India looks westwards
2 Jul 2021|

Recent conciliatory moves by India’s nationalist government on its western flank have rightly aroused global interest. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calculus appears relatively simple. Faced with continued Chinese aggression on India’s northern frontier and a likely Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, improving relations on the country’s western flank, with Pakistan, seems prudent.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of secret back-channel talks between Indian and Pakistani security officials—facilitated by the United Arab Emirates—aimed at easing bilateral tensions. A February 2021 ceasefire along the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani forces in the disputed Kashmir region has so far held, permitting an atmosphere of near-normality in the area.

India has also been talking to the Taliban, which it long derided as surrogates for the Pakistani army, reflecting the increasing likelihood that the mullahs will reclaim power in Kabul following the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in September. Furthermore, India has kept two of its consulates in Afghanistan closed since last year, a long-standing Pakistani demand that it had resisted for two decades.

And in late June, Modi’s government held surprisingly amicable talks in New Delhi with 14 mainstream Kashmiri political leaders. Almost all of them had been arrested during the government’s crackdown in the state of Jammu and Kashmir that began in August 2019, and had been demonised by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party since then.

All of this points to a policy shift by a government conscious of the pressures on India’s northern frontier. Chinese troops have failed to disengage since the spring of 2020, when they advanced across disputed territory in the Ladakh region and later provoked a military encounter that took the lives of 20 Indian soldiers. With China doggedly refusing to withdraw, despite 11 rounds of talks, India’s insistence on restoring the status quo ante looks increasingly forlorn.

Hostility with China is likely to endure, which means India can’t afford escalating tensions to its west. Indian–Pakistani relations are at their lowest level in recent times, owing to a series of incidents, beginning with the terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 and culminating in the 2019 Indian airstrike on Balakot in Pakistan. And the Indian government outraged Pakistan with its August 2019 decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its constitutionally guaranteed autonomy and reduce its status to a ‘union territory’, directly administered from Delhi. The Pakistani government subsequently mounted a worldwide campaign, working especially with Islamic countries but also at the United Nations, to censure India and force it to rescind the move.

Modi had remained implacable until recently, so the three-and-a-half-hour meeting with Kashmiri leaders was a surprise development. The leaders, who included four former chief ministers of Jammu and Kashmir, spanned the spectrum of the region’s main political parties. The Modi government had previously denounced some of them as corrupt dynasts, accusing them of milking the state for their own benefit. But now they were welcomed with sweet words and deferential protocol by Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah (India’s second most powerful politician) and other senior officials.

The government’s crackdown in Jammu and Kashmir has not achieved any of its proclaimed objectives—namely, to inaugurate a new era of peace and development, eliminate terrorism, break the political grip of a few families, and hasten the region’s integration with the rest of the country. But it would be wrong to see the government’s recent talks with the Kashmiri leaders as an admission of defeat.

The discussions focused on three issues. One was an agreement to carry out, with the Kashmiri parties’ cooperation, a new demarcation of the state’s political constituencies, which will likely enhance the Jammu region’s representation in the state assembly. The other agenda items were elections across Jammu and Kashmir, and restoration of its statehood.

Rather than a defeat for the Indian government, therefore, the talks seem to have shifted the goalposts. The earth-shattering news in August 2019 was the abolition of Article 370 of India’s constitution, which guaranteed Jammu and Kashmir’s special autonomous status. But that matter wasn’t even discussed, because it was deemed to be sub judice (petitions on the matter are pending before the supreme court). Instead, the main issue was restoration of statehood, which the government had in any case promised ‘at an appropriate time’.

This could lead to a politically viable trade-off, whereby the central government gives Jammu and Kashmir statehood if state leaders agree to go quiet on Article 370 and leave the matter to the judiciary. If that happens, as seems likely, Kashmiris will have the illusion of wresting a concession while the Modi government’s real victory—the revocation of autonomy two years ago—goes unchallenged by the Kashmiri parties.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s global campaign against India to restore the state’s autonomy has gone nowhere. Pakistan’s leaders have their own reasons for wanting to resume dialogue with India, but they needed to see some movement from Modi’s government to justify it. Talks with Kashmiri leaders leading to something like the restoration of statehood may constitute enough progress to warrant further discussions. The Indian government will thus chalk up another win if it enters new bilateral talks without making any real concession on the preconditions that Pakistan has been loudly declaiming for two years.

These recent developments are early moves in a slowly unfolding regional chess game. The situation in Afghanistan, the implications of China’s close economic ties with Pakistan through the Belt and Road Initiative, and the evolution of the insurgencies led by both the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani equivalent, have yet to play themselves out. Simmering Kashmiri militancy could boil over, while Pakistan—if it is unable or unwilling to stem terror attacks from its territory on Indian targets—could again prove duplicitous in its peace overtures.

There are too many unknowns for any side to have victory in sight. But for now, at least, India appears to be making the right moves.