IN the latest act of the Pakistan-India de-escalation process, Prime Minister Imran Khan has written to his Indian counterpart to respond to the latter’s Pakistan Day congratulatory letter. “An enabling environment is imperative for … result-oriented dialogue”, Mr Khan wrote, adding that “durable peace and stability in South Asia” required the resolution of all outstanding issues, particularly Jammu and Kashmir.

In the March 23 communication, Narendra Modi had called for “an environment of trust” for better ties, while desiring “cordial relations” with Pakistan. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable in this exchange of pleasantries. However, in the context of the last few years, where bilateral relations have been particularly toxic, these brief exchanges are being viewed as the beginning of a nascent peace process. Expectations, of course, should not be too high. Both the Pakistani and Indian foreign ministers were recently in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, to participate in the Heart of Asia meeting. While no bilateral meeting took place, observers noted that both officials avoided combative rhetoric aimed at the other at the conclave. Another major sign that a thaw in relations is underway came on Wednesday, when the Economic Coordination Committee announced that Pakistan would be importing Indian sugar and cotton.

At this point, perhaps the best way to take the peace process forward is to encourage such confidence-building measures as trade, and continue the dialogue process through the backchannel. As mentioned above, bilateral ties have been particularly strained over the past few years, with both states coming to the brink of war in 2019. Undoing this atmosphere of distrust and suspicion will take both time and effort. Along with continuing the dialogue process, hawks on both sides of the fence must be ignored, as they will not want to see the normalisation of relations.

However, it appears that the quarters concerned on both sides may be serious about peace. The prime minister and the army chief have both stressed the need for better bilateral ties, while at the other end the anti-Pakistan rhetoric has been toned down and Mr Modi himself is offering this country peace overtures. There may be several pitfalls along the way and there is a profound difference in the way Islamabad and New Delhi view key issues, particularly the Kashmir dispute. Be that as it may, both states must put in their best efforts to make peace work this time and bring to an end the long-standing tensions.

Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2021

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