New Delhi: Peace talks may be off the India-Pakistan agenda at the moment, but there seems to be hope for a thaw, with the Jammu and Kashmir government looking at opening trade routes across the de facto border to boost people-to-people contacts.
Fostering such ties has been used as a confidence-building measure in the past to create an environment conducive to restarting a dialogue between India and Pakistan.
A statement from the Jammu and Kashmir government on Wednesday said it was in discussions with the Union home ministry for “the opening of four new routes this year” to encourage trade across the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir.
The new routes are Jammu-Sialkot, Chhamb-Jourian-Mirpur, Gurez-Astoor-Gilgit and Jhanger-Mirpur.
“Despite the serious recent disturbances on the borders, cross-LoC trade has continued unabated and up to (the end) of March 2016, at an aggregate, this trade has recorded import worth about ....Rs2,500 crore of Indian currency,” the J&K government said.
“A list of 21 more tradeable items has been submitted to the government of India for taking up this matter with the government of Pakistan,” it added.
Besides the four new proposed trade routes, three others—Kargil-Skardu, Turtuk-Khapulu and Titwal -Chilhan—are also being explored.
There are two cross-LoC trade routes at the moment—Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakote. These were opened for trade in October 2008, signalling the beginning of a new era in bilateral ties given that the routes were opening after a gap of 61 years. It was seen as a major confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan aimed at fostering increased contacts between the two parts of Kashmir under Indian and Pakistani control. Trade was permitted on two days—Tuesdays and Wednesdays—but this was extended to four days from 2011.
Trade between India and Pakistan is small at about $2.5 billion and subject to the vagaries of their volatile ties.
“Yes this is a good confidence building measure but how far Pakistan will accept routes opening into insurgency ridden Baltistan remains to be seen,” said Dilip Sinha, a former Indian diplomat dealing with Pakistan.
According to Sinha, “Even if talks start, given the basic differences between the two sides, a breakthrough seems difficult.”
India-Pakistan ties saw a sharp dip in 2016 after reaching a high in the previous year with visits to Pakistan by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The year 2015 saw Modi meet Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at least twice at Ufa in Russia in July and at Paris on the sidelines of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change summit in November. This was besides Modi’s surprise visit to Lahore on 25 December 2015—on Sharif’s birthday and granddaughter’s wedding.
Expectations were that 2016 would see engagement between the two sides after a two-year period of no dialogue, but those hopes quickly dissipated following the 2 January 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot airforce station in Punjab, terrorist attacks on an army garrison in Uri in September that claimed the lives of 19 Indian security personnel, and another in November on an Indian Army residential quarters in Nagrota, also in Kashmir.
India pulled out of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) meeting that Pakistan was to host in November after the Uri attack, stating that the atmosphere was not conducive for such a meeting. With countries like Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan following suit, the Saarc summit was postponed.
At a press conference in New Delhi last week, minister of state for foreign affairs M.J. Akbar said engagement with Pakistan needs to continue when asked why India was continuing to maintain diplomatic links with Pakistan given that Islamabad had ignored to India’s calls to shut down terrorist training camps in the country and territory controlled by it.
“Let there be peace and there will be a dialogue,” Akbar had said in a clear reference to India’s position that terrorism and talks cannot go together.