The bilateral relations between India and Pakistan appear to have been strained but talks should continue in their interest
In an unfortunate development and tit for tat manoeuvers, both India and Pakistan have decided to reduce the strength of diplomatic missions in each other’s capitals this week. The Indian government’s decision conveyed to the diplomatic channels appears to have followed the ill-treatment and alleged torture of Indian diplomatic staff in Islamabad in clear violation of their diplomatic rights and privileges. The Pakistani contention that the two personnel arrested by the police were allegedly carrying fake currency. But it appears that this action of Pakistan was more likely in retaliation to the arrest and expulsion of two Pakistani High Commission officials, who were accused by Indian authorities of espionage last month.

Such actions emerge from the lack of trust between the two countries and also guided by the frequent skirmishes on the International Border (IB) and Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir in the backdrop of the standoff between India and China in Ladakh. This is a serious issue as the Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) between India and Pakistan have been stalled for a long time since February last year after the Pulwama attack and Indian Air Force (IAF) air strikes in Balakote targeting some areas suspected to be launch pads for the militants. Expulsions of diplomats are not uncommon between countries as inimical to each other as India and Pakistan are, this is the first time such a measure has been taken since 2001.

Then, the Parliament attack in December 2001, and the largest military mobilisation of the time on the India-Pakistan border, Operation Parakram, were the triggers. Gradually, when there was some improvement in the relations, and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit to Pakistan for the SAARC summit in 2004, the move was reversed and diplomatic strength was restored to the full of over a 100 in each High Commission. But such decisions by both the countries reveal that the bilateral relations are once again at the lowest ebb, which is not in the interest of the peoples of the two countries.

The reduction of diplomatic staff strength this week follows not the solitary event but a general downslide in the bilateral relations in the last over one year. After the Pulwama attack, the Balakote air strike and the August 5 decision to amend Article 370 of the Constitution and reorganise Jammu and Kashmir, India and Pakistan have snapped all trading ties, downgraded missions – now without High Commissioners – and shut down most diplomatic activities. India and Pakistan have had no talks since 2015, when PM Modi visited Lahore, and the External Affairs Ministers met a few months later. All sporting and cultural exchanges have also been snapped, and visas are rarely granted, apart from the rare exception being made for the Kartarpur corridor inaugurated last year to commemorate ‘Prakash Diwas’. From the LoC, where ceasefire violations continue to claim lives of soldiers and civilians on both sides, to practically every multilateral forum India and Pakistan are a part of, both sides are facing a tense situation.

The likelihood of restoration of Cross-LoC trade in J&K appears distant in view of the current situation. Even on non-contentious issues such as cooperating on the coronavirus pandemic as a part of the SAARC grouping, or collaborating against the recent locust invasion that affected the region, Islamabad and New Delhi have been unable to find common ground. While the present seems bleak, the future does not augur well for a change, particularly as India-China tensions occupy New Delhi’s concerns and focus at this stage. The decision to reduce mission strengths is unlikely to impact working relations between India and Pakistan at present. It is an indication that just when it seems ties between the two neighbours cannot get much worse than previously thought.