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An Indian soldier stands guard in Srinagar. Photo: AFP

Did Pakistan’s top army chief just back down over Kashmir in backchannel talks with India?

  • Pakistan’s most powerful army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, is said to be willing to drop demand that India reverse course on special status after ‘off-the-record’ meeting
  • The development has upset the country’s military-led establishment, as has Bajwa’s calls for a normalisation of relations with New Delhi in pursuit of economic ties
Controversy has erupted in Pakistan over major concessions to India that the country’s powerful military leadership appears to be prepared to make, following months of backchannel talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration.

The secrecy surrounding the dialogue in Dubai between Modi’s national security adviser Ajit Doval and Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, chief of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency, has in recent weeks exposed a communication gap between the military and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which has not directly been involved.

Amid the confusion, it has however emerged that Pakistan’s most powerful army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa is inclined to back down from Islamabad’s insistence that India reverse its shock August 2019 move to end the special constitutional status of the disputed Kashmir region.

This revelation, which emerged from a lengthy off-the-record meeting between Bajwa and leading media opinion makers at army headquarters on April 25, has sparked warnings from within the military-led establishment against a compromise on Kashmir in pursuit of the normalisation of Pakistan’s relations with India.

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Pakistan and India have fought several major conflicts in Kashmir since independence in 1947.
The terms of their relationship vis-à-vis Kashmir were last officially determined under the 1972 Simla Agreement, following the last all-out war between India and Pakistan.
The war ended in outright victory for Indian forces which invaded Pakistan’s erstwhile eastern wing in support of a popular independence movement, leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
India’s agreement at Simla to maintaining the status quo in Kashmir was a quid pro quo for Pakistan accepting that the future status of the territory would be decided bilaterally, rather than under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council as decided in resolutions passed in 1949 to bring an end to their first Kashmir war.
The controversy revolves around the interpretation of the two articles of India’s constitution scrapped by the Modi administration in August 2019.

Article 370 had previously granted Indian-administered Kashmir a unique status, while article 35-A had protected the rights of the indigenous population by barring land ownership by non-Kashmiris.

Pakistani army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: AP

News reports and video blogs by journalists and television show hosts who attended Bajwa’s off-the-record briefing cited anonymous top national security sources as saying they did not see India’s point-blank refusal to reinstate article 370 as a serious impediment to talks. Downplaying it as a mere change of the Indian government’s internal nomenclature, the sources said they were more concerned about New Delhi’s attempts to change the demography of Muslim-majority Kashmir. Since 2019, the Indian administration in Kashmir has granted  domicile certificates to some two million mostly Hindu residents and ex-army personnel. This has significantly changed the demographic makeup in the region of 12.5 million people, according to the last census conducted in 2011, when Muslims accounted for 68 per cent of the population and Hindus made up 30 per cent.

The sources appeared to drop Pakistan’s demand that India reverse its decision to end Kashmir’s special status and instead echoed Bajwa’s landmark speeches in February calling for the normalisation of relations with India.

In those speeches, he had advocated a strategic shift away from geopolitical goals which have fuelled confrontation in Kashmir and Afghanistan for 30 years, in favour of a geoeconomic agenda built upon peaceful relations and economic connectivity with Pakistan’s hitherto adversarial neighbours.

Following Bajwa’s speeches, delivered amid back channel talks in Dubai, Pakistan and India suddenly announced the restoration of a 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control in Kashmir, ending several years of heavy skirmishing.

The sources were quoted as expressing optimism about Pakistan reaping a substantial economic dividend from normalised ties with New Delhi and Kabul.

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The media narrative that emerged after Bajwa’s off-the-record briefing earned a rare public rebuke from retired generals and ex-ambassadors whose views are widely accepted as reflecting the institutional view of Pakistan’s military-led establishment.

At a videoconference hosted on May 5 by the Islamabad Policy Institute think tank, ex-secretary for defence retired Lieutenant General Asif Yasin Malik debunked Bajwa’s argument that the potential economic benefits of normalised relations with India outweighed the heavy financial cost of years of skirmishes along the Line of Control, the Kashmir boundary created under the 1972 Simla Agreement.

Referring to “statements from various quarters about the economic dividends of peace with India”, Malik asked if the backchannel process would end India’s propaganda warfare against Pakistan, its adversarial role in Afghanistan and its opposition to Pakistan at international forums like the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF).


The Kashmir conflict

The Kashmir conflict

Supported by the Group of Seven, India successfully lobbied FATF, a global anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist financing organisation, into placing Pakistan on its watch list of countries in June 2018 on account of its continued support for jihadist groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir.

India and its allies pressed for Pakistan’s “grey listing”, which carries the threat of serious financial sanctions, after a deadly jihadist attack on an Indian military camp in the Jammu region of Kashmir in February 2018.

According to a press statement issued by the host think tank, Malik observed that Pakistan and India differed in their perceptions about peace and normalisation of ties. He said that compromise on Kashmir could not be the price for peace with India. 

“Instead of the process yielding selected dimensions of peace, wholesome comprehensive peace is required,” Malik said.

Pakistan’s former ambassador to Britain, the UN and the United States, Maleeha Lodhi said she did not share the optimism being expressed in Pakistan about the Modi government’s readiness to talk about all issues.

“It remains to be ascertained what that actually means when they say India is prepared to talk about all issues. Well India was always prepared to talk about all issues. It is how it wants to talk about Kashmir,” she said, speaking at the same event.

An Indian paramilitary soldier at a tulip garden on the outskirts of Srinagar in Indian controlled Kashmir. Photo: AP

“We all seek peace with honour, but not at the expense of compromising our fundamental position on Kashmir because then that kind of normalisation will neither be lasting nor would it be politically acceptable to the people of Pakistan,” Lodhi said.

To show they were serious, Lodhi called on Pakistan and India to formally appoint and name their backchannel negotiators, warning that otherwise the talks would look merely tactical, rather than strategic in nature.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in a television interview late last week, fuelled the controversy by echoing Bajwa’s off-the-record reinterpretation of India’s scrapping of Kashmir’s special constitutional status as an “internal problem”, and parroting greater concern about demographic change.

“How is the foreign minister calling article 370 an internal matter of India?” asked Senator Sherry Rehman of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party.

“This kind of confusion must be clarified in parliament. Backchannels are not for making decisions, they are for seeking strategic clarity in conflict. From what we can see, the government is either confused or complicit in some deal,” said Rehman, a former ambassador to the US.

Facing a storm of criticism, Qureshi retracted his statement.

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Prime Minister Khan weighed in for the first time on Tuesday, following an important visit by him and Bajwa to Saudi Arabia, which has worked with the United Arab Emirates to facilitate the backchannel talks with India.

In a live public call-in programme on state television, Khan maintained his previous policy position that talks with India were conditional upon New Delhi’s restoration of Kashmir’s special constitutional status.

Nonetheless, a subtle but powerful change in the official position of Pakistan’s Foreign Office on Kashmir had been enacted, journalists said in social media posts. Whereas it previously said talks with India could not take place unless it reversed its 2019 decision on Kashmir, now it says they are dependent upon India reviewing its decision.