Prime minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with mainstream Kashmiri political leaders has set off a buzz in political circles about New Delhi’s next move in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Going from the reactions of the leaders in attendance in the meeting, New Delhi seems keen on fast-tracking delimitation and holding assembly elections in the strife torn valley. But this is the same Modi government that not so long ago had publicly derided the “Gupkar gang” in Parliament and promised a “Naya Kashmir” while abrogating Article 370 on August 5, 2019. So what explains this sudden change of heart? Events on the other side of the border may hold a clue.
Since 2020, much of the action has shifted from India’s western flank to the eastern flank. The LoC with Pakistan has been relatively calmer in comparison to the LAC with China where India lost 20 soldiers last year in the Galwan clashes. Although the two sides have disengaged troops at Pangong Tso, the Chinese have refused to budge from Gogra and Hot Springs. There is a realization in New Delhi that India cannot afford to fight a two-front war. It must make peace on either the western or eastern flank. Given China’s unwillingness to settle the border dispute, it is more apparent than ever that peace with Pakistan is in India’s interest.
By abrogating Article 370, New Delhi signalled to Islamabad that Jammu and Kashmir is now a closed chapter and that any future Indo-Pak talks would have to move beyond Kashmir. The Pakistan Army and the ISI- the de facto rulers in Pakistan- have understood this too albeit the hard way. Attempts at internationalising India’s Article 370 move failed miserably as the US, France, and even Saudi Arabia came to its rescue. Pakistan knows that its Kashmir dream is as good as over. But remember no regime in Pakistan can survive if it gives up the Kashmir dream. And so Islamabad continues to make routine noise on Kashmir. But there’s a conspicuous change in tone and tenor.
This was most evident when Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa told a gathering in Islamabad in March that “it is time to bury the past and move forward”. He, however, put the onus on India to “create a conducive environment, particularly in Indian-occupied Kashmir.” It is hard to recall any other Pakistan Army Chief striking as conciliatory a note on Kashmir as Qamar Bajwa. The statement came barely a month after India-Pak announced a surprise ceasefire agreement on the LoC. That Pakistan has stayed loyal to the agreement so far signals that it is serious about peace this time. That the agreement was brokered by the UAE tells us that back channel talks between the two sides were underway for quite some time. So was the meeting with Kashmiri leaders and promise of elections and future statehood part of that “conducive environment” that Qamar Bajwa was talking about? Perhaps. But something else has been brewing up too.
Come September, the US will withdraw fully and finally from Afghanistan. If recent trends are anything to go by, the Taliban looks set to strike a hard bargain with the Afghan government. There are reports of Afghan forces abandoning posts and village after village falling into Taliban’s hands. What power structure is installed in Kabul post-September is anyone’s guess. But one thing is certain: the Taliban will be a key player in Afghanistan. Over the years, New Delhi has invested huge economic, political and diplomatic capital in Kabul. In the absence of the US, India’s interests and assets in Afghanistan would be highly vulnerable.
Since Pakistan controls the levers over Taliban in Afghanistan, New Delhi’s attempts to mend ties with Islamabad make sense. But what is in it for Pakistan?
Pakistan’s economy is in a mess. The over-reliance on Chinese loans and the resultant debt trap has Islamabad worried. With the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it can no longer leverage its connections with the Taliban in extracting favours from the US either. There is reason to believe that the US would condition any aid to Pakistan on its willingness to mend ties with India and curb cross border terrorism.
There is also a realisation in Islamabad that it is running out of friends. Remember Saudi Arabia, once an all weather ally, rebuked Islamabad publicly when it insisted on raising Article 370 and Kashmir at the OIC meet shortly after India’s August 5, 2019 decision. So much so that it froze a $3.2 billion oil credit facility and asked Pakistan to repay part of the $3 billion loan. Again, good relations with India is crucial for Pakistan to secure Saudi support.
All said and done, if Pakistan and India make genuine attempts at peace, a “Naya Kashmir” may not be far away.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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