The breathless excitement, even optimism, with which even seasoned observers of the India-Pakistan relationship received the news of the latest ceasefire agreement between the militaries of the two countries was surreal. Even more bizarre was the vaulting expectations that some reports attached to the news. Suddenly it seemed that the now-on-now-off lovefest between the two inveterately hostile countries was starting once again. Even before anyone could make sense of what exactly had happened, why it had happened, and whether it would sustain, predictions were made about how diplomatic relations would be normalised, summit meetings would take place, and some people even expressed the hope of people-to-people contacts reopening.
Ironically, even though reports claimed that only a very small group of top leaders knew what was underway, ‘senior officials’ who were mostly likely out of the loop started waxing eloquent on the future trajectory of the virtually non-existent bilateral relationship. Some of what is being predicted might actually happen. But the moot point remains whether this latest peace move is sustainable. What has changed materially on the ground that makes some people think that a thaw between India and Pakistan is actually occurring? In a word, virtually nothing. And yet, everyone is getting ahead of themselves in conjuring up phantasmagorical images of the future state of relations between the two countries.
Assessing the track record
The ceasefire understanding—there is no written agreement—was reached way back in November 2003. The back story of how that understanding was reached is for another time. Suffice to say, it paved the way for the Vajpayee-Musharraf meeting in Islamabad on the side-lines of the SAARC summit. That meeting kickstarted the much talked about peace process from 2004-2008 before the whole thing got blown apart by the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks by Pakistani terrorists. From November 2003 to November 2008, the ceasefire was scrupulously observed. Post 26/11, ceasefire violations started happening more regularly. But it was around 2012-13 when these violations spiked.
In January 2013, the Director General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of both countries agreed to de-escalate the tensions but nothing much came out of this agreement. Later that year, in December, the two DGMOs met and another agreement was reached to “maintain the sanctity and ceasefire on the Line of Control”. But from 2014 onwards, tensions along the LoC continued to rise, and the ceasefire was pretty tattered. After tensions peaked in 2018, yet another agreement was reached between the two DGMOs to “fully implement the Ceasefire Understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit forthwith and to ensure that henceforth, the Ceasefire will not be violated by both sides”. But this didn’t survive more than a couple of months and since then ceasefire has been observed more in its violation with over 5,000 incidents reported in 2020.
Given this track record, it is quite befuddling why anyone would attach any hope to this latest agreement. But it isn’t just the history of the ceasefire agreement that causes scepticism. There is absolutely nothing to suggest—and here one is only making an assessment based purely on open source information—that there is anything positive happening between the two countries either on the political front or on the security front. In fact, things have pretty much reached a nadir. Short of hurling Punjabi profanities at his Indian counterpart, the ‘selected’ Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, has used the most vile language about Modi, his government, his party and even his country. And taking their cue from Imran Khan, members of his cult (including those in the Cabinet) have gone a step further, throwing every diplomatic nicety, propriety, decency and restraint to the winds. The latest example of this was just a day before the ceasefire was announced. Forget bilateral issues, Pakistan has been openly interfering in India’s domestic issues, whether it is the farmers’ protest or a judicial process. The first thing that normally happens before a peace process starts is that rhetoric is toned down. But that hasn’t happened.
On the security front, things are only deteriorating. The Pakistanis are now openly trying to resurrect the Khalistan movement. In Jammu and Kashmir, new terror groups (actually most of these are proxies of old terror groups, albeit with more ‘secular’ names like Resistance Front) have emerged. The security forces are braced for a ‘hot summer’ in the Valley. Pakistanis have been adopting and adapting terror tactics from other theatres – drones to drop weapons not just in J&K but also in Punjab, tunnels to infiltrate terrorists, and introducing ‘sticky bombs’ (used to devastating effect in Afghanistan in recent weeks). Simply put, the terror factory in Pakistan is back in business. This is hardly conducive to any kind of move towards putting the bilateral relationship back on track. And if the summer is indeed ‘hot’ in the Union Territory, the ceasefire is going to become a casualty. Therefore, if the idea is to cool things down with a ceasefire agreement, it is based on a flawed understanding of the evolving situation.
Despite all the negative facts on the ground, there are people in India, including the spin doctors in the media, who have been enthused by what they see as the Pakistan army chief “extending a hand of peace” and his ‘selected’ Prime Minister dialling down his rhetoric on Kashmir Solidarity Day earlier this month. Aside from the fact that they misread and misrepresented the thrust of what Bajwa and his appointed Prime Minister said, what is even more egregious is the fact that these eternal optimists and spin doctors have tacitly (even if unwittingly) endorsed the underlying message coming from Pakistan viz. be ready to abandon Kashmir, come to the dialogue table to discuss the modalities of how India will implement the defunct UN resolutions, and then, perhaps, we will have peace with you.
After all, when Bajwa talks about resolving “the longstanding issue of Jammu and Kashmir…as per the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and bring this human tragedy to its logical conclusion”, do the spin doctors going hysterical over the hand of peace even understand what the Pakistan Army Chief was driving at, and what they were endorsing? Similarly, while Imran Khan wasn’t his abusive self in PoK on February 5, what he said was, “Come resolve this Kashmir dispute with us. And for that, the first thing you must do is to restore Article 370. And then speak to us. And then, as per the United Nations resolution, give the Kashmiris their due right.” Are the members of the Indian media, or official spin doctors going into raptures over Imran’s peace offer and his softening his tone, endorsing what he said?
