The February 2021 announcement of a renewed ceasefire by Pakistan and India was greeted with both a cautious welcome and considerable scepticism. Tensions between the two countries plunged to their nadir after August 2019, when the Indian government removed the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and locked down the former state. Since then there have been close to 7,000 incidents of crossfire across the Line of Control, accompanied by rising invective by the two countries’ leaders. Most Pakistan and India analysts, therefore, see the ceasefire as a purely tactical move serving the short-term interests of both countries (calming India’s western borders while negotiations with China continue; calming Pakistan’s eastern border while Afghan negotiations gather momentum).
Even as a purely tactical move, this small step to de-escalate must be welcomed, especially if it is seen by each country as serving its own interests. In our view, moreover, there is no such thing as a purely tactical move in peacemaking. More often than not, what appears to be a one-step tactical move expands to a series of small steps, which may together set the stage for bolder measures towards a lasting peace.
There are already signs of a further thaw in India-Pakistan relations. The two governments have agreed to cooperate on healthcare under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and there is talk of Pakistani cricketers playing in India later this year, and of reviving negotiations on religious pilgrimages.
While these may be small steps, it is difficult to imagine what, other than small steps, could be undertaken. Public and political hostility towards Pakistan in India and towards India in Pakistan is exponentially greater than it was five years ago. It will take time and perseverance to overcome. As past experience shows, even sustained initiatives by Indian and Pakistani leaders have foundered on relatively lower levels of hostility, because openly-expressed distrust kept the field open for spoilers to step in.
The most sustained effort at a Pakistan-India peace process was from 1998-2007. It was initiated by then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and had an extremely rocky first few years. Vajpayee was excoriated in India for persisting through a military coup in Pakistan and the mini-war in Kargil. President Pervez Musharraf was similarly excoriated in Pakistan, for what his detractors on the right regarded as a sign of weakness (there were multiple attempts on his life). Both leaders persisted, however, resulting in the ceasefire of 2003 and the Islamabad Joint Statement of 2004, which together led to the resumption of the peace process and decline in violence in Jammu and Kashmir.
India-Pakistan peacemaking made rapid gains in 2003-2007, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf. Path-breaking CBMs, such as trade and travel between divided Kashmir, were implemented, yielding a draft framework agreement that could have provided a lasting solution to the Kashmir conflict. Both of us were involved in this process, one officially and the other academically. In the decades that followed, CBMs were expanded, though no progress was made on the framework agreement. In the last seven years, however, even CBMs were halted as India-Pakistan conflict escalated.
The two governments have been wise to let their armies take ownership of the ceasefire, despite clear signs of political negotiation at the top (the two army representatives “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns”, a phrase that previously appeared in India-Pakistan prime ministerial statements). Both Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa have reiterated their interest in peacemaking, indicating a welcome degree of coordination between the civilian administration and the military. In India, letting the army take the lead provides a face-saver for the Modi administration. Notably, Pakistan has not been referenced negatively in the state elections in India where campaigning is currently underway, as had become a practice previously.
It would be an exaggeration to say that a new peace process has begun between India and Pakistan. Rather, the small steps discussed above have opened a window of opportunity, which might be further widened by returning diplomatic ties to ambassadorial level, resuming trade and allowing religious pilgrimages.
In order to take advantage of this window, the two countries’ leaders will have to make what are, for them, difficult decisions. India will have to restore the gamut of human rights in Jammu and Kashmir; they do not prejudice its security concerns. On its part, Pakistan will have to abide by its existing commitments under the 2004 joint statement to “not permit any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used to support terrorism in any manner.”
In this situation, both governments will benefit from public backing for the steps they have currently taken. Our joint article is a small move in that direction. The Indian and Pakistani media have rarely understood that effective peace processes require constant promotion to succeed. Positive international coverage was crucially important to the gains made in 2003-2007. Similarly, while India is over-suspicious of international support for India-Pakistan peacemaking, and Pakistan is sometimes over-eager for international involvement, those of us who were involved in the India-Pakistan peace process recognise that US “facilitation”, as the Vajpayee administration put it, contributed significantly to its progress.
Ideally, India and Pakistan should move to pick up peace negotiations from where they left off in 2007. The draft framework was a win-win which took into consideration the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir along with the requirements of India and Pakistan. It entailed substantial demilitarisation of all parts of the former princely state, and ensuring that its people had the rights, freedoms and self-governance necessary for a sustainable solution.
This is a far cry from where we are today, but it is also historically true that every lasting peace agreement has been sketched years, if not decades, earlier and repudiated endlessly before it re-emerges as a consensus solution.
India and Pakistan have opened a small window of opportunity. Both governments will need considerable encouragement, from their domestic audience as well as their international partners, to widen that window.