Backchannel Engagement: Resolve or Compromise?


The bitter relations between the arch-rivals are not a shocker to either side of the border. The duo has rarely witnessed a prolonged episode of alliance since the British departure following the split of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. While the escalation back in 2019 severed the remains of the already wavering relations, the contention over the Kashmir violation has since gradually picked pace: from a regional tension point to a large-scale global agenda peddled by Prime Minister Imran Khan to win the basic human rights for the illegal detainees of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) territory. While the contentious region remains under brutal scrutiny of the Indian army, the stagnant bilateral relations between the rival states have seen prospects of normalization after over 2-years of a hard impasse.

A backchannel engagement and a subsequent reconfigured ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) seems all good to be true, especially in retrospect of all the violations that wiped the relations in the first place. However, a truce is an apparent reality today for India and Pakistan. With a conceptual plenary attended by the respective Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs), a hotline contact between the two militaries sounded berserk. However, the establishment of a mutual understanding seems only the tip of the iceberg scrapped by the spokesmen of either military. While a tread to peace is welcomed on either side of the LoC, with the fate of IIOJK still under haze and the occasional skirmishes miring the nascent stability in the diplomatic relations, the future seems vague at best as it unravels behind the bureaucratic drapes under equally mysterious terms and conditions.

The point of dispute between India and Pakistan somehow always spirals back to the position of the IIOJK territory. The present state of deadlock was reached when the Indian government revoked the special status of the IIOJK region through a series of ordinances. The special status of the IIOJK region was protected under Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India. Article 370 of the Indian constitution came into effect in 1949, exempting Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) from the jurisdiction enforced by the Indian Constitution. Simply put, the clause allowed the region to stand liberal from the rest of the Indian states and legalized the region to formulate its very own code of law and policy framework except the matters befalling in the perimeters of foreign affairs, defense, finance, and communication. Moreover, Article 370 allowed the native Kashmiris to formulate their own constitution, design their own flag and establish their separate parliament.

Expanding onto Article 370, Article 35A was introduced by a Presidential Ordinance in 1954 to cement the property rights in the region to safeguard the historical demography of the territory. The appendage allowed exclusive property rights to the natives of the IIOJK region, barring any and all citizens foreign to the region from acquiring property, gaining education, or settling in the territory. Both Article 370 and Article 35A ensured a separate and liberal identity of the regional Kashmiris within the peripheries of India, preventing the demographic dilution over decades. Snapping away the clauses in the name of a ‘Monolithic India’ came about as a devious agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to erode away the guarded status of the Kashmiris by allowing all the citizens of India, primarily the extremist Hindus, to settle in the region thereby dissipating the historical lineage attached to the region for over a century. The attempt was hailed as a step towards a unified and secular India, free of religious discrimination. However, the underlying intent was criticized as a rightest attempt to wipe away the symbolic Muslim majority in the region through war crimes against the Tehreek e Hurriyat, also known as All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), and ultimately evening out the resistance over time.

While the atrocities inflicted by the Indian army were domestically and globally criticized, Pakistan turned out to be the flag bearer of the campaign that resonated around the world in the form of anti-India protests pouring throughout the streets of London, New York, and Dhaka. Whilst the lockdown persisted in the IIOJK region with perpetual reports of genocide and gang rapes, Pakistan stood as a ray of hope for the innocent Kashmiris. Known to be a retaliation by the regional militants, a suicide attack in Pulwama, a heavily guarded Srinagar-Jammu highway, withered the Indian echelons to the core. The convoy of an estimated 78 busses carrying battalions of the Indian troops was allegedly targeted by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in one of the most brutal attacks against the Indian army in recent years. The attack claimed the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in the name of Jihad against the Indian army: a revenge strike to answer the inflicted atrocities over innocent Kashmiris in IIOJK.

The following retribution came as a wave of surprise as India infiltrated the Northern Balakot region of Pakistan. This came as a direct face-off between the two nuclear powers in over 2 decades and shook the world as global powers raced to dormant the seething nations at the brink of a standoff. What was claimed by the Indian army as a successful surgical strike against the ‘Terror camps’ of the Jaish-e-Mohammad militants masterminding the Pulwama attack, Pakistan claimed the strike as a futile bombing of the natural habitat and a violation of the LoC ceasefire. The Pakistani retaliation and the subsequent capture of an Indian soldier simmered the tensions for days before ultimately culminating in an absolute detachment of all diplomatic, economic, and militaristic affairs. Prime Minister Imran Khan went on to release the Indian soldier to situate his advocacy of the rights of Kashmiris on the grounds of Humanity in the forums of the United Nations (UN). Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pivoted his successful election campaign on the facade of a true patriot and an avenger of the blood of the Indian soldiers.

