It is not the first time that the militaries of the two countries have agreed to maintain calm at the border.
Kashmir’s rumour mill often throws preposterous tittle-tattle. The word of a secret meeting between top officials of the national security establishment of India and Pakistan has been doing the rounds since June last year. One version suggested that India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) made secret rendezvous in Islamabad — of course, ridiculous-sounding news, without any official confirmation. Another version suggested that backchannel discussions were being held between both countries. Interestingly, from time to time, rumours have proven to be more real than the news.
In a surprising development, the armies of India and Pakistan announced a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) and international border. A joint statement issued after talks between the Director Generals of Military Operation (DGMOs) of the two countries over a hotline stated that an agreement was reached to maintain ceasefire: “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 24/25 Feb 2021.” The two military officers agreed to address issues and concerns “which have propensity to disturb the peace and lead to violence.”
Hours after the joint statement was issued, an Indian national daily reported that the ceasefire was an outcome of backchannel talks between the National Security Advisor (NSA) of India, Ajit Doval, and Special Assistant to Prime Minister of Pakistan, Moeed Yusuf. The report confirms that the two officials met at least once in a third country. Recent positive developments, including cessation of ceasefire violations along LoC and statements coming from the Army Chief and Prime Minister of Pakistan, have paved the way for taking steps to normalise the relationship between the two countries.
In a statement, Moeed Yusuf also confirmed that “behind the scenes” conversations between the two countries were going on and suggested, “more roads will open in future.” Interestingly, in October 2020, Yusuf had, in an interview with The Wire, claimed that India had expressed a “desire for conversation”, a claim outrightly rejected by New Delhi. However, Yusuf later issued a series of tweets saying no talks took place between him and India’s NSA, Ajit Doval.
The hostilities between India and Pakistan increased massively after the de-operationalisation of Article 370 and other constitutional changes implemented by the Narendra Modi government in August 2019. In the aftermath of the changes brought in on 5 August 2019, Islamabad downgraded its relationship with New Delhi by recalling its High Commissioner to India, partial closure of airspace between the two countries, suspension of trade, and by calling for a review of bilateral agreements between the two States.
The ceasefire announcement by the DGMOs of India and Pakistan is the first step taken since August 2019 to ease tensions. Reports suggest that both countries could upgrade diplomatic relations by reinstating high commissioners in New Delhi and Islamabad; India may give a go-ahead for the SAARC summit to take place in Pakistan which may also entail PM Modi’s visit to Islamabad.
The ceasefire on the LoC is a welcome step not just for the armies of the two countries but also residents living along the border areas in Jammu and Kashmir; 5,100 instances of violation of the ceasefire were recorded in the LoC in the year 2020, at a time when the Indian army was eye-to-eye with the Chinese army on the eastern front of Ladakh. The ceasefire violations — the highest since 2003 — claimed 36 lives including 24 personnel of security forces and injured 130 people. In 2019, 3,289 ceasefire violations were recorded along the India-Pakistan border. The new agreement will possibly cause a decline in violence along the border and give a sense of respite to the local population.
Notably, after the constitutional changes implemented on 5 August 2019, the Indian political establishment shifted its focus on “retrieving” Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Many statements coming from the top echelons of power suggested getting physical jurisdiction of PoK is the next option for India.
No doubt, the outcome of talks between the DGMOs has come as a great surprise to everyone but the signs of a thaw between the two countries were in the air for a long time now. There has been a considerable shift in the rhetoric coming from New Delhi. After China’s incursions in Ladakh, there is hardly any mention of taking over PoK. Some ministers of the government gave statements stating that India doesn’t want the land of Pakistan or China, that it wants peace and non-violence — this may be seen as an attempt at dousing fires.
The ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan came weeks after the withdrawal of Indian and Chinese forces from the eastern Ladakh region. Ever since the face-off between India and China in eastern Ladakh, the possible breakout of a two-front war has become more evident. In this context, the ceasefire on the LoC will ease the pressure on the Indian army, which is already seeking to re-deploy its strike corps on the eastern front.
More so, the economic contraction witnessed in India in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on the Indian defence budget, making the heavy deployment of troops on two fronts an expensive affair.
Many analysts had argued for India to make an outreach to Pakistan to ease tensions on the western front while the country dealt with a much stronger enemy on the eastern front. Tactically, the current agreement with Pakistan gives much-needed breathing space to India’s national security establishment — to restructure and modernise the armed forces in response to the Chinese threat.
Ties between India and Pakistan have come under a great deal of attention ever since the Pulwama attack, which took both countries to the brink of war. All major powers have called for de-escalation and cessation of hostilities; after all, every country in the world is wary of the devastation a war between India and Pakistan can cause. The global attention has increased manifold after 5 August, 2019. In such a scenario, it is obvious that the diplomatic pressure to ease out tensions was building up. Thus, a conciliatory move gives a positive signal to the world — a chimera — that both Islamabad and New Delhi are capable of, or at least have the desire to, resolve differences bilaterally.
But the big question that remains pertinent is whether a thaw between India and Pakistan is possible? It is not the first time that the militaries of the two countries have agreed to maintain calm at the border. In 2018, both armies agreed to adhere to the terms as per the 2003 agreement, something that was reiterated today. However, the agreement lasted only till an untoward incident disrupted the agreement. So the current understanding is as tenuous as the previous one. Whether this conciliatory move will turn into a formidable détente depends on how the events unfold in the coming days and months. After all a single event, like the Pulwama suicide attack, is enough to bring the two countries back on the brink of war.