2024 brings with it various hopes in the subcontinent, in part because general elections will be held in both Pakistan and India. Since 2019, diplomatic relations between the two neighbors have been especially strained. In response to the Indian abrogation of Article 370 that year, Pakistan downgraded its diplomatic ties with India and halted trade between the two countries. At present, India and Pakistan have vacant positions for high commissioners, and both countries have appointed deputy high commissioners and charge d’affaires, respectively in each other’s countries.
Officially, the two sides have inflexible approaches and heap on prerequisites for any peace process or bilateral dialogue. New Delhi maintains that for any dialogue to begin, Pakistan has to stop cross-border terrorism. Recently in an interview with ANI, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar echoed similar preconditions, saying that India is open to dealing with Pakistan but not under conditions where terrorism is seen as a legitimate tool for diplomacy. Likewise, Islamabad has conditioned talks on the undoing of the Indian abrogation of Article 370, which occurred in August 2019.
For successive years, the political leadership of both countries have used this lack of a normalized relationship for domestic political narrative building. Primarily, existing political rhetoric has limited space to allow the leadership of either country to pursue peace. For instance, Prime Minister Imran Khan allowed the restoration of the trade relationship with India in March 2021. However, political pressure compelled him and his cabinet to revert back to a jingoistic attitude within a month.
Despite these strong political narratives, there are instances that offer a beacon of hope for a normalized bilateral relationship. For instance, in 2023, despite a severed diplomatic relationship between the two countries, Pakistan issued 6,824 visas to Indian Sikh and Hindu pilgrims to visit Pakistan to attend various religious festivals and occasions. Similarly, the release of 478 Indian fishermen and nine Indian civilians in 2023 was also reassuring.
Another positive development was the strict compliance with the ceasefire understanding between the two countries in 2023. No major incidents, skirmishes, or firing were reported last year. The two countries adhered to the protocol of exchanging lists of nuclear installations and prisoners arrested in both countries.
What Can Be Done in 2024 and Beyond?
In 2024, the two countries need to move positively through confidence-building measures (CBMs) to engage with each other. India and Pakistan should adopt an incremental approach to normalize diplomatic relations and resume trade. This may include softening the visa regime, promoting religious tourism, encouraging people-to-people contact, and restarting bilateral trade. Further, the two countries need to adopt mechanisms for working on common challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, and improvement in human development indicators.
South Asia is among the regions most affected by climate change. The most devastating impact of climate change in the region will be on the Indus Basin. Pakistan and India are both extensively dependent upon the Indus Basin for everyday life. Socioeconomic sustainability in both countries depends upon the unharmed flow of the Indus River. One report estimates that by 2050, due to the impact of climate change, the Indus Basin will suffer from changes in peak flow timings and variability of flow in the Indus River. Alongside this predicted water shortage, Pakistan and India are facing an enormous population rise that further strains water resources and puts increased pressure on policymakers to act.
This mutual concern opens the window for India and Pakistan to join hands for shared management of the Indus Basin. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), signed between the two countries in 1960, divides the basin, with its three western rivers — the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — handed over to Pakistan, and the three eastern rivers — the Ravi, Bias, and Satluj — to India. In the uncertain future, Pakistan and India will have to help each other in shared management of these water systems.
The lack of water infrastructure and water management has caused severe water shortages in different areas of Pakistan and India. One of the prospective points of cooperation could be that the two countries may collaborate to build a canal to extend the Indus River toward India’s Gujarat before falling into the Indian Ocean. Currently, 21 million acre feet (maf) of water from the Indus River goes untapped to the Indian Ocean. Gujarat’s major areas, like Kutchh, South, Central, and Saurashtra, are facing water shortages due to various reasons including minimal rainfall and industrial pollution. Therefore, diverting the Indus River toward Gujarat is a possible option for both countries to cooperate.
Pondering more, a closer look at the bordering regions of Pakistan and India reveals that these areas fall short of performing well in social development because of security perceptions and government priorities. Human Development Index markers, for example in Pakistan’s bordering areas like Bahawalpur, Bahawalnagar, Hyderabad, and Pakpattan, and in the Indian states like Rajasthan, are not good. Because of negative security perceptions on both sides, these bordering areas remained underdeveloped. This has ultimately impacted the locals of these areas. Pakistan and India can jointly change the security perceptions by providing greater development to these regions.
With these measures adopted, there is a ray of hope for reviving the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). After India’s accusation of Pakistani state involvement in the Uri attack in 2016, which killed 19 soldiers, New Delhi boycotted the SAARC summit that was to be hosted by Pakistan at the time. The boycott was adopted also by Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Afghanistan, resulting in SAARC stalling. The major reason behind this has been the refusal by India to come to Pakistan.
Amidst such a deadlock, South Asia has become one of the least integrated regions across the world, with countries unable to respond collectively against pandemics and crises that concern all. Pakistan can offer to host the SAARC summit virtually, to break the ice between the two countries. India must respond wholeheartedly by not highlighting the issues that concern Pakistan. This will be a start contagiously leading toward cooperation in other fields.
In 2005, political leadership in Pakistan and India initiated the Srinagar to Muzaffarabad bus service, considered a major confidence-building measure. The route not only allowed tourists and family members to visit each other across the border but also allowed local trade to flow. Since 2019, this bus service has been inactive. As the two countries are adhering to the ceasefire understanding since 2021, there is a hope of opening the bus route again. Pakistan and India must consider the initiative to enhance people-to-people contacts.
Moreover, there is a historical site Sharda Peeth, known as Sharda University, a 50 km drive from Muzaffarabad. The place is sacred among Hindus, and is mentioned in Al-Baironi’s writings from the 11th century. Like the Kartarpur Corridor Initiative, Pakistan can develop Sharda Peeth as a tourist site and allow the Hindu community from India to visit the temple. This peace corridor initiative would enhance cultural exchanges between the two countries, and also develop the region’s ability as an attractive border tourism site.
It is hoped that in 2024 and beyond, with these major and minor steps, the two countries can promote peace and harmony in the region.