India, Pak resume backchannel contacts to bridge differences
The contacts have largely been overseen by security officials from both sides since they began more than two years ago, with meetings being held in third countries in Southeast Asia and Europe.
India and Pakistan have resumed backchannel contacts as part of efforts to bridge differences between the two sides on a host of issues though there are no signs of any imminent breakthrough, people familiar with the matter said on Monday.
One of the most significant outcomes of these contacts in recent years was the revival of the 2003 ceasefire on the Line of Control (LoC) in February last year, though there was a break in exchanges after Pakistan’s focus shifted to Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in Kabul last August, the people said.
The contacts have largely been overseen by security officials from both sides since they began more than two years ago, with meetings being held in third countries in Southeast Asia and Europe. The backchannel talks also contributed to management of tensions between the two sides, the people said.
However, significant differences remain between the two countries on a host of issues. The Indian side is unsure whether the new government in Islamabad, formed after the ouster of former premier Imran Khan in a vote of no confidence, will be able to complete its full term till 2023.
India also has significant concerns about the threat from terror groups based on Pakistani soil, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, that have a presence in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani side, the people said, has been seeking some signal from the Indian side on the Kashmir issue so that the two countries can move things forward. “This could be a sign about the restoration of statehood for Jammu and Kashmir or the demographic structure,” one of the people cited above said.
There was no response from Indian officials on the matter. New Delhi has maintained that the onus is on Islamabad to create conditions for a dialogue.
The backchannel contacts have been facilitated by several countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the UK and the US, the people said. The ouster of Khan, whose regime had a hawkish stance on India, and the formation of the new government headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who is seen as more pragmatic, has facilitated the process, they added.
Pakistan downgraded ties with India after New Delhi’s decision to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, including withdrawing its high commissioner from New Delhi. Bilateral trade was suspended, while the two sides have not held any structured dialogue since the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Following the revival of the LoC ceasefire, some work was done on limited resumption of trade with India last year. The former government announced a move to allow imports of sugar and cotton from India to control prices and overcome a shortage in March last year, but the move collapsed within days when it was opposed by hardliners such as former interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed and former foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
Former ambassador TCA Raghavan, who served as the envoy to Pakistan during 2013-15, said: “Backchannel contacts have been quite helpful in the past, including in 2003 and during 2005-08, and before that in the 1980s, but a lot depends on the overall context and what the respective heads of government want.”
When there is a general agreement between the two sides, such contacts are helpful in moving things forward by formulating concrete steps, he noted. “On their own, backchannel contacts cannot move mountains,” he added.