"The Director-Generals of Military Operations of India and Pakistan held discussions over the established mechanism of hotline contact," read a Ministry of Defence press release issued on Thursday, adding, "The two sides reviewed the situation along the Line of Control and all other sectors in a free, frank and cordial atmosphere."
The joint statement, posted by the Press Information Bureau at noon, continued, "In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, the two DGs, MO agreed to address each other's core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence. Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 February, 2021."
And finally, "Both sides reiterated that existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilised to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding."
There will certainly be grumbling that it's a very basic statement, that there have been so many of the sort in the past and that Pakistan (or India, if you happen to be in Pakistan) is not to be trusted. However, this fails to account for the fact that since the 2 January, 2016 attack on the Pathankot Air Force Station, there's been a near-complete freeze on overt diplomatic measures between the two countries. Naturally, this does not refer to back-channel consultations, only the public stuff " visits, joint statements, smiling photographs and so on.
Just before it became fashionable to attach the word 'diplomacy' to the end of everything " a bit like the practice of tacking the suffix 'gate' onto everything controversial " in a bid to imbue it with more meaning and significance (hug diplomacy, biryani diplomacy and now, vaccine diplomacy come to mind), Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to Lahore to visit his then-counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the latter's birthday. This warm show of 'birthday diplomacy', as it was then dubbed, was followed less than a week later by the Pathankot attack and that's when the freeze set in.
In the years since, the Imran Khan government came to power and there was some limited outreach between the two countries. But even that has since fallen by the wayside.
Interestingly, after being sworn in as prime minister back in 2018, Khan had said, "Our priority is to talk to our neighbours and restore peace in the region... We should have better relations with our neighbours." The two-and-a-half years since have seen the Balakot airstrikes, the capture and subsequent release of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, frequent acrimonious exchanges and appointments at the International Court of Justice over Kulbhushan Jadhav, attempts to rally Islamic nations against India on the topic of Kashmir and plenty of ceasefire violations across the Line of Control.
This brings us rather neatly to the present day.
Leadup to latest ceasefire agreement
The agreement between the two directors-general did not emerge out of the blue. In fact, very little foreign policy exists in a vacuum, and there's always some context or background. As this article helpfully points out, this had been in the making for a while. First, it was Pakistan's army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa's 3 February call for "the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence" and to "extend a hand of peace in all directions" at the national air force academy.
A week or so later, the prime minister's special assistant Moeed Yusuf reportedly said, "Can we have economic security without peace in the region? No, it is an oxymoron. If you want peace, you have to move forward." In this spirit of moving forward, India had cast aside memories of President Ramnath Kovind being denied permission to travel through Pakistani airspace in September 2019 and decided to allow Khan the use of Indian airspace on his way to Sri Lanka.
It's hard to pin down one definitive reason for this gradual improvement in ties between the two South Asian countries, so here's an effort to collate a set of factors that may be contributing to this latest chapter of New Delhi and Islamabad's complicated relationship.
Fatigue and FOMO: As mentioned earlier, there has been little public effort from both sides to improve India-Pakistan since the Pathankot attack over five years ago. As with interpersonal relations, the act of continuing to ignore and isolate an entity takes a great deal more effort than actually engaging with it. And so, the possibility of both countries deciding to make another go of trying to engage with one another can't be ruled out. Equally, India and Pakistan must be acutely aware that just because they are not talking to each other, it doesn't mean other countries are not speaking to Pakistan and India respectively. This results in the foreign policy equivalent of FOMO, where countries feel they are missing out on something.
Afghanistan: To say Afghanistan's future is in flux is fair. However, to say that what happens in Afghanistan determines whether there will be peace between India and Pakistan is a stretch. It's possible that being on the same side when it comes to helping Afghanistan transition into its next phase may have nudged the two parties to get along, but ultimately, the bilateral issues will always take precedence.
External and internal pressures: Being on the Financial Action Task Force's grey list has reportedly cost Pakistan $38 billion. Coupled with the temporary halt in IMF funding and the financial ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, it's safe to say the country is on extremely shaky ground economically. On the external front, US president Joe Biden has shown little inclination to indulge in the sort of scorched-earth policy Donald Trump espoused. As a result, Washington offering Islamabad a way back into the fold as long as it makes nice with New Delhi cannot be ruled out.
De-escalation with China: For India, the recent agreement to scale down hostilities on the Line of Actual Control with China could pave the way to a reintroduction of warmth into the bilateral, which could at some point extend to access to the latter's companies, apps and products. For now, it appears to be cautiously being extended to Beijing's best friend in the region (and possibly the world).
There are enough factors at play to view this latest ceasefire agreement as part of a bigger rapprochement, but it's equally likely that it could all just be an elaborate waste of time.
How long will this latest ceasefire last?
A whopping 10,752 ceasefire violations have taken place across the International Border and the Line of Control between the two countries in the past three years alone, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy told the Lok Sabha this month. During this time, cross-border firings saw 72 members of security personnel and 70 civilians were killed, while a total of 364 security personnel and 341 civilians were injured.
And while it is fervently hoped that this time is different and that the ceasefire holds, history teaches us to temper our levels of optimism. However, coming as it does after five-plus years of near-radio silence, the ceasefire agreement between the DGs, MO of both countries is truly a landmark one,... until the next violation, that is.