With no change in their antagonistic rhetoric or entrenched cultures of animosity, the recently announced India-Pakistan ceasefire agreement may bring a respite from decades of border skirmishes but is unlikely to arrive at lasting peace in contested Jammu & Kashmir.
Ever since 2003, when a still-existing ceasefire agreement was first announced for the so-called Line of Control, both sides have committed literally thousands of violations of the declared suspension of hostilities.
Hundreds of people, both civilians and soldiers, have died on both sides as a result. With that long history of failure, many now wonder why the two sides have agreed to declare yet another ceasefire?
Mainstream media in both countries have been quick to point to the “Biden impact”, i.e. the notion that both India and Pakistan seek to improve ties with the US in the post-Trump era.
India seeks more trade and strategic ties with America; Pakistan would no doubt like to geo-strategically hedge its growing financial reliance on China.
Yet both sides have sustained their antagonistic nationalist rhetoric and ideologies since the supposed new deal was announced. That signals there is not enough political will in Delhi or Islamabad to break the cycle of mistrust and recrimination.
How these ideologies are appropriated and reproduced is evident from the fact that even ceasefire violations and civilian casualties are often instrumentalized to project the other side as the one violating the agreement.
A cursory look at the press releases of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan military’s media wing, on ceasefire violations shows how civilian casualties are highlighted in a way that portrays India as Pakistan’s eternal enemy.
In India, ceasefire violations are routinely presented as Pakistan’s attempts to use gunfire to divert the Indian army’s attention away from Islamist militants entering India from the Pakistan side of the border.
Such projections fit into the well-worn Indian narrative of Pakistan as an incorrigible “state sponsor of cross-border terrorism.”
To this day, gunfire response is celebrated on both sides of the border and retaliation is likewise glorified. Ceasefire violations, therefore, not only reflect institutionalized Indo-Pakistani animosity but also propagate it at a popular level.
Ironically, the recent ceasefire agreement, if that’s what it can be called, was announced while Pakistan was still officially celebrating the second anniversary of “Operation Swift Retort,” in which the Pakistan Air Force conducted six airstrikes at multiple locations in Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir.
It represented the first time since 1971 the now nuclear-armed powers had launched airstrikes against each other.
In a series of tweets unwittingly highlighting the irony of peace, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan “congratulated the entire nation” on that victory over the Indian Air Force, praised the Pakistan Armed Forces for their war preparedness against the eternal enemy, and at the same time, welcomed the “restoration of the ceasefire along the LOC.”
Pakistan’s Foreign Office Spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhry added to the mixed messaging by saying that “aggressors will be met with same response in case of any misadventure.”
India, meanwhile, observed the second anniversary of the Balakot strikes by vowing to continue its counterterrorism operations against regional (read: Pakistan) sponsors of terrorism.
As it stands, there is no formal written agreement of the recent ceasefire understanding beyond a short February 25 joint statement that agreed to “strict observance” of all previous “agreements, understandings and cease firings.”
Nor is it the first of its kind.
In May 2018, after several weeks of regular ceasefire violations that reportedly killed 30 civilians on the Pakistani side, both sides’ Direct General of Military Operations (DGMOs) agreed to “talk” and “resolved” to fully implement the 2003 understanding.
By 2019, there were about 7,000 ceasefire violations of the ceasefire on both sides. In 2020, that number jumped to over 8,000.
The 2021 understanding is no different from 2018. Although backchannel diplomacy, including from China, is believed to have influenced the latest agreement, there is no reason to believe it will be any more successful than previous ones.
While China and the “Biden impact” may have played certain roles in the latest agreement, ongoing political crises in both countries were probably bigger factors.
India’s months-long farmers’ revolt represents the biggest challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi has confronted yet.
In Pakistan, the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) street protests have stoked months of instability as Khan’s coalition government shows signs of losing political ground.
Dialing down tensions at the border, therefore, makes sense for both populist regimes, providing each with diplomatic victories at a time they face fast-mounting domestic political losses.
By announcing mutually agreed peace with their sworn enemy, both Modi and Khan’s regimes are clearly in survival mode. The present understanding is thus best viewed as a “populist peace” that stands at best on very shaky ground.
The suddenness of the ceasefire announcement underscores the fact that there has been no visible or material change in the existing state of affairs in Kashmir. Nor does it signal a new readiness to accept third-party mediation.
While potential mediators, including the US and UK, played a significant role in the still-standing 2003 agreement, the fact that the US and West at large have gradually withdrawn from South Asia’s geopolitical scene in recent years underscores the recent agreement’s lack of diplomatic and political substance.
And while India and Pakistan may have re-established direct hotlines of communication under the agreement, it is more likely that both will play their time-tested political games in ways that serve their respective political needs rather than pursue a genuine and lasting peace in Jammu & Kashmir.