INDIA – PAKISTAN: SIGNALS OF A THAW

In a significant signal of thaw in the freeze in Indo-Pak relations, India has agreed to have a meeting with Pakistan on the Indus Water Treaty in Islamabad later this month, nearly six months after New Delhi virtually decided to suspend talks on the Treaty in view of terror strikes by Pakistan-based groups. The meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) will be held before March 31, as mandated under the Treaty.

Under the Treaty, India and Pakistan meet every financial year and ever since its inception, it has been meeting regularly. However, for the first time in the history of its formation, in September last year, India called off the meeting in view of the Uri attack which killed 19 of its soldiers. Prime Minister advocated his strong resolve to explore all non-military options: “Blood and water cannot flow together”, he said. Talks were suspended even as the Centre drew up measures to fully optimize the use of its share of Indus waters which until now remained unutilised.
This was a first since meetings of the PIC continued even during the 1965 and the 1971 war.

Positive developments

In Islamabad, senior Foreign Office officials said Pakistan will welcome any overture from India for resumption of peace talks. Asked about a possible thaw from the Indian side, an official said Islamabad was expecting some movement from India following the clamp down on JuD chief, Hafiz Saeed and the announcement of a new military operation across the country. A former Pakistani diplomat and foreign affairs analyst, Zafar Hilaly said any movement from India would be well received in Islamabad where the Foreign Office is weighing its options in its relations with the US.
New Delhi has itself some strong positive actions on the part of Pakistan. The detention of the LeT founder and JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, accused of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks among other major attacks, is one of them. Though he has been detained for fear of the US banning Pak nationals from traveling to the US, the step is welcome.
India has also noted the release of 200 Indian fishermen by the Nawaz Sharif Government to which India reciprocated by freeing 39 Pak prisoners. The National Investigation Agency has meanwhile released two Pakistani youths whom it had arrested in connection with the 2016 terror attack on a military base in Jammu and Kashmir in Uri that killed 19 soldiers. They would be sent back home in Pakistan.

In a friendly gesture, India has also withdrawn objection to the appointment of a veteran Pakistani diplomat, Amjad Hussain Sial as the new Director General of SAARC. He was appointed after India which had cited procedural issues to object to his appointment, gave its nod.

The two Prime Ministers are also expected to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Summit [SCO] summit in Astana in June which will give them the first opportunity for a one-to-one meeting since the Pathankot and Uri terror attacks.

India has been further encouraged by the appointment of a relatively moderate new Pakistan Army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, a strong votary of democracy and appreciative of the democratic functioning of India. He recently advised his officers to read a book on democratic traditions of India and the way the Government is run without the shadow of the military. It is further notable that ever since he took over in November last, there has been relative calm on the Line of Control in Kashmir though indigenous Kashmiri insurgency is on the rise.

India is, however, still evaluating these signals from Pakistan and does not seem to be in an undue hurry to offer resumption of dialogue. For example, on the minus side, Pakistan has, ruled out extradition of Kulbhushan Jadhav, a former Naval officer, who was arrested by its army in Baluchistan in March last and branded as a RAW agent and charged with espionage.

In another development, India has also dismissed the Pakistani concern over putting up the tallest Indian flag at Attari border. Pakistan has alleged that the tricolor flag has hidden cameras atop the 360 feet mast that could be used for spying by the BSF along the international border. Voicing its concern during a flag meeting called specially to raise the issue, Pakistani side alleged that the pole violated norms under which any construction is not allowed on 150 metres from the border.

India’s nod for Indus Water Treaty meeting

India, which has now agreed to holding the annual meeting of the Indus Waters Commissioners later this month in Islamabad, has taken the view that since the meeting will be discussing only ”technical issues”, their work should be seen separately and will not amount to resumption of peace process between the two governments at this stage. The last meeting on the water treaty was put off after the Uri attack when PM Modi said, “Blood and water cannot flow together”, making it clear that the Treaty can only run on goodwill, trust and friendship which India feels is currently lacking from Pak side. Modi promised to review the Treaty and exercise India’s rights over the waters and make use of the unutilized water of the rivers allotted to it.

Under the Treaty, India has full rights over the three Eastern rivers – Beas, Sutlej and Ravi – while Pakistan gets to use the Western rivers – Jhelum, Chenab and Indus- allowing India 20 per cent usage of their water for agriculture, generation of hydroelectric power, domestic and non-consumptive use and storage. The Permanent Indus Commission is a bipartisan body entrusted with everyday implementation of the Indus Waters Treaty, which mandates it to meet at least once every year, alternately in India and Pakistan. It comprises of Indus Commissioners from both sides and discusses technical matters related to implementation of the Treaty. It has met 112 times since 1960. The last meeting was held in India and now it is Pakistan’s turn to host the next meeting.

The Treaty came under duress after the terrorist attack at the Uri military camp following which India announced to go ahead with its stalled hydel projects on the rivers that flow into Pakistan.

November last year, India had pointed out the legal untenability of the World Bank launching two simultaneous processes for appointment of a neutral expert — requested by India — and the establishment of a court of arbitration — requested by Pakistan — to adjudicate technical differences between the two sides. In December, the World Bank announced a pause in the separate processes initiated by India and Pakistan to allow the two countries to consider alternative ways to resolve their disagreements.

Last month during the meeting with World Bank official, Ian H Solomon, India had said it was even open to resolving its dispute with Pakistan through bilateral channels.