Why declare ceasefire now?
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong in going back to the ceasefire, the ceasefire agreement itself is a badly drafted document, almost as if it was made by the same people who think that Bajwa and Imran were actually ready to smoke the peace pipe with India. It isn’t quite clear what exactly the document is driving at when it says “two DGMOs agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.” Did the drafters (clearly it was above the paygrade of the two DGMOs) even understand what they were getting into when they put down ‘core issues’ in the agreement? Are the two DGMOs now going to discuss the ‘core issue’ for Pakistan—Kashmir? And as for the things that can “disturb peace and lead to violence”, this can mean almost anything. What was the need for such verbiage if the intention was only to restore the ceasefire?
The drafting aside, one good thing that might have come out of this agreement is that it indicates that some back-channel has opened between the Indian civilian establishment and the Pakistani military establishment. The denial by Imran Khan’s Special Assistant Moeed Yusuf that he met the Indian National Security Advisor, if true, means that India was speaking to someone at the very top of the Pakistani military establishment. Whether it was Bajwa or one of his top generals isn’t known. For long, it has been one of the abiding myths in India that direct contact with the Pakistan military could lead to a breakthrough which wouldn’t be possible with civilians in Pakistan. But the sooner this myth shatters, the better it is for India. The fact is that India has spoken many times in the past with the Pakistani military, but it hasn’t resulted in any breakthrough. Even the 2003 ceasefire and subsequent peace process was negotiated between India’s civilian establishment and Pakistan’s military. But it didn’t survive Musharraf. In any case, the Americans have always spoken to the Pakistan Army, and they have very little to show for it as far as Afghanistan is concerned. Therefore, what makes people in India believe that she would succeed where the US has failed, remains a mystery.
The big question is what exactly prompted the ceasefire agreement. There is one theory which has to do with India and Pakistan both trying to avoid a two-front situation. But this theory smacks of strategic naivete. For one, the ceasefire came when tensions with China seem to be winding down. There was really no pressing need for India to lower tensions with Pakistan at this point of time. Secondly, if hostilities ever break out between India and China, it is a given that Pakistan will jump into the fray on China’s side. No agreement, and certainly not a flimsy ceasefire agreement, will stop Pakistan trying to take advantage of India’s predicament. The same might not be true of China if there is a scrap between India and Pakistan. On the Pakistani side, while it would certainly like to avoid a two-front situation, it won’t be at the cost of a strategic compromise with India. In any case, the two-front situation for Pakistan isn’t as pressing as some in India would like to imagine. Therefore, the two front theory isn’t very convincing.
The other theory doing the rounds is the ubiquitous ‘US pressure’. Although there is nothing in the public domain to suggest anything remotely resembling ‘pressure’ on either country, it is possible that both are indulging in some pre-emptive diplomacy aimed at the Biden administration. If indeed this is the case, it seems to have worked for now. The US State Department has welcomed the agreement. It has also called on both countries to “continue direct negotiations” and asked Pakistan to prevent “militants from crossing the Line of Control to launch attacks in India.” By agreeing to the ceasefire, Pakistan is signalling it isn’t pushing in terrorists into J&K and wards off any US pressure. On India’s part, the ceasefire demonstrates that she isn’t averse to reducing tensions with Pakistan. At the same time, the ceasefire punctures Pakistan’s balloon of Jammu and Kashmir becoming a nuclear flashpoint because rising tensions could easily escalate into a wider war between the two nuclear weapon neighbours. India also pre-empts any suggestion from the US to lower the tensions with Pakistan so that it can focus on the Western front where direct US interests are involved.
While the American angle would certainly be a factor in the ceasefire calculus of both countries, it is probably not the main determinant. Frankly, the US influence is a bit overstated. When the US couldn’t force compliance on a basket case like Pakistan despite losing thousands of soldiers to Pakistan’s treachery in Afghanistan, it certainly can’t influence, much less alter, Pakistan’s organic animosity approach towards India. Similarly, there are limits to how much the US can pressure India, especially when there is much larger strategic fish to fry between the two countries.
Unless there is some grand bargain which has been worked out on the back channel – the chances of that are infinitesimal – the ceasefire agreement is nothing more than a tactical move by both sides and is unlikely to endure or sustain for any length of time. From India’s point of view, it can use the ceasefire to beef up its security grid, strengthen its bunkers, and fix some of the gaps in the fence straddling of the LoC. And while doing this, it can also earn some brownie points from the international community. India doesn’t really lose anything from the ceasefire because she knows that it is a matter of time before the Pakistanis go back to their old tricks and the ceasefire will collapse. When that happens, no one will point fingers at India.
The only downside for India is the muddled messaging associated with the ceasefire agreement. It signals the flip-flop approach that has forever dogged India’s Pakistan policy. The Pakistanis are convinced that India just doesn’t have the staying power to maintain a hostile posture for any length of time, and sooner rather than later, Pakistan will be able to get India on the dialogue table. In that sense, the ceasefire takes us back to square one.
This article was first published on ORF.