Last month, the two nuclear armed neighbors India and Pakistan agreed on a ceasefire along the 740 km-long Line of Control (LoC) from midnight of Feb. 24-25. With nearly 1.12 million security personnel deployed on either side, the LoC bifurcates the contested region of Jammu and Kashmir between the two countries.
An earlier announcement on Nov. 26, 2003, led to several confidence building measures between the two largest South Asian countries. That included an agreement to allow regulated civilian traffic along the LoC and the preparation of a roadmap to resolve the Kashmir issue. The 2003 initiative slowed down on account of strong political opposition within both countries. The final nail in the coffin was the terrorist attack on India’s financial capital Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008, by men from Pakistan.
The Feb. 25 announcement between India and Pakistan is significant. What adds greater salience is the present context in which the new ceasefire was announced. That context ensures a conducive political environment that could help the leaders of both countries to further pursue a peace agenda.
First, in the backdrop of an ongoing U.S.-Taliban dialogue, the Pakistani Army faces two divergent pressures. On the eastern front, it has to match the Indian military deployment along the LoC and on the western front, it is involved in counter insurgency operations against the Taliban on its own territory along the Afghanistan border. The ceasefire along the LoC relieves pressure on the eastern front enabling Pakistan to beef-up its troop deployment on the western front.
Second, with less pressure on the LoC, India, too, can meet the China challenge in the neighboring contested Himalayan heights with greater force. In the last year, the military tensions had escalated between those two countries. Even though China and India recently agreed to demilitarize from some of the contested areas, the Indian Army is likely to keep some troops close to the zone of contestation.
Meanwhile, the current internal environments in both countries provide a rare opportunity for the leaders of the two countries to advance the peace agenda. First, within India, the current ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which was voted with a clear majority in 2019, has the political capital to negotiate a deal with Pakistan. The Hindu nationalist agenda is at the heart of its appeal and it is less likely to be accused of selling out by India’s Hindu religious majority.
The BJP has exploited the India-Pakistan contestation electorally, making reconciliation difficult. Changing course for the BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, would require taking inspiration from former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was under his stewardship that the 2003 ceasefire was announced.
In contrast to Modi, Vajpayee had to depend on coalition allies and faced strong opposition. He took the political risk of mending ties with Pakistan even though there were several sensational terrorist attacks, which included an attack on Indian Parliament, with a foiled plan to take legislators as hostages, on Dec. 13, 2001. Indian authorities had claimed that the terrorists were dispatched from and trained in Pakistan.
Second, in the context of attempting peace with India, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan enjoys advantages that no other recent Pakistani leader had. He is close to the military, which has governed the country for nearly half of its existence as a republic. Politically, too, his task is easier than his predecessors.
In Pakistan, the main resonance for the Kashmir issue is in the populous Punjab province. Khan’s main political opponent in Punjab is Nawaz Sharif-led Muslim League, which has deep roots in the province. In his recent speeches, former Prime Minister Sharif has accused the military of sabotaging his earlier efforts as prime minister to bring peace with India. He doesn’t oppose the peace initiative with India. Keeping in mind this background, Khan could more freely engage with the eastern neighbor.
Amid all of this, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has intensified its efforts for a sustainable military exit from Afghanistan. The first term of the Obama administration had started with the appointment of a Special Representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, and initially addressing the Kashmir issue was part of his mandate.
The rationale was Pakistani military commitments on the eastern front deprive it of resources to clear out Taliban sanctuaries on its territory along the Afghanistan border. Only after the relentless opposition by India that the move “smacks of interference and would be unacceptable [to India]” the mandate was limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Taking a cue from the past, the Biden administration will not address the Kashmir issue publicly, which India considers an “internal issue” and opposes any attempt to internationalize, and it could employ its respective leverage to support efforts to bridge differences between the two sides.
In sum, the Feb. 25 ceasefire along the Line of Control is here to stay due to the security imperative in India and Pakistan. The leadership of both countries, in the face of a more favorable internal environment, can take more resolute steps to bring an end to the chapter of bitterness that has defined their seven-decade relationship.
Luv Puri is the author of “Across the Line of Control” (Columbia University Press, 2012).
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