Recent developments have raised hope that some progress might soon be made behind the scenes in comparatively – a key qualifier – normalising relations between India and Pakistan after they had dramatically deteriorated two years ago over Kashmir.
These are last month’s surprise ceasefire agreement, last week’s peaceful outreaches to India by Pakistani leaders during the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue, the resumption of water-sharing talks in New Delhi, the talk that India might participate in the anti-terrorist drills in Pakistan under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) later this year, and this week’s report that Emirati officials are secretly trying to broker a solution to those two countries’ decades-old dispute.
All indications, therefore, suggest that something is in the works, though it’s unclear exactly what it is, or how far it may go. Nevertheless, this presents a unique opportunity for Indian and Pakistani intellectuals.
There is a need to focus on the geopolitical and strategic angles of this issue with an eye on the larger Eurasian picture over the long term. What’s needed at this moment isn’t rhetorical points, but realistic proposals.
Any path to peace in Kashmir will be full of many difficult compromises due to many indisputable facts that some might regard as “politically inconvenient”, but which should nevertheless be acknowledged by both sides, even tacitly, in order for progress to be made:
- No maximalist outcomes are possible due to the nuclear factor.
- Kashmir is a highly emotive issue due to its close connection to each side’s politics, history and identity.
- An independent Kashmir comprised of the undivided, erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is unrealistic in the current geopolitical conditions.
- Each side asymmetrically responds to the other in plausibly deniable ways to advance their position.
- Kashmir isn’t just about people, principles, and international law, but geostrategic interests as well.
- Neither side’s interpretation of international law is enforceable upon the other.
- Both states confidently defend what they regard as their sovereign, domestic interests.
- 2019 was pivotal because of the February clashes, India’s August 5 decision, and Imran Khan’s United National General Assembly (UNGA) speech.
- Both governments invested so much into their respective stances that it’s now difficult to compromise.
- The media campaign that each side has waged against the other further impedes any possible compromise.
- Certain domestic forces would actively oppose even a perceived compromise by either government.
- The lack of any resolution to this conflict holds back South Asia’s overall development.
- Third parties threaten to exploit this unresolved issue in an attempt to divide and rule the region.
Indo-Pakistani connectivity interests
Despite their intense differences over Kashmir, India and Pakistan have complementary connectivity interests in Eurasia. Both countries want to expand their reach into Central Asia as a means of economically connecting more closely with their newly shared SCO partner Russia. They also understand the pivotal strategic importance of the Eurasian heartland and regard it as the centre of super-continental integration processes that are poised to revolutionise the hemisphere’s geopolitics across the rest of this century.
Both of them also officially support the emerging multipolar world order which they regard as irreversible, even though they differ over some of its details. The lack of trust between them has up until this point prevented the emergence of a Central Asian-South Asian (CASA) Corridor along the lines of what former Soviet foreign minister Alexei Kosygin first proposed in the late 1960s, but which could be revived in modern-day conditions upon a lasting peace in Kashmir.
Track I and Track II diplomacy
The speculative Track I diplomacy that’s supposedly ongoing behind the scenes is aimed at reaching pragmatic military, political and economic outcomes such as maintaining the ceasefire, reinstating envoys and resuming trade. But it will require complementary Track II diplomacy between Indian and Pakistani think tanks to truly pioneer a lasting solution to the conflict.
While a lot of Track II events have also stalled over the past two years, interactions organised by a truly neutral third party may be a means of proverbially breaking the ice. Kazakhstan might in that case be the best possible partner since it aspires to become a centre of Eurasian diplomacy through its hosting of the Astana peace talks on Syria, is India and Pakistan’s fellow SCO partner, and isn’t perceived as supporting either side of the conflict unlike Russia and China for example. Track II diplomatic outreaches must determine the most realistic extent of mutual but very difficult compromises by both sides.
Responsibly managing the post-2019 reality
As mentioned earlier, 2019 was a pivotal year for Kashmir because of the February clashes between the two nations, India’s August 5 decision, and Imran Khan’s UNGA speech. There’s no way to turn back time and reverse everything that happened. Both sides can only responsibly manage the post-2019 reality. But the most pragmatic way to do so is to return as close as they realistically can to the pre-2019 status quo.
This requires coordinated face-saving steps between India and Pakistan considering how sensitive the issue has become in the past year and a half, especially because of how passionate many of their compatriots feel about it nowadays. Media and certain domestic forces in both countries are expected to push back against any moves in this direction due to the dynamics involved. Track II diplomacy must, therefore, brainstorm acceptable steps that both sides can take towards this end without producing too much domestic resistance. They must also manage the resistance accordingly.
Reviving SAARC would be mutually beneficial
The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has practically ceased to exist over the past half-decade due to Indo-Pakistani disagreements that each side blames the other for provoking. It is of urgent importance that SAARC is revived as soon as possible in order for South Asia to no longer hold the ignoble distinction of being the only region in the world without an effectively functioning regional integration organisation. This holds all of its countries back from taking better advantage of the 21st century trend of inter-regional connectivity between related blocs.
Track II diplomacy between Indian and Pakistani intellectuals should, therefore, also prioritise discussions over reviving SAARC since any positive outcome on this front could serve as an important trust-building exercise between their respective nations, to say nothing of the benefit that it would have for all of South Asia as a whole. This could also help build upon any progress on Kashmir.
The influence of third-party economic incentives
Lastly, another proposed topic of discussion between Indian and Pakistani think-tanks and intellectuals could be the influence of third-party economic incentives towards encouraging each side to pragmatically compromise on their currently maximalist stance towards Kashmir in the most face-saving way possible.
Illusion and reality
The specific details are purely speculative at the moment, but could realistically concern individual or joint Chinese, European, Gulf, and/or Russian investments among other possibly interested stakeholders similar in spirit to the so-called “Deal of the Century” that the former Trump Administration unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate between Israel and Palestine.
That outreach largely failed because it was widely perceived as patronisingly attempting to buy off the Palestinians. Any Kashmir-centric remix of that proposal must therefore avoid having that impression, which it can only do by directly involving the Kashmiris in such economically focused discussions.
Of course, it is far easier for outsiders to offer well-intended proposals aimed at encouraging progress towards a peaceful solution than it is for the direct stakeholders themselves in India and Pakistan to put aside their recent problems with one another by resuming talks on this very sensitive issue. Yet, it would appear that big things are already going on behind the scenes. What they need is a push from Indian and Pakistani intellectuals.
Andrew Korybko, an American Moscow-based political analyst, writes on South Asia.