Stalled Back-Channel?

IT has been some time since there has been no talk of the back-channel dialogue between India and Pakistan. The reasons are obvious. Over the last two months India has been grappling with the worst crisis since independence in 1947. Thousands of people have died since the catastrophic second Covid-19 swept over the country. The daily caseload at one time rose over 4 lakh. This threw the country’s healthcare facilities into a disarray. There were no beds and medical oxygen to accommodate the growing number of patients. The situation has hardly improved, even though there has been a conspicuous drop in the number of cases. The daily cases have shrunk to around two lakh now and there is hope that going forward there will be a further drop in the number.

This terrible situation consequently seems to have paused India’s foreign policy engagements, or at least their public expression.  As a result, the nascent re-engagement between India and Pakistan also has moved into the background. Though there has been some occasional noise about the secret contact between the two neighbours in Pakistan, New Delhi has been tight-lipped about it.

But with the Covid-19 situation seeming to be easing in India, one could expect the leadership in India to be more forthcoming about the ties with Pakistan. As and when that happens, the two countries are expected to announce more Confidence Building Measures to improve their relationship and may be take steps to institute a formal dialogue.

But as is apparent there are some reservations on both sides as for as conducting an open dialogue. The reasons for it are both historical and the recent. The relations between the two countries have plunged to their lowest low since New Delhi withdrew Article 370 on August 5, 2019. Until before dramatic re-affirmation of the ceasefire agreement in February, it appeared unthinkable that the two countries could come anywhere near to resumption of dialogue. But they have done it, even moving a few baby steps further towards a formal dialogue.

Now, both countries are putting onus on each other to take the first step towards resuming engagement. And what that step would be is still unknown. Islamabad had earlier made any re-engagement with India conditional to New Delhi reversing the August 5 move. But Pakistan seems to have given that up, so has New Delhi its insistence on end to cross-border terrorism before talks begin.

Anyways if the last year's figures for infiltration and the killings of foreign militants in Kashmir are anything to go by, Islamabad has held back from supporting the local militancy. New Delhi, it seems, is unlikely to reverse the revocation of J&K autonomy. It remains to be seen whether it restores statehood anytime soon. A sustained, meaningful dialogue between the two countries has the potential to lead to a positive outcome. So, the neighbours should restore it sooner than later.

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