There have been a number of developments recently on the Pakistan-India front. But none of them indicate any melting of the ice in what has been a frosty relationship for the past several years marked by frequent escalation of tensions and exchange of tough words. In fact, relations in the long-troubled relationship plunged to a new low in August 2019 when India illegally annexed the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, bifurcated it and absorbed it into the Indian Union. Although formal dialogue was suspended by India even before this, Delhi’s Kashmir action prompted Pakistan to suspend trade and withdraw its High Commissioner and downgrade diplomatic ties. Pakistan made the resumption of any dialogue contingent upon India rescinding its Aug 5, 2019 action. Far from doing this, Delhi has continued its repressive policy and human rights violations in Kashmir and carried out legal, demographic, and electoral changes aimed at disempowering and dispossessing Kashmiri Muslims. Pakistan’s consistent protests have been dismissed by the BJP government in this regard.
Back-channel communication between the two countries during 2020-2021 raised hopes of a limited thaw. The back channel at the intelligence level led to the re-commitment by both neighbors in February 2021 to observe the cease-fire on the Line of Control. This was not unimportant as only two years earlier the two nuclear neighbors were locked in a dangerous confrontation in the Balakot crisis, triggered by Indian air strikes inside Pakistani territory. But the back-channel talks made no headway on any other front, including Kashmir, that could pave the way for a resumption of talks. The diplomatic impasse persisted.
It was against this backdrop that last month Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called for “serious and sincere talks” with India to resolve “burning issues” such as Kashmir. In an interview with Al Arabiya, he said neighbors needed to live peacefully and voiced his willingness for talks. A subsequent clarification from the prime minister’s office reaffirmed Pakistan’s position that talks could only take place if the August 2019 action that ended Jammu and Kashmir’s special status was reversed by India.
With normalization of ties a remote possibility, the need is for the two neighbors to engage in quiet diplomacy that focusses on managing tensions to prevent them from spinning out of control.
Whether or not this was intended as a peace offer or to test the diplomatic waters, Delhi’s response put paid to any forward movement. A spokesman of India’s external affairs ministry reiterated the familiar line that an atmosphere “free of terror, hostility and violence” was needed for “normal neighborly relations” with Pakistan. This exchange amounted to little more than a reiteration of the two countries’ positions while speculation in the Indian media about whether Pakistan was seeking to reinitiate dialogue quickly dissipated.
The other developments in the past month or so have involved mixed signals from India. On the one hand, India has extended an invitation to Islamabad for Pakistan’s participation in the Foreign Ministers meeting of the eight-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which it is hosting in Goa in May. The Heads of Government Summit is scheduled for June. On the other hand, Delhi has hardened its posture and upped the diplomatic ante on an issue of crucial importance to Pakistan concerning the Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan has publicly acknowledged receiving the SCO invitation but has yet to take a decision which may depend on whether Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend the summit.
But it is the development on the water issue that is more significant and consequential. In late January, India notified Pakistan of its intention to modify the Indus Waters Treaty that governs the sharing and management of trans-border rivers. Pakistan has long disputed the construction of the 330-megawatt Kishanganga hydroelectric project on the Jhelum river and plans to construct the 850 mw Ratle Hydroelectric Project on the Chenab river in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. This dispute has figured for decades in bilateral talks and meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission. Because no resolution was found, in 2016 Pakistan asked the World Bank, which brokered the treaty and is also a signatory, to appoint an ad hoc Court of Arbitration to take up the dispute, a provision under the treaty. While India completed the Kishanganga project in 2018, the Bank took six years to activate the court as well as a neutral expert, sought by India. Both forums are sanctioned by the Treaty. No sooner was the first hearing of the court held at the Hague in end January that India served notice on Islamabad that it would unilaterally amend the Treaty citing Pakistan’s “intransigence in handling disputes.” This was an indication of Delhi seeking to wriggle out of the court process.
This development raises questions about the fate of the 1960 treaty, which has over decades survived wars and tensions between the two countries, now that India is signaling its intent to reopen the treaty for bilateral negotiations over its contentious clauses. This reflects the hard-line Delhi has adopted, trying perhaps to take advantage of Pakistan’s vulnerabilities and preoccupation with its economic and political crisis. Islamabad for its part has accused Delhi of trying to divert attention from the arbitration proceedings at the Hague.
Even cricket remains a casualty of Pakistan-India tensions. It is Pakistan’s turn to host the Asia Cup, under the Asia Cricket Council (ACC) in September. ACC President is the Indian cricket board’s Jay Shah (son of BJP leader and home minister Amit Shah) who has already declared India won’t play in Pakistan and called for the Asia Cup to be moved to UAE. The deadlock between the Pakistan and Indian cricket boards continues. Whether this impasse can be broken at the ACC board meeting on February 4 is to be seen.
The fraught climate of Pakistan-India relations remains unchanged. The persisting diplomatic stalemate makes the outlook uncertain. Although working level diplomatic engagement continues intermittently on practical issues, prospects of any resumption of formal dialogue are slim. With normalization of ties a remote possibility, the need is for the two neighbors to engage in quiet diplomacy that focuses on managing tensions to prevent them from spinning out of control.
- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha