On December 17, 2013, lieutenant general Vinod Bhatia, director general of military operations (DGMO), received a call from his Pakistani counterpart, Major General Aamer Riaz (now lieutenant general). He invited Bhatia for talks because there was an increase in ceasefire violations. Bhatia accepted and the meeting took place on December 24. Discussions were held mainly about sustaining the 2003 ceasefire agreement that was unilaterally announced by Pakistan and accepted by India. After the five-hour meeting, the DGMOs agreed to maintain the ceasefire and energise existing mechanisms. A formal joint statement was issued. But, on the very next day, Pakistan violated the ceasefire. However, they explained that there was a failure in communicating the new ceasefire agreement to all posts.
The next six months saw no violations. But, this was followed by the year-long skirmishes of 2014-2015. recently, efforts have been made to bring a thaw in bilateral relations by establishing military-to-military contact. In April, Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said that peaceful resolution of the India-Pakistan dispute is possible through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue. His statement was reiterated by the director general of Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Major General Asif Ghafoor, while addressing a delegation of Indian journalists in Islamabad. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said any comment from Islamabad calling for peace will be taken seriously. India also took the initiative to reinstate the annual maritime dialogue between the two countries that had been suspended following the Kulbhushan Jadhav issue. It invited Rear Admiral Zaka ur Rehman, chief of the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA), for talks with his Indian counterpart Rajendra Singh, director general of the Indian Coast Guard. On May 28—the day of the meeting—militants attacked an Army camp at Kakpora in Pulwama district, close to the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir. A soldier and a civilian was killed.
However, the maritime dialogue went ahead as planned. During the four-hour meeting at the Coast Guard headquarters in Delhi, India raised the need for instituting standard operation procedure for immediate release and repatriation of the fishermen who cross the international maritime boundary inadvertently. Pakistan was keen on sharing information on the arrest of fishermen in order to avoid misunderstanding.
Five days before the May 28 meet-ing, India had sent a delegation to Islamabad to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation-Regiona Anti-Terrorist Structure meeting, where legal experts from countries like China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, India, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Pakistan discussed the terror threat facing the region and the efforts to enhance counter-terrorism mechanism.
A military intelligence official, who requested anonymity, said there were other forums where officials from both countries kept exchanging notes. Official sources said that the ministry of external affairs is keen to establish military-to-military contact and the Indian embassy in Islamabad is pushing hard for this. Perhaps the situation demands renewed peace efforts. Indian forces have killed 138 Pakistan army personnel in 2017 in tactical operations and retaliatory firings in 860 incidents of ceasefire violations by Pakistan. India lost 28 soldiers in the same period. In 2018, over 880 incidents of ceasefire violations have happened so far, the highest since 2003.
Officials in the security establishment said friendly back-channel talks have been going on continuously despite the violence on the border. And these talks are paving the way for formal dialogue. The national security advisers, Ajit Doval and retired lieutenant general Nasir Khan Janjua, held two unscheduled meetings in Bangkok in December 2017. The efforts to reconstitute the Indo-Pak Joint Judicial Committee (India nominated four judges on May 17), in order to facilitate the release of prisoners in Pakistani jails, is an outcome of these unscheduled meetings.
A top South Block official who requested anonymity, said: “Behind every declared policy, there is a functional or operational policy. Both sides have nominated one trusted person to convey accurate messages.” These channels have been active for long. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, veteran journalist R.K. Mishra is believed to have played a key role in establishing Track-II diplomacy with Islamabad during the height of the Kargil War. Similarly, during prime minister Manmohan Singh’s time, India’s special envoy S.K. Lamba and then Pakistan NSA Tariq Aziz were in touch with each other regularly to prepare the agenda for the meeting of their heads of states in New York in 2005. Aziz, a close confidant of then Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, was also in regular contact with former NSA J.N. Dixit, before Lamba was appointed special envoy.
Apart from diplomats and bureaucrats, corporates are also involved in back-channel talks. For example, steel magnate Sajjan Jindal is believed to have organised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise visit to Pakistan on December 25, 2015. “To avoid breakdown of military-to-military talk, designated people from both sides keep meeting each other to convey things which cannot be held back till formal dialogue,” said retired brigadier Arun Sahgal, who is part of the Ottawa Dialogue, a project aimed at improving relations between India and Pakistan.
Apart from serious Track-II dialogue, there are some, which are known as “jhappi pappi [hugs and kisses]” group. These groups create the impression that both countries are serious towards bringing peace. All these meetings keep recommending exchanges of visits by military delegations, especially at the level of services chiefs, and similar exchanges between intelligence agencies to build trust and confidence.
“Ceasefire is good for us and better for them,” said Bhatia. “The Pakistan army is suffering too much on multiple fronts. We are hitting them hard on the LoC. Their internal security is worse than ours. It has no other option but to soften its stand. Earlier, we used to ask for DGMO-level talk to reduce terror, but now the Pakistan army is desperate to talk with us.”
Said retired lieutenant general Anil Ahuja, who was deputy chief of integrated defence staff: “Indian Army’s aggressive posturing on the LoC and complete backing from the political establishment has forced Pakistan army to initiate talks. Pakistan army has been isolated and discredited globally.” He added that China, which wants India to join the One Belt One Road Initiative, is also pressuring Islamabad to mend relations with New Delhi.