The India-Pakistan ceasefire has revived hope in these times of gloom and uncertainty
The ceasefire that India and Pakistan announced through their first joint statement in several years on 22 February gave the impression of having come out of the blue. But that is exactly how it should have been, given the highly charged emotions that prevail in the two countries vis-à-vis relations with the other. Negotiations on a matter of such sensitivity needed perforce to be kept extremely quiet if the sincere end-intention was for it to succeed. That the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMO) of the armies of the two countries eventually did announce the ceasefire simply means that this time around the intention of both sides was indeed sincere, even if the motivations of each may have been divergent.
Till just a fortnight ago, the severely strained state of the overall India – Pakistan relationship had meant that the overwhelming impression that the inhabitants of the two countries carried was of the prospects of the two sides talking to each other, let alone reaching a significant agreement, being highly implausible, even unimaginable. Hammering out an agreement while pushing all the bad blood, the hostility, and the trust deficit, aside was something that only accomplished and professional teams of negotiators could pull off. If the Pakistani daily Dawn is to be believed, “some backchannel talks may have been at work. But who were involved in it? Sources say it had been taking place between the intelligence agencies of the two countries”. While that may indeed have been the case, even a skilled, seasoned and empowered set of negotiators, in the absence of unambiguous clearance from the government in New Delhi and the military establishment in Rawalpindi, could never have hoped or aspired to achieve what they did.
The 22 February agreement was not strictly a fresh ceasefire agreement but a commitment to uphold the earlier 2003 ceasefire between that the two countries. That agreement, which aimed at bringing about peace along the India - Pakistan border and the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two countries, worked well in the initial years and not a single bullet was fired across the border by either side between 2003 and 2006. Things deteriorated rapidly thereafter, and recent years have been particularly volatile and bloody. India’s Ministry of Defence informed the country’s parliament last month that 5133 instances of ceasefire violations had taken place along the LoC and other areas in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020, and these had resulted in 46 deaths. The Dawn, quoting figures made available by Pakistani authorities, reported that there had been over 3,000 ceasefire violations last year, in which 28 people had died.
The joint statement issued after a rare conversation between the DGMOs of the two countries over a hotline that has existed for years, but is usually operated by junior officials, informed that the two sides had agreed to ensure “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 February 2021”. It added, “The Director Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan held discussions over the established mechanism of hotline contact. The two sides reviewed the situation along the Line of Control and all other sectors in a free, frank and cordial atmosphere. In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, the two DGMOs agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence”. It also informed that both sides had “reiterated that existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilized to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding”.
The revival of the 2003 ceasefire agreement is a positive step, and given the general lack of optimism that otherwise pervades bilateral relations between India and Pakistan, even a move that is apparently purely tactical in nature can in due course encourage the opening of more strategic doors. That seems to be among the more important expectations that encouraged both India and Pakistan to opt to put their respective hard-edged positions on hold at this juncture. India did so vis-à-vis its publicly articulated reluctance to engage with Rawalpindi, and Islamabad, unless they put a complete stop to the terrorism that Pakistan was exporting across the LoC. Pakistan, on the other hand, gave up its assertion that it would not talk to New Delhi till India rescinded its 5 August 2019 decisions pertaining to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Neither side has actually given up on its respective position. India will continue to monitor Pakistan-sponsored terrorism closely and respond to the situation on the ground appropriately. Pakistan will not stop raising the J&K issue at every opportunity that it gets. Unless the positivity surrounding the ceasefire paves the way for more substantial gains for each side in the coming months, the danger of the bilateral relationship slipping back to square one will remain.
This uncertainty was the reason that both countries, unlike some experts who were gung-ho about the agreement, were guarded in their public comments on it. Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, for example, was of the view that “This is a massive development in South Asia. India-Pakistan relations have been teetering on the brink of major conflict. To pull back from that point is major and a surprising turnaround”. Similarly, Happymon Jacob of the School of International Studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who has author of two books on the LoC, called the agreement “path-breaking”, adding that it was the biggest military measure between the two sides in 18 years to normalize the situation along the LoC.
An Indian government spokesperson, on the other hand, when asked about the timing of the agreement simply said that “India desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan. We have always maintained that we are committed to addressing issues, if any, in a peaceful bilateral manner”. He added, “On key issues, our position remains unchanged”. Along similar lines, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, while saying that “Pakistan seeks peaceful relations with its neighbours” added that the agreement “could be a good start for the future”.
The optimistic reactions from the international community to the development were, to some measure, influenced by the overall rarity of such encouraging happenings in India – Pakistan relations. The spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) António Guterres said that “The Secretary-General is encouraged by the joint statement issued by the militaries of India and Pakistan on their agreement to observing the ceasefire at the Line of Control in Kashmir and engaging through established mechanisms. He hopes that this positive step would provide an opportunity for further dialogue”.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing that “The United States (US) welcomes the joint statement between India and Pakistan: that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the Line of Control starting on February 25. This is a positive step towards greater peace and stability in South Asia, which is in all shared — is in our shared interest. And we encourage both countries to keep building upon this progress”. State Department spokesperson Ned Price conveyed that the US welcomed “the joint statement between India and Pakistan that the two countries have agreed to maintain strict observance of a ceasefire along the Line of Control starting on February 25. We encourage continued efforts to improve communication between the two sides and to reduce tensions and violence along the Line of Control”. Tellingly, he added, “We have been very clear that we condemn the terrorists who seek to infiltrate across the Line of Control”.
Welcoming the ceasefire agreement Nabila Massrali, the spokesperson for the European Union’s (EU) Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, opined that it represented “an important step in the interest of regional peace and stability on which to build further bilateral dialogue”.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) issued a statement in which it said that it “welcomed the declaration of a ceasefire between the Indian and Pakistani armies across the disputed borders in Kashmir. UAE has close historical ties with the Republic of India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and that it commends the efforts of the two countries to reach this achievement. It also stressed that this is an important step towards achieving security, stability, and prosperity in the region”.
The easing of military tensions between India and Pakistan will have a positive impact on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The agreement has, therefore, been widely welcomed there. The people of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on both sides of the LoC, especially those living in close proximity to the LoC, can be expected to benefit immeasurably from the ceasefire. After all, it is they who bear the brunt of the cross LoC firing and shelling by the Indian and Pakistani armies; it is their lives that are unjustifiably lost and their houses that are repeatedly destroyed. Indian data shows that since 2018, 70 civilians and 72 soldiers have been killed in cross-border firing. On the Pakistani side, nearly 300 civilians have been killed since 2014.
Lieutenant General BS Raju, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of India’s prestigious 15 Corps based at Srinagar who has recently been appointed as India’s next DGMO, summed up the implications for J&K by saying in an interview this week that “The agreement that has been reached between the two DGMOs is a step in the right direction. I have reason to believe that it will bring peace and stability in the area. I think the big advantage will come to the local populations living on the borders. They want to see some respite. A lot of civilian casualties have been there. I am of the opinion that some of it will have an impact on the management of infiltration (of terrorists from Pakistan) also”.
Amidst the widespread optimism, one recurring question that is being asked in light of the tenuous nature of earlier bilateral agreements has been whether the ceasefire agreement will last and transform into a stepping stone for broader normalization of relations between India and Pakistan.
Anybody with even cursory knowledge of how fraught the relationship between India and Pakistan is would, absolutely understandably, be hesitant to postulate on how the ceasefire is going to pan out in a year’s time, a month’s time, or even just a week’s time, but equally, nobody who stands for, or desires, or even wishes for, peace and stability in the volatile and long-suffering region would understate either the significance of the ceasefire or the hope that it has brought to millions.