By Zeeshan Haider
Pakistani and Indian director generals of military operations (DGs-MO) took many by surprise this week by agreeing to restore a ceasefire that was put in place on the de-facto border in Kashmir 15 years ago. This ceasefire was frequently violated in recent years. The agreement followed an Indian army decision to observe a truce with freedom fighters in the occupied Himalayan region in the holy month of Ramadan (fasting).
The two nuclear rivals have previously successfully held a ceasefire – agreed in the run up to a peace process launched in 2004 – along the Line of Control (LoC) and the Working Boundary for more than a decade. However, there have been frequent border duels between the two militaries over past two years after India adopted a tougher posturing since Narendra Modi took power in New Delhi four years ago.
The clashes intensified in recent months and claimed lives of dozens of soldiers as well as scores of common civilians, including women, children and elderly people. According to Pakistani sources, Indian army committed more than 1000 violations along the LoC as well as along the Working Boundary in 2018 alone, which claimed lives of at least two dozen people.
After every incident, the two countries would routinely blame each other for inciting the violence while their DGs-MO would speak on hotlines to trade allegations of initiating the fire. The high commissioners would also be summoned to each other’s foreign ministries to lodge official protests over the incidents.
However, the tone and tenor of the two military officers was different during their May 29 contact on the hotline. Instead of trading blame, the two DGs-MO agreed to go back to the 2003 ceasefire to restore calm in what came as a major relief for thousands of ordinary people displaced by the frequent clashes.
According to the Pakistani military, the two officers agreed to undertake “sincere measures” to improve the existing situation ensuring peace and avoidance of hardships to the civilians along the border. The Indian army issued an almost identical statement with slightly different words but same substance.
What prompted this sudden change of heart by the two countries, as publicly there has not been any discernible peace gesture by civilian leaderships from either side?
Since there is no official word on the reason behind this development – which could safely be described as the most important confidence building measure since the 2008 Mumbai attacks – one could safely assume that there might be some sort of behind-the-scenes efforts taking place. At least two major incidents in recent months give credence to such assumptions.
Firstly, on the personal initiative of the Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistani army for the first time invited Indian diplomats in Islamabad to attend the Pakistan Day Parade on March 23. Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria as well as his deputy and the defence attaché attended the parade.
Secondly, at a passing-out ceremony of army cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy in Kakul in April, Bajwa suggested that dialogue was the only way forward for Pakistan and India to end their decades-old animosity. “While such dialogue is no favor to any party, it remains the inevitable precursor to peace across the region,” he said, adding that Pakistan remains committed to such a dialogue but only on the basis of sovereign equality, dignity and honor.
While such statements had been made in the past, positive remarks from Pakistan’s military chief, amidst a border flare-up, sent a clear message across the eastern border. This message suggested that while reserving the right for a tit-for-tat response to any provocation, the Pakistani army supported resumption of the stalled dialogue process.
Interestingly, the Indian side also seems to be willing to soften its tough stance, which is evident from a recent interview of the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Sindh. Singh said that New Delhi was ready to hold talks with Islamabad and that “to not welcome anyone who wants to talk was not the right thing”.
While it is too early to suggest that Pakistan and India are close to resuming their official talks, the agreement for restoration of ceasefire against the backdrop of these positive signals could create a favorable atmosphere for the resumption of the dialogue process. The two countries have to ultimately sit down to resolve their disputes, however it is better for them to do it sooner rather than later. Any delay could claim more innocent lives as well as lives of soldiers on both sides.
Let’s see whether the leaders of the two countries show political will to go back to their stalled composite dialogue process as they have reverted to their ceasefire agreement.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad and can be contacted on email@example.com or @HaiderZeeshan14