General outreach

There have been many false dawns in India-Pakistan ties. Yet India must not miss the opportunity for a break with the past

The Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has made an important outreach to India. It comes close after the recommitment of the armies of both countries to the 2003 understanding on the ceasefire, indicating that the peace on the LoC can be broadened into a relaxing of other tensions in the bilateral relationship. In a speech at a major national security policy meet in Islamabad, Bajwa described Kashmir as one of the main problems that had hijacked the vast economic potential of the two countries and the wider region. He said nothing about the UNSC resolutions, as has been customary with Pakistan, nor did he hark back to the demand that India roll back the August 5, 2019 changes in the former state, asking only for the creation of a “conducive environment” in Kashmir toward the peaceful resolution of the problem. Bajwa talked about the need to “bury the past and move forward” in order to “unlock the untapped potential of south and central Asia” through the connectivity that the region offers between East and West. If this transformation of the Pakistan Army’s vision of the region from what General Bajwa described as “geo-political contestation” to “geo-economic integration” is not just tactical positioning to tide over multiple pressures — an economic crisis, blacklisting threats by FATF, fast-changing geopolitics of West Asia — it could well be a historic moment in India-Pakistan relations. Of course, first, India must reciprocate.

It would be easy to be cynical about Bajwa’s outstretched hand, and with good reason. There have been many false dawns in India-Pakistan relations. It is fair to ask how popular Bajwa’s vision of South Asian peace is within the Pakistan Army, and how officers down the line view the shift in position on Kashmir. After all, Bajwa is on an extended tenure, which comes to an end in November 2022. India has experience of a recent peace process unravelling with the departure of Pervez Musharraf. Unlike Musharraf, Bajwa is not all-powerful even though the Army is seen as the power behind the civilian government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Further, how does the opposition, which has mounted a massive campaign to remove the Imran Khan government, view these developments? Nawaz Sharif believes he was ousted via a judicial coup engineered by the army only because he spoke of peace with India, and demanded the shutting down of terrorist outfits that had isolated Pakistan in the world. Now that it is the army advocating peace with India, would he go along with it?

Even if the answers are not immediately evident, India must grasp the opportunity with both caution and enthusiasm. There are many ways in which Delhi could signal interest in General Bajwa’s proposition. It could restart trade at the LoC, and the cross-LoC bus service, that had created constituencies for peace. It is also time that both countries restored their diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals to full strength.

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