The Kashmir saga has once again taken center stage in the dysfunctional Pakistan-India relationship. The constraints of domestic politics and a fresh wave of violence and protests in Indian-administered Kashmir have escalated tensions between the two neighbors. During a recent South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Interior Ministers Conference, the Indo-Pak rivalry over Kashmir and terrorism overshadowed issues with multilateral cooperation potential. If Pakistan-India bilateral talks are not resumed, the acrimony will spill over into the upcoming SAARC Summit in Islamabad, scheduled for November.

Progress after 2008 Mumbai attacks

Since the Mumbai attacks in 2008, the Pakistan-India relationship has gone through cycles of engagement and estrangement. Occasional high-level meetings create a feel-good environment, then irritants emerge, which derail the process, and progress skids to a halt.  Post-Mumbai, India has linked any progress in bilateral dialogue to Pakistan taking action against perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage. While Pakistan has made a move to charge a few people accused of perpetrating the Mumbai attack, progress has been slow. On its part, Pakistan has insisted that discussion on terrorism cannot be a precondition for talks.

When protests erupted in Indian-administered Kashmir in summer 2010, Pakistan did not engage in a verbal duel with India. Prime Ministers Gilani and Singh had decided in April 2010 to resume high-level dialogue that had remained in limbo for more than a year following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Foreign ministers from both sides met in July 2010 in Islamabad, despite heated protests going on in Kashmir at the same time.

The fact that the talks took place amidst tensions in Kashmir was due to the effort Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had invested in dialogue with Pakistan. Singh progressed with the peace process initiated by his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. Between 2004 and 2007, Pakistan and India undertook extensive backchannel negotiations on exploring a non-territorial solution of the Kashmir dispute. A framework of that proposed four-point formula focusing on local governance, opening-up the Line of Control for trade and travel, demilitarization, and joint management was detailed by then-Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri, also a participant of bilateral negotiations. Despite the turmoil in Pakistan during 2007-08 that culminated in President Musharraf stepping down, PM Singh continued to engage with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, deepening internal instability and rising militancy forced a rethink of priorities. Pakistan wanted to avoid conflict with India. After the Mumbai attack, Pakistani stakeholders engaged India in a bid to rebuild mutual trust. The Pakistani military increased its engagement in combating militancy, terrorism and insurgencies in the North West and Balochistan. Pakistan also moved a few thousands troops from Indian border to FATA region to bolster the war effort.

Modi’s fickle Pakistan policy

Prime Minister Modi, on the contrary, has not had a consistent Pakistan policy. He has talked tough, engaged in surprise diplomacy, and used forceto send contrasting messages to Pakistan. He has sought to establish new redlines and contours of bilateral engagement between the two arch-rivals. These measures, however, have not been effective.

Pakistan’s refusal to accept any preconditions for a dialogue process may be a function of its changing ground realities. Pakistan has achieved a degree of political stability, mounted a successful counter-terrorism campaign, and incidences of violence have reduced. Additionally, Pakistan’s economy is showing signs of revival.

In December 2015, the National Security Advisors (NSAs) of both nations met in Bangkok. Espionage and terrorism-related issues dominated the discussions, while bilateral engagement on the rest of the contentious issues remained virtually frozen.

Then unforeseen events intervened. Massive street protests sparked by the killing of Burhan Wani, a popular rebel commander in Indian-administered Kashmir, reignited the acrimony between Islamabad and New Delhi. Indian security forces resorted to heavy-handed tactics to put down protests. Meanwhile internal politics—local elections in Pakistan-administered Kashmir—forced PM Sharif and his government to adopt a hawkish stance.

In early August, Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh travelled to Pakistan to attend the SAARC Interior Ministers Conference. In the tense atmosphere, the Pakistan-India clash dominated discussions for regional cooperation. Amidst the bickering, a simple courtesy meeting between Indian and Pakistani Home Ministers did not take place. In fact, the Indian government had announced before the SAARC ministerial meeting that no bilateral meeting with Pakistan would take place. Upon returning home Rajnath Singh blamed Pakistan for orchestrating unrest in Kashmir, while PM Modi asserted at an all-parties meeting that Pakistani-administered Kashmir also belonged to India.

Looking ahead

In a fresh move, Pakistan has invited India for dialogue on the Kashmir issue. India has once again responded by raising a host of issues connected with terrorism as the focus of any dialogue. These positions essentially mean dialogue is a non-starter. Rhetoric aimed at placating domestic constituencies only vitiates the bilateral environment and increases the political cost of the inevitable re-engagement.

PM Modi is scheduled to attend the SAARC Summit in Islamabad in November. A Kashmir on the boil, however, would only continue to dominate the agenda and hijack the summit. If Kashmiris continue to protest, Indian forces continue to use disproportionate force, and dialogue remains suspended, Pakistan will find it politically difficult to accommodate India. A proper bilateral dialogue process may ameliorate tensions in Kashmir and have the potential to reduce aggressive rhetoric between Islamabad and New Delhi.


Image 1: Tauseef Mustafa-AFP, Getty

Image 2: STR-AFP, Getty

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