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India's suspicions towards Pakistan's olive branch

January 23, 2023

India has been eyeing Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's peace overtures with caution. Tensions over Kashmir remain unabated.

Soldiers walking along a border fence
The disputed Kashmir region has been a thorn in the side of Indian-Pakistani relationsImage: AFP

Last week Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that he wanted to hold "sincere and serious" talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi on "burning issues" such as the status of Kashmir. He said these talks could play a role in resolving the larger differences between the two neighbors.

"We have had three wars with India, and they have only brought more misery, poverty, and unemployment to the people. We have learned our lesson, and we want to live in peace, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems," Sharif told Dubai-based Al Arabiya TV in an interview.

"I will give my word that we will talk to India with sincerity, but it takes two to tango," Sharif said.

But his calls for a push for better relations came with the condition that India restore the constitutional provisions in Jammu and Kashmir that were revoked in 2019.

Frosty relations

Ties between the two countries have been frayed since Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted Indian-administered Kashmir partial autonomy, and that led to a wave of large-scale protests followed by a violent government crackdown.

Two days after Sharif's comments, New Delhi laid out its own conditions for "good relations," pointing to India's demands that Pakistan ends what it claims is support for terrorism and violence.

"We have said that we have always wanted normal neighborly relations with Pakistan," Indian Foreign Office spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said while addressing a weekly media briefing. "But there should be a conducive atmosphere which does not have terror, hostility or violence. That remains our position," he added.

Indian, Pakistani youth hopeful for a better future

Meera Shankar, a former Indian ambassador to the United States, pointed out that while Sharif's statements were positive it was not clear how much progress could actually be made given that Pakistan is currently embroiled in domestic political turmoil with national elections looming.

"It is also not clear if the Pakistan Army is supportive of an opening to India though it is good that the ceasefire between the two countries has largely held. India is likely to tread cautiously," Shankar told DW.

Stand-off over Kashmir

But the status of Kashmir — a province claimed by both Islamabad and New Delhi, over which two wars have been fought — remains a major hurdle for both sides.

"Pakistan desires peaceful relations with all its neighbors, including India. However, until India brings its atrocities in occupied Kashmir to a grinding halt, just and lasting peace will remain elusive," the Pakistani prime minister said from a conference in Kazakhstan in October 2022.

Kashmir journalists under pressure

New Delhi has long accused Islamabad of providing logistical and financial support to the armed rebels fighting either for independence or for the merger of Indian-administered Kashmir with Pakistan.

Islamabad denies the claims, saying it only provides diplomatic support to the region's struggle for the right to self-determination.

The two neighbors came close to a full-scale war in 2019 when India launched an air strike inside Pakistan to target what New Delhi said was a militant training facility.

"Pakistan hasn't shown any serious intent to address the issue of terrorism from its territory targeting India. Making peace offers via the media of a third country lacks seriousness and sincerity," Deepa Gopalan Wadhwa, a former Indian diplomat, who was the first Indian woman to be appointed Ambassador to the Gulf State of Qatar, told DW.

"Sharif is perhaps playing to an audience in the West from whom he desperately needs aid to bail out Pakistan's tanking economy," she said.

Pakistan's difficult position

Sharif's remarks come as his country is battling severe economic distress — predating last summer's catastrophic floods. According to various reports, its dollar reserves are running low and have dwindled to an eight-year nadir despite the government's efforts to shore up its economy.

The forgotten victims of Pakistan's floods

The dwindling foreign currency reserves have left no space for the government to repay its foreign debts without borrowing from friendly countries. The UAE has promised to roll over a $2 billion (€1.8 billion) debt and has topped that up with a further $1 billion loan.

According to Brookings, a US think tank, Pakistan continues to face instability and polarization this year in the run-up to country-wide elections that are constitutionally mandated to be held by October.

Volatility has only heightened with rising instances of terror attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which ended a ceasefire with Pakistan's security forces late last year, Brookings said.

What are the prospects for peace?

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif at UN conference in Geneva
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has said it is now up to India to take a step towards rebuilding tiesImage: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Against this backdrop, former diplomats believe that Sharif's declared interest in improving ties does not hold water and India will be in no hurry to respond to such peace overtures without Pakistan also showing concrete actions.

"Whenever the door opens to dialogue, the payload from Pakistan has not been constructive. India cannot but be expected to react the way it has to the interview given by Prime Minister Sharif," Nirupama Rao, India's former foreign secretary, told DW.

Rao also claimed that previous attempts from India to recommence dialogue with Pakistan had been undermined by forces inimical to the normalization of ties with India in that country have effectively sabotaged the process.

"Pakistan cannot sustain this attitude. It has damaged the country's growth and progress and its global reputation bears the stain and stigma of its errant ways," she said.

In February 2021, both sides renewed a two-decade-old ceasefire pact along the 725 kilometers-long (450 miles) Line of Control — the de facto border that divides Kashmir between the two nations. It still holds.

However, relations between the two neighbors are otherwise dismal: both have expelled each other's envoys, trade is banned and there is a virtual freeze on cross border movement of people.

Ajay Bisaria, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, said India's immediate goal would be to retain the gains of a ceasefire and the low levels of cross-border infiltration.

"In India-Pakistan relations, accidents happen all too frequently, defying expectations of cyclical returns to normalcy. Quiet, creative diplomacy must continue with managed expectations to create conditions for peace breakthroughs in 2024," Bisaria told DW.

Given the deep mistrust and hostility between both sides, many believe any headway in the relations between the two nations looks unlikely for the present.

"Diplomacy must have depth to succeed. It cannot be based on seemingly pious calls for peace and honesty. We have been down that road before and we know the pitfalls," said Rao.

Edited by: Alex Berry

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11