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Date : June 22, 2021

As Delhi initiates political engagement with the leaders of Jammu and Kashmir this week, for the first time since the state was reorganised in August 2019, Pakistan is all ears. In the last couple of weeks, well before Delhi announced its outreach, Islamabad went into a diplomatic overdrive to draw the world’s attention to what it claimed as India’s “new plans” to further divide Jammu and Kashmir.

Some of this, arguably, reflects Pakistan’s nervousness on India’s Kashmir stratagems. In the past, it was Pakistan that kept India off-balance on Kashmir. It is now Pakistan’s turn to face an “unpredictable” India. In the last few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to restructure India’s Pakistan policy, including on Kashmir. Many have questioned the merits of his policy, but he has certainly thrown away the script that had been in place for India-Pakistan relations for nearly three decades.

Paralysed by Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism and proxy war since the early 1990s, Delhi’s mood swung violently between pushing the peace process and getting into a political sulk after every major terror attack. Delhi inevitably returned to peace talks after a brief interval. “Rinse and repeat” was Delhi’s mantra.

In breaking from the endless cycle of talks-terror-talks, Modi was eager to gain the initiative in the complex diplomatic/political/military dynamic with Pakistan. Recall Modi’s decisions to begin his first term in May 2014 by inviting then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony and landing at the end of 2015 on a few hours’ notice at Nawaz Sharif’s family home outside Lahore. These goodwill gestures were accompanied by Delhi’s refusal to accept visiting Pakistani dignitaries meeting Kashmiri separatists in India.

When his visit to Lahore was followed within a week by a terror attack, Modi broke custom by inviting Pakistan to join the investigations. But Pakistan’s intelligence establishment was in no mood to cooperate. After a major terror attack on Uri in September 2016, Modi changed tack to order the Indian Army to carry out “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control.

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019, Modi ordered the Indian Air Force to carry out a raid on a terror camp at Balakot in Pakistan. Pakistan’s response the next day led to the first aerial combat between the two air forces since 1971.

The PM had a bigger surprise when he returned to power in 2019 with a bigger majority in the Lok Sabha. In August that year, he got Parliament’s approval for changing the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, separating Ladakh from it, and declaring the two entities as union territories.

Pakistan, especially Prime Minister Imran Khan, was surprised if not shocked. After all, Imran publicly rooted for Modi in the 2019 elections, by arguing that a strong Indian leader would be better placed to deliver peace. An angry Pakistan turned to diplomacy rather than force in putting India in the dock. While China, Pakistan’s ally and a party to the Kashmir question, sought UNSC intervention, Delhi blocked the move with support from France, Russia and the US. Pakistan also drew a blank at the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

As tempers cooled by late 2020, the security establishments in India and Pakistan embarked on backchannel diplomacy that produced quick results.

India and Pakistan announced a ceasefire on the Line of Control in February. In March, Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, had a surprise of his own. He called for a reorientation of Pakistan’s national strategy away from “geopolitics” to “geoeconomics”, and underlined the importance of good neighbourly relations with Afghanistan and India.

Soon after, in an apparent sign of the new geo-economic orientation, Pakistan’s commerce ministry approved the import of sugar and cotton from India to meet the shortfall in local production. But the next day, Imran Khan overruled the decision. He has since justified his stand with the stark formulation that Pakistan “can’t trade Kashmiri blood” for benefits from commercial engagement with India.

Imran’s reversal on trade suggested significant internal differences within Pakistan on engaging India, especially on the question of Kashmir. In the ceasefire statement issued by the two DGMOs in February, the two sides agreed to “address each other’s core issues and concerns” that tend to “disturb peace”. The reference to core issues was a code for India agreeing to talk on Kashmir and Pakistan willing to address India’s concerns on terrorism.

While Kashmir is now on the bilateral agenda, Pakistan has a big problem. India’s August 2019 move in Kashmir is stuck in Pakistan’s political throat. It can neither swallow it nor spit it out. Pakistan’s current Kashmir debate is about finding a way out.

In his March speech on geo-economics, Bajwa had talked about the importance of India creating a “conducive environment” in Kashmir for a “meaningful dialogue” between the two nations. While Bajwa has put the onus on India for changing the Kashmir dynamic, the phrase “conducive environment” has enough flexibility to either move forward or walk back to square one. Imran Khan, however, has often shredded that creative ambiguity by insisting on the full reversal of India’s August 2019 decisions on Kashmir for the resumption of the peace process.

Pakistan has also argued with itself on the priorities in Kashmir — for example, should it focus on Article 370 that defines the region’s special status in the Indian Union or Article 35a that protects the region’s demographic profile.

Realists in Pakistan perhaps know that Modi’s India will not restore the pre-August 2019 legal status in Kashmir; they might be open to a pragmatic definition of what constitutes a “conducive environment” in Kashmir. There are scores of confidence-building measures that Delhi and Islamabad could undertake to make life easier for Kashmiris on both sides of the Line of Control. Delhi could also offer a roadmap for restoring J&K’s statehood.

Would that be enough to satisfy all the key factions in Pakistan? Or will the Kashmir policy become a football to be kicked around in Pakistan’s domestic politics? After all, it is not easy to reverse the Kashmir policy in which Pakistan had invested so much energy and emotion for so long.

Irrespective of the Pakistani debate, Delhi owes itself a new and mutually acceptable compact with Kashmir’s political class. India’s success on that front will inevitably and irrevocably alter the terms of India’s engagement with Pakistan on Kashmir.