Pakistan seeks specific actions for India talks to move ahead

Senior Pakistani sources give ‘examples’ of specific Indian actions needed in disputed Kashmir for talks to move forward.

Pakistani Rangers and Indian Border Security Force officers at Wagah border, near Lahore
Pakistani Rangers, wearing black uniforms, and Indian Border Security Force officers lower their national flags at the Pakistan-India joint checkpost at Wagah border [File: Mohsin Raza/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan is willing to move forward in its engagement with India, potentially including formal bilateral dialogue on resolving the Kashmir dispute, if its eastern neighbour takes certain specified steps “to ease lives” in Kashmir, senior Pakistani sources have told Al Jazeera.

The Pakistani sources, who have knowledge of the situation and spoke to Al Jazeera, shared for the first time a list of “examples” of actions that the Indian government could take in Indian-administered Kashmir to move the talks closer to a formal bilateral dialogue.

Ties between the two nuclear-armed countries have been virtually frozen since February 2019, after a military standoff sparked by an armed group attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir.

This year, however, has seen a thawing of relations, with rare informal talks between the two countries resulting in a recommitment to a 2003 ceasefire agreement in the disputed Himalayan territory, an exchange of letters between their prime ministers, and a meeting of water commissioners.

“Pakistan is genuinely standing with the Kashmir cause, of course the territory is an internationally recognised dispute, but the first thing we have to do is make sure Kashmiri lives are eased,” said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue.

What Pakistan wants from India

The sources gave “examples” of concrete Indian actions that could move the “communication” between the two countries forward.

First, a permanent halt to demographic change in Indian-administered Kashmir, where India in April 2020 introduced a new domicile law that would allow long-term migrants from other parts of the country to gain permanent residence.

“This would inevitably be necessary to move forward,” a Pakistani source said.

Second, Indian authorities would have to release political and other prisoners being held since it imposed a strict lockdown in Indian-administered Kashmir in August 2019, when it revoked Article 370 of its constitution, which gave Indian-administered Kashmir a special constitutional status.

Third, the removal by India of blockades on communication and movement in the disputed region.

Fourth, giving back full statehood rights to Indian-administered Kashmir, which were also revoked as part of the August 2019 actions, and “recognising that it is subject to an internationally recognised territorial dispute with Pakistan”.

Fifth, a reduction in Indian security forces deployment in Indian-administered Kashmir, where hundreds of thousands of security forces personnel have been deployed following the August 2019 imposition of lockdown after India’s Article 370 was revoked.

“The markers I have mentioned, these are what we define as ‘the enabling environment’,” said a source.

“This is the next step. Whatever conditions that India creates, must also be acceptable to the Kashmiris. Without this, it is unlikely that Pakistan can move forward.”

The second Pakistani source also said these “markers” were starting points for any further conversation.

“Let’s say that they do not do any of these things. Then that’s the end of it,” the second source said.

Arindam Bagchi, India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, declined to comment on the issue to Al Jazeera.

Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, Pakistani foreign ministry spokesperson, did not comment on specifics of the current communication between the two countries, but repeated Pakistan’s stance that “the onus is on India” to restart talks.

“For any meaningful and result oriented dialogue, there has to be a conducive and enabling environment,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Since India has vitiated the environment through its illegal and unilateral actions of August 5, 2019, the onus is now on India to create an enabling environment so that a result-oriented and meaningful dialogue can take place.”

Article 370 ‘not our headache’

Notably absent from Pakistan’s demands is the reimplementation of Article 370, which was revoked on August 5, 2019, by the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a move that drew widespread condemnation from within Indian-administered Kashmir, including from some pro-Delhi political leaders, and from Pakistan.

“Article 370 […] is not our headache because we never recognised the Indian constitution’s application to Kashmir,” said a Pakistani source.

“Whether they bring 370 [back] or not … just tell us is the Kashmiri identity intact?” said the source, marking a potential softening of the country’s previous stance.

“Have Kashmiri lives been brought to a [better] point? And are you recognising clearly that it is disputed territory under international dispute or not, whether you call it anything, it doesn’t matter to [Pakistan].”

Analysts say the omission of a demand to reimplement Article 370 marked a potential for further forward movement in talks.

“The fact that Article 370 is not prominent in the current Pakistani thinking indicates to me that the government of Pakistan understands what India can and can’t do,” said Happymon Jacob, founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research in New Delhi.

“I don’t think any of these [demands] are non-negotiable. These are achievable conditionalities.”

In recent months, India has eased some restrictions in Kashmir, although widespread human rights violation allegations, including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, have been documented by rights groups and media.

