Those who have observed the strained and often toxic relationship between India and Pakistan thought it was too good to be true.
A few months ago, the newly elected leader in Delhi, Narendra Modi, risked criticism by reaching out across the border and inviting his counterpart in Islamabad, Nawaz Sharif, to attend his swearing-in.
Sharif, in turn, risked criticism by accepting the invitation and attending. Their meeting had been so warm, it was reported, that Sharif sent a sari to Modi’s mother as a gift, while Modi sent Sharif’s mother a shawl. They agreed tentatively to meet in New York next month at the UN General Assembly.
Now everything is up in the air. Earlier this week, India called off talks due to take place next week in Islamabad between senior diplomats from both countries. The reason? That Pakistan had proved itself to be “insincere” by instructing its envoy in Delhi to meet Kashmiri separatists ahead of those talks.
“India conveyed to the Pakistan high commissioner in clear and unambiguous terms, that Pakistan’s continued efforts to interfere in India’s internal affairs were unacceptable,” said Syed Akbaruddin, a spokesman for India’s foreign ministry.
The message the Modi government was attempting to deliver to Pakistan was clear: you may have held these meetings with the separatists in the past, but no more. You can deal with us, or them. But not both.
The supposedly tough stance taken by Modi certainly went down well with much of the Indian media, especially some of the more jingoistic television anchors. After India announced it was cancelling the talks, one of the anchors could be seen shouting at the Pakistanis on his show that it was “no longer business as usual”.
This may go down very well among some in India and further burnish Modi’s no-nonsense image. But it is unlikely to help relations between the two countries, and in particular their differences over Kashmir.
The disputed region of Kashmir has been a flashpoint since India and Pakistan secured independence and the two nations have fought over it several times. In the 1980s, Pakistan backed and funded a separatist insurgency that claimed more than 70,000 lives. In 2003, a ceasefire was enacted and both sides agreed to stick to their side of the so-called Line of Control that runs through Kashmir.
In 2007, under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf, the nations came close to agreeing a four-point formula that would have allowed for local autonomy in both Pakistani and Indian Kashmir, demilitarisation, an open border and a mechanism for Kashmiris to work together to settle disagreements.
But before the agreement could be enacted, Musharraf found himself embroiled in a political crisis and he was forced to resign in the summer of 2008.
Today, Indian Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, remains a source of tension. A breakdown of the ceasefire has resulted in repeated attacks across the border, the Kashmir valley has become one of the most heavily militarised places in the world, and among its young population there is widespread anger and despair. Such despair adds to the demands for freedom, or independence.
When Sharif was elected in the spring of 2013, and amid expectation that Modi was very likely to be elected a year later, there was optimistic talk that the two men could do business. Both men talked of increasing trade, making it easier for exporters and importers on both sides. Many believed Modi, secure with his landslide win, had more chance of dealing with Pakistan than many of his predecessors.
It may be that he has concluded – by cancelling next week’s talks – that Sharif, a year into his term and facing difficulties with the Pakistan military, is too weak to deliver a deal. In such circumstances, Modi may not have wanted to waste any more political capital.
More broadly, it may be that the Indian establishment has come to accept keeping Kashmir heavily militarised for the foreseeable future is a price worth paying for not having to seriously negotiate over a region it believes to be an “integral” part of the nation.
Despite the cancellation of the talks, Pakistan pushed ahead with its meeting with the Kashmiri separatist leaders. Among those it met was Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the 84-year-old leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an umbrella group of organisations seeking self-determination.
Geelani is often accused of having links to armed militants, though he says he is only involved in non-violent protests. In the apartment of a family member following his meeting with Pakistan’s high commissioner to India, Abdul Basit, he said he did not know why Modi had called off the talks.
Asked whether he and other separatists were responsible for derailing the peace talks, he said: “Since 1952, there have been more than 150 different dialogues. Nothing has ever been achieved because India in one breath says it is ready for talks, and in the next says Kashmir is not a disputed area. There is no positive outcome available.”
All eyes will be on Modi and Sharif when they travel to New York next month. Could they still meet? Would it be worth it? They could surprise us yet but this week’s events have made it less likely. However, their mothers should not expect more gifts in the near future.