Islamabad: When Pakistan and India agreed to restore peace along the highly volatile Line of Control (LoC) in February 2021, it appeared that they were again ready to take a turn on the bumpy road of animosity and mistrust. The ensuing months, however, showed that it was yet another mirage.
The story of Pakistan-India relations is a tale of the proverbial ‘one step forward, two steps backward’. So far, almost every positive development in terms of the bilateral ties has been overtaken by innate hostility that is often driven by popular sentiments.
In a surprise announcement on February 25, India and Pakistan said that they have agreed to strictly observe all agreements on ceasefire along the LoC. India and Pakistan signed a ceasefire agreement in 2003, but it has hardly been followed in letter and spirit over the past several years with more violations than observance of the pact.
The restoration of the ceasefire agreement of 2003 on the LoC was not an exception. Soon it was followed by reports, insinuating that the two sides were engaged in a secret diplomacy in some shady haunt of the Arabian deserts (the so-called talks reportedly being held in the UAE). No official statement was issued about the status of talks but ties remain frozen.
Weeks later in March, Army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa said that it was time for India and Pakistan to bury the past and move forward .
In his address to first-ever Islamabad Security Dialogue, participated by Who’s Who’ of Pakistan’s security establishment, Gen Bajwa said that stable Indo-Pak relation is a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia but also mentioned that Kashmir was the main stumbling block in normalisation of bilateral ties.
Previously Pakistan had conditioned the start of talks with India if it reversed the August, 2019 steps in Kashmir, but Gen Bajwa lowered the bar by saying that India should create a conducive environment.
The powerful army, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 70 plus years of existence, has hitherto wielded considerable power in the matters of security and foreign policy.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had taken a hardline stance since India abolished the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, also reduced his rhetoric by saying that good relations with neighbours were paramount for national security.
“We will not be able to take full advantage of our geo-strategic location until we have regional peace, until our relations with our neighbours and our trade ties do not improve,” he said in the address to the same event.
On March 31, Pakistan almost surprised India when its Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), a top decision-making body, lifted a ban on the import of sugar and cotton from India. Finance Minister Hammad Azhar had announced the big decision.
Apparently, the permission for import was given without taking all stakeholders on board, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sources in the ministry said that foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi was unhappy with the decision. Consequently, it was withdrawn as quickly as it was announced.
Months later in November, Pakistan silently allowed India to use its airspace for direct flights between Kashmir and the UAE, but its fate was not different from the previous positive steps. The move was scuttled after a week when Islamabad withdrew the permission. No reason was given why the flights were allowed, and why they were discontinued.
The event in Afghanistan served as a major diversion as the Taliban took over Kabul in August, giving a big boost to Pakistan vis-a-vis India’s stakes in Afghanistan.
In the wake of the change in regime in Afghanistan, Islamabad’s entire attention has been riveted on Kabul and it has been pulling all strings to give time to the Taliban to adjust to the new situation to earn global recognition of its interim government, which includes at least 14 Cabinet members blacklisted by the UN.
The Afghan situation stirred a positive development in the context of Pak-India ties. In December, Pakistan allowed India to send a humanitarian shipment of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and life-saving drugs to Afghanistan through the Wagah border crossing.
Unlike the short-lived optimism after the permission for direct flights between Srinagar and Sharjah and allowing import of sugar and cotton from India, the decision to let India send wheat on its condition of using only the Afghan trucks for transit has not been reversed. But it is difficult to interpret it as a breakthrough in bilateral relations.
In November, India reopened the Kartarpur Corridor that links Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan, the final resting place of Guru Nanak Dev, to Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district.
Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi, along with about 30 persons, including his Cabinet ministers, visited the revered Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistan using the visa-free Kartarpur corridor on the second day of the reopening of the route which was suspended for some 20 months following the COVID-19 outbreak.
Towards the end of the year, Prime Minister Khan, while addressing a seminar on December 9 in Islamabad, said peace with India is not possible until the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. But he also added another hurdle this time: the RSS ideology.
For ties between India and Pakistan, things are back to square one as another year nears its end.
The two sides also failed to agree how Indian prisoner Kulbhushan Jadhav on death row in Pakistan should be represented in his review appeal in Islamabad High Court against his conviction by a Pakistani military court.
In October, Paris-based Financial Action task Force, a global money-laundering watchdog, decided to retain Pakistan on its ‘grey list’ until it further demonstrates that action is being taken against Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammed founder Masood Azhar who are listed as global terrorists by the United Nations.
The FATF had placed Pakistan on the grey list in June 2018 and asked Islamabad to implement a plan of action to curb money laundering and terror financing by the end of 2019 but the deadline was extended later on due to COVID-19 pandemic.
On the domestic front, Prime Minister Khan faced a serious challenge from banned radical outfit Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) which marched towards Islamabad in October after the government failed to meet their demands to release party chief Saad Rizvi and expel the French envoy.
After deadly clashes between TLP supporters and the security personnel, Prime Minister Khan-led government entered into a ‘secret agreement’ with the radical Islamist party and released its chief Saad Rizvi, who was languishing at Kot Lakhpat jail since his arrest on April 12 under terrorism charges.
During the year, Pakistan also witnessed a series of deadly blasts in different cities and a massive protest by local residents in Gwadar which rattled the government and forced authorities to deploy thousands of additional police personnel in the region where China is building major projects linked to its multi-billion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The protests in Balochistan are part of growing discontent with China’s presence in Gwadar, whose port is an integral part of the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project (CPEC), the flagship project of BRI.
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