah-Attari border. The suspension of bilateral trade in 2019 caused immense losses to the Indian border district of Amritsar (Punjab). As Finance Minister of Punjab (India), Manpreet Badal, commented:
… Highlighting the losses on ground because of the suspension of trade, this makes it evident how over time, trade has become crucial for the survival of the border economies, revival of which could lead not just to prosperity but also lay the foundation for peaceful relations between India and Pakistan.
According to a book titled Unilateral Decisions, Bilateral Losses, some 9,000 families in Amritsar district have been affected by the suspension of bilateral trade. That is something that the national media tends to ignore.
The revival of trade has been one of the consistent demands not just of traders from Punjab, especially from those in the border districts whose tertiary sector stands to benefit from both trade and religious tourism, but even by farmers in the state, who believe that an open border with Pakistan will give them the opportunity to sell surplus produce, especially of wheat, to Pakistan. Pakistan has been compelled to purchase grain from other countries, including Russia, recently.
Significantly, trade with Pakistan was one of the initial demands of the farmers when they began their protests in September 2020. While Punjab has been the most vocal in calling for the opening of trade with Pakistan, other Indian states will benefit immensely, too, but also have other options; many businesspeople from both India and Pakistan use indirect routes, such as Dubai and Singapore, for trade. Those indirect trade routes have benefited immensely from the tensions between both countries.
In Pakistan, too, there is a growing number of people who are uncomfortable with their country’s growing dependence on China, and who would like to re-start trade with India. There is already talk of Pakistan importing cotton and yarn from India through the Wagah-Attari border. In fact, Imran Khan’s predecessor, Nawaz Sharif, a businessman himself, often spoke about the need for bilateral trade. Former President Asif Ali Zardari proposed that India and Pakistan follow the China model of engagement, whereby commercial links are de-hyphenated from strategic differences. Interestingly, despite tensions between China and India, trade between both countries was estimated at US$77 billion ($100.1 billion) in 2020. China surpassed the US to become India’s largest trading partner.
Apart from the revival of trade, both countries can also resume greater people to people contact, especially in religious tourism. In September 2020, Pakistan announced that it would be starting religious tourism packages for both Hindus and Sikhs. Religious tourism will not only enable devotees to visit their religious shrines, but increased interaction between common citizens could help in reducing misunderstandings and acrimony.
A Fresh Start, With Realistic Expectations
In conclusion, it is too early to make any predictions about the future course of New Delhi-Islamabad relations. A lot will depend on the Pakistani deep state and the domestic narrative in India, which has become excessively jingoistic in recent years. While India has recently reiterated the point that, while New Delhi is all for a “normal” relationship with Pakistan, its stand on key issues has not changed. It has indicated that the onus for the same is on Pakistan and that engagement could only occur in a “terror-free” environment. Pakistan, for its part, has said that India should not “shy away” from talks on the Kashmir issue.
Realistic expectations and tapping areas like trade and people-to-people links, which benefit both sides, would be a good start. The relationship needs to be driven by incrementalism and a well thought-out strategy and not driven by optics and hype. It is important to not just view the relationship from a security prism, but also to bring on board such stakeholders as businesspeople, who understand the relevance of a harmonious relationship.
While it is true that attempts have been made in the past, there is no reason why a fresh start, with realistic expectations, should not be made again.