The communications blockade was eased in February, when high-speed internet access was restored after a gap of 18 months.

Indian PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have both in the past indicated that the revocation of Kashmir’s full statehood rights was “temporary”, with Shah reiterating that position in February.

The Indian government held local government elections in the territory between November and December, with the anti-Modi People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) winning a majority of seats.

Critics, however, say those polls lacked credibility as the elected local government officials have limited powers.

Siddiq Wahid, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera at the time that the polls were an attempt by New Delhi to “show that things are normal in Kashmir”.

“It is unlikely that India will take any steps in Kashmir that are seen as being taken at the behest of Pakistan,” said Cyril Almeida, a senior journalist based in the Pakistani capital Islamabad.

“However, India will likely need to take some steps towards political rapprochement in Kashmir and it is possible those eventual steps will offer Pakistan an opportunity to claim that engagement with India has become possible.”

‘No structured back channel’

This month, Reuters news agency reported that a secret meeting between Indian and Pakistani intelligence officials in the United Arab Emirates in January had led to the February 25 ceasefire announcement.

While not confirming that meeting, a Pakistani source said the current communication between Pakistan and India was not in the form of a “structured back channel”.

“An authorised back channel, where [specific individuals] are tasked to go forward and achieve something is not happening,” the source said. “[Other] communication channels are always open, even in the worst of times, communication channels, such as the intelligence channels, are open.”

Analysts say the unstructured nature of the communication has both advantages and potential pitfalls.

“What we are hearing in Delhi is that you are looking at multiple people talking to multiple people on that side,” said Jacob in New Delhi.

“This is neither a designated back channel nor a consistent back channel. These are all bits and pieces of backchannels, and this is fundamentally different from what has happened in back channels between the two sides in the past.”

Pakistan’s powerful military has directly ruled the country roughly half of its 74-year history and continues to hold sway over many areas of policy, including relations with India.

“Part of the problem is that at present a hybrid civil-military regime exists in Pakistan, so the normal government-to-government [communications channels] may have been tweaked to reflect the current power structure in Pakistan,” says Almeida.

“The military leadership has long sought talks with India, but usually via a process that it controls on the Pakistani side. With the military-friendly government of Imran Khan currently in place, the military has the input or control that it demands on security matters.”

A Pakistani source said Pakistan’s civilian government and military were in unison on the current talks.

“What I can categorically tell you is that on the Pakistan side there is 100 percent civil-military consensus on major foreign policy issues,” a source said.

Some believe focusing on the specifics of how the communication channel is being managed miss the point.

“Private interactions brokered by third parties between military or civilian leaders may have happened as conversations, but the reportage has blown them out of proportion,” said Salman Zaidi, of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute think tank.

“There is too much scrutiny of how such talks took place, when and how.”

Quid pro quo on armed groups

Pakistan says it is willing to take further steps on Indian issues if it sees movement by India on Kashmir first.

“Pakistan has also taken positive steps and will continue to take positive steps in response but these cannot be unilateral,” said a source. “They require reciprocity from India and it must take the first steps in creating a conducive environment in [Indian-administered Kashmir].”

Neither Pakistani source offered specifics on what steps Pakistan would be willing to take, but analysts believe any Indian demands would focus on the issue of armed groups operating in Indian-administered Kashmir, which India accuses Pakistan of supporting.

“[India would likely ask Pakistan to] put a tap on terrorism especially on some of the new [armed] organisations that have propped up in Kashmir, The Resistance Front (TRF) and some other organisations,” said Jacob.

“Prevent terrorism from derailing the process and in particular make sure that no high visibility, high value attacks take place.”

Zaidi agreed, although he noted that “this has not featured as an ask in recent times”.

“The traditional quid pro quo India demanded in return for normalcy in Kashmir is ‘reduction of terror’ from groups based in Pakistan,” he said.

Under pressure from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that in 2018 put Pakistan on its ‘grey list’ for not taking enough action to curb the financing of armed groups and money laundering, Pakistan has in recent years revamped parts of its counter-terrorism regime.

“Because of FATF and other security compulsions, Pakistan has had to rein in militant groups,” said Almeida, the journalist. “Further action against groups that are Kashmir focused and India-centric could be presented as part of the Pakistani state’s overall commitment to rolling back militant groups.”

Regardless of how the back and forth goes in the coming months, the senior Pakistani source cautioned that his government was taking the talks “cautiously”.

“There is no excitement, we are treading very cautiously,” a Pakistani source said. “They must be treading cautiously, too. That is the history.”

Trust, the source said, was at a premium in the current talks.

“We are very sincerely testing out whether they genuinely want to talk about Kashmir.”

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera