An Indian paramilitary soldier stands watch from a building under construction during a lockdown imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Srinagar, in Indian-controlled Kashmir, on April 30. Photo: AP
Mohamed Zeeshan
Mohamed Zeeshan

How coronavirus and the China threat have Modi seeking peace on India’s western front

  • Overtures to Pakistan, Kashmir and the Taliban are a significant shift in Modi’s foreign and security policy and a marked departure from his political goals
  • If Modi is to sustain peace for any length of time, he will have to overcome significant trust deficits with groups Hindu nationalists have vilified

After long periods of tough muscular posturing, India is pivoting to backchannel diplomacy on its troublesome western frontier.

In Afghanistan, India has opened an unprecedented dialogue track with the Taliban for the first time. With Pakistan, months of backchannel talks have yielded some ground.

Earlier this year, the two countries resumed talks over the shared Indus River, resolved uncertainty over visas for Pakistani cricketers and reached an understanding on long-pending visas for each other’s diplomats.
Meanwhile, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited leaders from the restive Kashmir valley for talks in New Delhi.

Each of these developments is a significant about-turn in Modi’s foreign and security policy and a marked departure from his political goals.

For several years, India had refused to engage in any manner with the Taliban. This was partly out of respect for the sensibilities of the Afghan government in Kabul and partly because of its suspected involvement in the hijacking of an Indian plane in 1999.
With Pakistan, a spate of terrorist attacks in Kashmir over the past few years derailed all dialogue and outreach. Hindu nationalist politicians have long presented Islamabad as an existential threat to India.


Biden’s victory instills fresh hope in Kashmir over revocation of special status

Biden’s victory instills fresh hope in Kashmir over revocation of special status
The engagement with Kashmiri leaders is even more dramatic. Many of those Modi invited to Delhi had been vilified as traitors and placed under house arrest for several months after the Modi government revoked the state’s autonomy in 2019. Opposition leaders who sympathised with them had been widely derided by the government.
But several factors are now forcing India to pursue a reset. Ever since India and China clashed on their border last year, Delhi has been haunted by the possibility of a two-front war with a China-Pakistan alliance.

India’s military resources have been considerably strained by the need to bolster the long borders with both China and Pakistan in treacherous terrain, with the possibility of conflict at any time.

After several rounds of talks on their troubled border, India and China seem to be reaching an indefinite stalemate, leaving the power equation on the ground permanently tilted in favour of Beijing.

Indian intelligence sources recently said that the Chinese army has built fresh infrastructure in the area, indicating it is “preparing for the long haul and permanent winter occupation of these posts”.

India’s problems have been made worse by its struggles with Covid-19, which has devastated its economy and left fewer resources for national security concerns.

According to Kaushik Basu, the former chief economist of the World Bank, India registered the 142nd-lowest growth rate out of 194 nations last year. That was before the deadly second wave wreaked havoc this year.


Fear fuels Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in rural India

Fear fuels Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy in rural India
Under such circumstances, Delhi is right to believe that fighting Pakistan and containing unrest in Kashmir is a serious drag on India’s military preparedness. Modi is now walking back his government’s muscular posturing. In June, Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat publicly suggested he considers China a bigger security threat than Pakistan.
India has similarly found itself in a bind in Afghanistan after US President Joe Biden committed to pulling American troops out by September 11. For several months, after former president Donald Trump concluded a deal with the Taliban, Delhi chose to wait and watch. It threw its weight behind its traditional ally, the civilian government in Kabul led by President Ashraf Ghani, while ignoring the Taliban.
That policy soon became unsustainable as the Taliban began to dominate. Estimates differ over how much territory the Taliban controls. One survey by an Afghan news agency says that more than half of Afghanistan is now under Taliban control; the Taliban claims it is actually 70 per cent. Regardless, everyone agrees the group has grown dramatically in recent weeks, with a corresponding rise in violence.
For years, in sharp contrast to India’s policy, China has been stepping up its outreach to the Taliban, aided by Pakistan’s influence. In June 2019, the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, visited Beijing. Months later, another nine-member Taliban delegation travelled to Beijing amid the deal-making with the United States.


Taliban eyes victory as US forces and allies withdraw from Afghanistan

Taliban eyes victory as US forces and allies withdraw from Afghanistan
These ties have now come in handy for Beijing with the new political circumstances in Afghanistan. In May, China offered to host peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. It has also chaired multiple rounds of discussion with Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Having found itself shut out of the dialogue in Afghanistan under Trump, India now worries that a China-Pakistan nexus in Afghanistan – with the Taliban in control – will significantly curtail its influence in that country. So, in a first, India opened channels in early June to engage with some factions of the Taliban that are perceived to be outside Pakistani influence.

Amid the border stalemate with China and economic woes caused by the pandemic, India’s backchannel diplomacy on each of these fronts is a welcome attempt at pursuing much-needed peace on its western frontier.

But if Modi is to successfully sustain peace for any reasonable length of time, he will have to overcome significant trust deficits with Pakistan, the Taliban and the Kashmiris. With Hindu nationalists having caricatured each of them as monolithically treacherous within India’s political discourse, that will not be easy.

Mohamed Zeeshan is the author of “Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership”