It is a surreal experience to look back through old newspapers published in India and Pakistan. Dog-eared pages from the past have headlines which echo events today. Peace is always about to break out between the two countries, yet war is just around the corner. Delhi and Islamabad are always talking about talking with each other, but rarely ever doing it for real. 

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"Intractable" is the word most often used to describe the relationship between India and Pakistan, at the heart of which is the dispute over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, larger in size than France. India and Pakistan have fought four wars, three of them over Pakistan's desire to capture Kashmir Valley, held by India. 

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown extreme keenness in India's foreign policy towards the US and China, he has remained disengaged with Pakistan.

 

News that should shock us into action is routine when it comes to India-Pakistan. A gun battle with militants recently saw the deaths of four soldiers in Kashmir. Pakistan also arrested 100 Indian fishermen for violating territorial waters. They have since been released. There is routine talk of "surgical strikes" and nuclear weapons. 

Foreign policy

The Kargil war of 1999 is the only occasion when both countries went to war as nuclear powers. Pakistani troops in civilian dresses had infiltrated parts of Indian-held Kashmir, hoping to cut off some key Indian supply lines to the Siachen glacier, the world's highest battlefield, nearly 6,000 metres above sea level. As the Indian army drove them out, it exercised strategic restraint in not crossing the Line of Control (LoC), the disputed, temporary ceasefire line. It was the fourth Indo-Pakistani war, and no one can say it will be the last.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown extreme keenness in India's foreign policy towards the US and China, he has remained disengaged with Pakistan. A meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in July seemed to have arrived after international pressure from the US. It was decided in the meeting that the national security advisers of the two countries would soon meet.

However, when Pakistan's national security adviser Sartaj Aziz was about to land in New Delhi last August, Indian officials said they would not let him meet Kashmiri secessionists, and would not discuss Kashmir. Aziz wanted to pay lip-service to Kashmir to appease his domestic audience. In the end, Aziz didn't visit Delhi. Pakistan immediately ratcheted up the rhetoric on Kashmir.


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There have, however, been remarkable breakthroughs in the past. For example, a 1960 treaty over sharing of river waters holds good even today. The treaty was brokered by the World Bank, which provided dispute resolution mechanisms over such things as building new dams.

There was a time when the two countries had moved beyond the binary conversations of Kashmir and terrorism to discuss many other issues, such as trade, visas and cultural exchange. This process, known as the composite dialogue, first began in 1997. Trade was partially liberalised and a new regime for issuing visas was agreed upon and a protocol was established on the issue of prisoners. The greatest achievement of the dialogue was a ceasefire agreement in 2003, which substantially reduced the loss of life and property on the disputed border, as well as terrorism in the Kashmir Valley.

Line of Control

It seems, once again, that compromise on Kashmir is proving to be intractable. On both sides, there are voices suggesting there is nothing to be gained through negotiations. They forget that India has often agreed to hold talks, despite not getting a commitment on terrorism from Pakistan. In turn, Pakistan has often agreed to not let Kashmir hamper an improvement in relations. Such flexibility has only brought gains.

In 2003, India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire on the LoC, as Pakistan started turning its attention away from Kashmir to the US-led war in Afghanistan. As that war has subsided, India says Pakistan has escalated tensions along the LoC. Pakistan blames India. Low-level fighting has seen both civilian and military casualties over the past two years.

On September 21, a meeting of local army commanders on both sides resulted in an agreement to de-escalate tensions. Both sides agreed to exercise restraint, respect the 2003 ceasefire, and reduce attacks on civilian areas. Among other proposals, Pakistan recently proposed formalising the 2003 ceasefire agreement on paper, but India said all Pakistan needs to do is give up sponsoring terrorism. Yet, the general consensus is that the likelihood of Pakistan changing its tactics in Kashmir is unlikely.

In 2005, India and Pakistan agreed to let citizens of Jammu and Kashmir travel across the LoC. India wanted the use of passports for this, which was not acceptable to Pakistan because that would have legitimised the LoC as a de jure international border. So the two countries agreed to issue "travel permits" without passports.

Similarly, the two countries reached a back-channel agreement to solve the Kashmir dispute, which did not involve redrawing borders. It included demilitarisation, self-government and greater movement of trade and people across both sides. This could not become a reality as Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf was ousted from office. To this day, it remains the only plausible way of solving Kashmir. 

Shivam Vij is a journalist based in Delhi. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

Source: Aljazeera