When India, on August 5, 2019, revoked the special status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir territory, it dashed all hopes for any rapprochement with Pakistan. Remember, before Narendra Modi’s re-election, Prime Minister Imran Khan was hopeful that Modi’s return to power would help resolve the longstanding issue. But the August 5 move turned things on its head.
Pakistan, in reaction to the Indian unilateral move, took a series of steps and made it clear that while it was not shying away from dialogue, it would be only possible if India restored the pre-August 5, 2019 status of the disputed territory. Few months after those Kashmir changes, there was at one point a debate within the policymakers in Pakistan about whether Islamabad should at least try to engage India to discuss the August 5 controversy. But the decision was taken with consensus that without India restoring the special status of Kashmir, there was no way Pakistan should engage with India. The reason for this approach was that any engagement with India before restoring the Kashmir special status would be tantamount to accepting the new changes. Therefore, the idea was rejected outright.
However, as they say nothing is static in diplomacy. The two countries began to talk to each other, albeit quietly, late last year. India, locked in a military standoff with China, wanted to lower tension with Pakistan while Islamabad, beset with economic challenges, needed a breather to focus on domestic issues. These realities compelled the two countries to talk to each other but away from the public and media glare. Those backchannel talks eventually produced an agreement to restore the ceasefire along the LoC. The truce came into effect on February 25, and since then there has not been a single incident of violation by either side. Apart from the truce, the two sides also agreed to lower the rhetoric. The Foreign Office, which was earlier linking the resumption of talks with restoration of the special status of Kashmir, changed its position. It now says that for any re-engagement India needs to revisit its August 5 actions. So, there is a clear difference between restoration and revisiting the actions.
The official explanation is that Pakistan’s main concern is Article 35(A) that deals with demographic changes in Kashmir while Article 370 was never an issue for Pakistan. The apparent flexibility in the FO’s stance was attributed to backdoor efforts. However, those efforts were hit a roadblock when the federal cabinet shot down a proposal to partially restore trade ties with India. Facing opposition and public criticism, PM Imran then made it clear that unless India restored the special status of Kashmir there would be no trade or normalisation of ties with India. He repeated his stance on several occasions, reverting to the original position Pakistan adopted soon after India brought those changes to Kashmir unilaterally. Some observers concluded that the PM’s hardening of the stance suggested that backchannel efforts could not produce the desired results. However, the sudden appointment of Dr Moeed Yusuf as National Security Adviser suggested behind-the-scenes efforts are still intact.
On Friday, PM Imran told Reuters news agency that Pakistan is ready to restart talks with India if it provides a roadmap towards restoring the previous Kashmir status. “If there is a roadmap, then, yes, we will talk,” Imran said. This means Pakistan leaves the door open for talks with India without Modi first restoring the special status. If India accepts the Pakistani offer, the talks will likely focus on the August 5, 2019 actions and not necessarily the actual problem. It will be a hard-sell idea in Pakistan for those who are at the helm!
Published in The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2021.