The following year proved tough for either nations as the vices of the pandemic gripped the world alike. The bilateral trade between India and Pakistan amounted to a modest sum of $2 billion back in 2019 before the relations were severed. With such a minuscule part of trade being hampered, the economic repercussions were hardly hurting either of the countries. The blockage of routes, however, made it difficult for India to trade with Afghanistan as the traditional land routes were jammed shut for the Indian commodities. That being the case, however, the flip-side wasn’t all that great either. The sluggish Pakistani economy isn’t a mystery to anyone, certainly not to India. In the tenure of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s GDP growth has staggered from a respectable 5.6% to a dismal -0.4% year on year. Coupled with reinforced lockdowns and mounding foreign debt, India now stands as a cheaper option to evade the rankles of inflation in the aftermath of a devalued rupee.

“Even limited trade with India will certainly help Pakistan’s sluggish economy”. These were the words of an Indian economic expert in hindsight as Pakistan’s political circles thoroughly denounced the move of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of Pakistan to import sugar from across the border to avoid extreme inter-provincial shortage. The decision was later overturned amidst high political pressure. The expert went on to further add: “By resuming the economic ties, for instance in specific commodities like food items, Pakistan can help control food inflation pressures”. The claims follow through as an estimate puts the bilateral trade to bloom to a touted $35 billion/annum mark given all the restrictions are lifted off the trade suspension that has lasted for more than 20 months now: a bliss for both an economically distressed Pakistan and a paralyzed Indian economy.

The position of the Indian side isn’t exactly a sight to marvel. The BJP regime struggles to get ahold of the transitioning Indian democracy. While India grapples with the strongest surge of the coronavirus in the world: battling over 350000 daily cases, the BJP stronghold is losing grip in both the wider strata of the Indian society and the global arenas of diplomacy. With the recent criticism by the House of Commons regarding the Indian atrocities in IIOJK, the death-graze demonstrations in Bangladesh in the backdrop of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka and even the poster-long tirades of opposition in multiple cities around the globe, the surge of unpopularity has gone beyond the secular boundaries of India. When the jolts of the protests launched by the Indian farmers throughout the streets of Delhi weren’t enough, the recent turmoil in the guise of a loss in West Bengal elections would’ve waned the aspirations of a majoritarian BJP regime. The Kolkata-upset, though not the strongest of blows, does fortify the fraying opposition in the democratic echelons of India and sure weakens the broader agenda of Prime Minister Modi to cinch the 2024 elections. Combined with a vice grip of acrimony in the form of a resounding China-Pakistan alliance and an inflating Indian notoriety in the world, the bastions of enmity against the BJP-regime continue to threaten the arching vision of the Hindu rightists to turn India into a powerhouse of Hindu-extremist stronghold.

While it is clear that both countries would offer an open-arm welcome to a resumption of bilateral relations than opting otherwise, the road to harmony is the question of a sage mind. The normalized relations have been encouraged by the United States; going as far as offering mediation between the duo. The incentives for either side are not concealed nor too intricate to identify. As India wants to avoid China establishing reinforcements along the LoC, Pakistan seeks to avoid a similar reality of India setting camp in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal. The resultant seems to be a re-establishment of the military hotline, going up and beyond the complexities of bureaucracy, to reach an agreement to reinstate the LoC ceasefire and end the violations that have killed roughly 28 people in 2020 alone.

The violations peaked since the BJP-regime gripped the reigns of power: committing over 3000 violations to the Working Boundary Accord in a gruesome show of aggression. While the agreement assures absolute compliance on either side of the LoC, the chinks in the armor could already be seen mere days later. Earlier in March, roughly 15 BSF troops crossed the Working Boundary and showed artillery over the Pakistani side despite being bounded by the replenished ceasefire agreement. With this fragile state of understanding, the only material success of the backchannel talks being the already failing peace accord along the LoC, further dialogue grows more and more weak as the engagement moves along whilst lacking strategic clarity. The position of Kashmir remains a paradox, India continues to invade Pakistan through Afghanistan, and militants like Kulbhushan Jadhav continue to monger terrorism in the dissident strata of Pakistan.

The diplomats and ex-military officers are in tandem to cite the recent turn in relations as nothing but a surge of whelming optimism of Pakistan in the face of a fascist and opportunist BJP-led India. If the regional elections and protests allude to anything, it stands brutally clear that the BJP agenda has been widely rejected by the secular mentality within India. That being said, India now stands desperate to dilute the tensions both within its own peripheries as well as the growing dissent in the world. The tactical move to normalize relations with Pakistan could, however, be salvaged given Pakistan manoeuvres the talks instead of beckoning to the plans of India.  A Pakistani Ambassador, Mr. Abdul Basit, deftly encapsulated the whole scenario, stating: “If we [Pakistan] get invested into a situation where we agree to another round of formal talks, structural talks, that will take us nowhere. The emphasis at this stage should be on ascertaining as to what would be the roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir [IIOJK]”.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.


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