By Maria Amjad
On June 12, the Indian government released 11 Pakistani civil prisoners and handed them over to the Pakistani authorities at the Wagah border post. This was done as a “goodwill gesture”. Most of these released prisoners were alleged spies and were only released after they completed their prison term.
The unexpected decision of India to release the prisoners comes at a time of frosty bilateral ties, political deadlocks between the two nations and escalating hostility along the Line of Control (LoC). While this is being considered significant for the likely thaw between the two neighbours, there are other theories that have emerged as well.
A change in India’s policy towards Pakistan
Since the repatriation, media houses in both countries have been brimming with the stories of India’s switch of gears towards Pakistan. Many experts believe that the Indian gesture is significant. This is because it came only two days after Narendra Modi pleasantries with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, 2017.
Relations between Pakistan and India have been on a low following the Pathankot attack and Uri attack of 2016. What followed these events was an Indian allegation that accused Pakistan of cross-border infiltration and the conduction of surgical strikes. Since then, India and Pakistan have been involved in serious spats at international platforms like the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2016.
India had also boycotted Pakistan on the levels of diplomacy, trade, and cricket in the last year. Therefore, the recent development has been highlighted as a change of Indian policy.
In anticipation of further negotiations: The Kulbhushan Jadhav case
The release of 11 prisoners is the first such gesture from the Indian authorities ever since Kulbhushan Jadhav was served a death sentence by a Pakistani court. It has been highlighted that India is probably using this opportunity to negotiate with Pakistan over Jadhav’s case. In its bid to improve ties with India, Pakistan recently released around 440 Indian fishermen and an Indian soldier who was previously an alleged spy.
However, Jadhav’s case is much more controversial. Therefore, India may be holding onto the hope of consular access to Jadhav in return for this repatriation favour. India has already appealed to Pakistan more than fifteen times for consular access to Jadhav. However, nothing has materialised so far.
Furthermore, India has been unable to gain access to Jadhav despite the ICJ’s verdict on May 18 which held the Indian appeal to be plausible. Therefore, the Indian gesture of releasing Pakistani prisoners has also been termed as an Indian strategy aimed at promoting negotiations with Pakistan over Jadhav.
Reaching out to Islamabad: Is it a certainty?
Despite the Shiv Sena’s and the Indian National Congress’ recent criticisms of India’s soft policy towards Pakistan, Modi’s exchange of pleasantries with Nawaz is courageous. However, it is too early to claim that New Delhi is reaching out to Islamabad. First, if India really wanted to signal Pakistan about its change of policy, it would have chosen a better platform to do so. Modi just met Nawaz at the SCO summit. Had peace talks with Pakistan been solicited, Modi would have arranged a formal meeting with Nawaz just like he did with the Chinese President to talk about a host of issues.
Furthermore, Indian officials have themselves said that the release of prisoners is a humanitarian issue and should not be linked to a further downturn in diplomatic ties over Jadhav. The Indian government hopes that in return for this favour, the government of Pakistan will also facilitate the release of Indian prisoners lodged in Pakistani jails. According to the Indian government, there are 132 Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails, out of which 57 have already served their jail term.
The courteous gesture of India amid the prickly relationship between the neighbours may seem far-fetched. However, the act in its totality seems more like a goodwill gesture observed by the two countries since 2008 under the ‘Agreement on Consular Access between India and Pakistan’. The agreement had mutual consent from the two countries on the regular repatriation of prisoners and fishermen with consular access.
After the Uri-attack of 2016, India has been asking Pakistan to detain the militants and terrorists from the Pakistani territory in order to prevent future high-profile terrorist attacks. Until this condition is met, India will not settle for less.
Featured image credits: Flickr
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