SRINAGAR, India (AP) – Machine guns peering over the parapets of small, sand-covered concrete bunkers and heavy artillery cannons dug deep into the rugged terrain of the Himalayan Kashmir have fallen silent.
At least for now.
The Line of Control, a highly militarized de facto border that divides the disputed region between the two nuclear-weapon rivals India and Pakistan, and a site of hundreds of dead, is unusually quiet after the two southern neighbors -Asians agreed last month to reaffirm their 2003 Ceasefire Agreement.
The somewhat surprising decision caused a thaw in otherwise turbulent relations between the countries, but also raised questions about the longevity of the fragile peace, in part due to past failures. Repression by Indian forces and rebel attacks continued inside Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Experts say the ceasefire could stabilize the lingering conflict that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people. The Kashmiris believe that this rare initiative should lead to the resolution of the dispute.
It is not known what prompted the two armies to adhere to the agreement that they had largely ignored for years. But experts are signaling a drop in both from their earlier position following a move by India to deprive Kashmir of its semi-autonomy. and take direct control of the region in 2019, and its months-long border standoff with China.
Paul Staniland, associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said the continuing costs of clashes along the Line of Control, the economic effects of the pandemic and other foreign policy challenges facing the two countries were confronted could have combined to create incentives to pursue a ceasefire.
Since 2003, the ceasefire has largely held up despite regular skirmishes. India and Pakistan claim the region in its entirety and have waged two wars over it, and in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, militants have fought against Indian rule since 1989.
Each country has accused the other of escalating tensions by dramatically escalating border attacks over the past four years, resulting in the deaths of soldiers and villagers.
The ceasefire announcement came shortly after China and India agreed to a military disengagement part of their disputed border after a deadly military standoff lasting several months. It had raised fears of a war on two fronts between India and China, the latter being assisted by its closest ally, Pakistan.
“Some kind of pressure, perhaps from Washington and Beijing for different reasons, is pushing India and Pakistan to broader peace movements in the region,” said Siddiq Wahid, historian and former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology.
Beijing wants Pakistan to focus on securing its investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive intercontinental infrastructure development project aimed at expanding China’s trade connections globally. Islamabad is a key partner and some highways built in China meander through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. The United States, for its part, is wooing India to focus its energies on the fight against China.
“If Pakistan is indeed seeking to evolve into a new regional role, embracing geopolitics, reducing tensions with India is a necessity, and if India is going to pivot to face a booming China, it has reasons for wanting to calm relations with Pakistan, ”said Staniland, an expert on South Asia. “The real question is whether these reasons remain strong enough over time.”
The thaw in relations became apparent when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, an avowed Hindu nationalist, stopped playing rhetoric against Pakistan and making reference to Kashmir during his election campaign in four key states.
In Pakistan, too, political leaders and the powerful armed forces have abandoned their previous position of not engaging with India until it reconsiders its decision to rescind Kashmir’s semi-autonomy.
Last week, Pakistani army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said it was time for the two countries to “bury the past” and peacefully resolve the Kashmir dispute. His remarks follow repeated calls by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan for good relations with India, with a warning that the Kashmir dispute remains at the center of any future talks. Since the announcement of the ceasefire, Khan has also abandoned his past rhetoric against Modi.
Modi appeared to reciprocate, sending Khan a letter last week. search for cordial relations. Khan replied Tuesday, but reaffirmed that a lasting peace depended mainly on resolving the future of Kashmir.
The rapprochement has sparked skepticism among Kashmiris who fear the dispute will be pushed to the background given the rapid administrative and political changes in the region by India which they have equated with settler colonialism..
“We are not against the talks and want to end the violence. But there must also be an end to the crackdown, “said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, an influential Kashmiri separatist leader who has been under house arrest since August 2019.” The whole idea behind the negotiations must be a resolution of the Kashmir problem. according to the wishes of his people.
In the past, Pakistan and India have made several attempts to negotiate a Kashmir deal. They also launched confidence-building measures like the exclusive barter between two parts of Kashmir, sports games and bus services for divided families.
“The ceasefire can lead to relative peace, but lasting peace is not to be expected,” said Vinod Bhatia, India’s director general of military operations from 2012 to 2014.
Meanwhile, villagers living along the border are paying the price.
The life of Nader Hussain and Munshi Muhammad Arshad is divided by an accordion barbed wire. Hussain lives in Indian-controlled Kashmir and Arshad in the Pakistan-controlled part.
At the end of November, Hussain saw an artillery shell fired by Pakistani soldiers fly towards him in his mountainous village. The 50-year-old couldn’t outrun the projectile and lost both of his legs in the explosion. Two other men were killed on the spot.
“Both countries are playing politics with our bodies, but this must stop,” he said.
On the other side, Arshad, 45, who lost his father to an artillery shell fired by Indian soldiers, hoped for peace.
“But lasting peace,” he said, “will only come when the Kashmir issue is resolved. “
Saaliq reported from New Delhi. Associated Press writer Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.