‘Back channel talks going on’ to break deadlock with India

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and India have been engaged in “back channel” talks in order to break the stalemate in the relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, according to official sources familiar with the development.

Relations between the two countries have remained strained for years now and taken a turn for the worse in August 2019, when India unilaterally revoked the special status of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region.

Since then the diplomatic ties have been downgraded, bilateral trade suspended and there has been no structured dialogue. But even before the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took charge, the two countries were talking to each other, albeit quietly.

Those contacts have led to the renewal of the ceasefire understanding in February 2021 and since then the truce is holding, with no major incident of ceasefire violation. But the process could not lead to a breakthrough in terms of resumption of dialogue between the two countries.

Since the new government came to power in Islamabad, there has been a renewed push by the two sides to find some way out. “Call it back channels, Track-II or behind-the-scene talks, I can only confirm that relevant people in both countries are in touch with each other,” an official source said.

The source, however, said that he did not have the exact details of those contacts, adding that it was precisely the purpose of “back channels” to keep the discussions under wraps, until something tangible had been decided.

Chances of an immediate breakthrough are slim given the political uncertainty in Pakistan and tough preconditions attached by both sides for any resumption of dialogue.

Prime Minister Shehbaz in his maiden address to the nation on Friday asked India to reverse the August 5, 2019 actions so that both sides could engage in talks for the resolution of all outstanding issues, including Kashmir.

India, the sources said, is inclined to the re-engagement but reluctant to offer something that would help Pakistan resume the dialogue.

“Our policy is clear. We want to engage with everyone, including India,” said a senior member of the coalition government, while requesting anonymity. The government functionary, however, was sceptical if the hardline Narendra Modi government could show any flexibility on the issue of Kashmir.

The sources said that the Western powers, including the United States and the UK, were also pushing for defusing tension and opening some formal channels of communications between the two South Asian neighbours.

India is said to be eager to first resume trade and then other ties with Pakistan. New Delhi is willing to meet wheat shortage of Pakistan by entering into a government-to-government agreement.

India is one of the top 3 wheat producers in the world and Pakistan this season plans to import 4 million metric tons of wheat to meet its domestic shortage. Pakistan could import wheat from India on a much lower cost, given the less transportation and other logistic charges.

Pakistan is currently talking to Russia to import at least 2 million tons of wheat. The commodity price in the global market has shot due to Russia-Ukraine conflict. However, Pakistani officials are ruling out the possibility of importing wheat from India given the current status of bilateral ties.

In March 2021 Pakistan was about to partially restore trade ties with India, when the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of the cabinet approved the import of sugar and cotton from India. However, the proposal was shot down by the federal cabinet later, stating that no normal business with India would be conducted unless New Delhi restored the special status of Kashmir.

Those who favour the resumption of trade with India believe that this may lead to dialogue on Kashmir. But others say that normalising trade and commercial ties with India without seeking reversal of August 2019 actions would weaken Pakistani stance. ( The Express Tribune)