“Our respective High Commissions exist and are functioning. That is a very effective channel of communication,” says Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson

The Indian and Pakistani High Commissions in Islamabad and Delhi, respectively, are an “effective channel of communication” said the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), sidestepping a slew of media reports on a “back-channel dialogue” between the two countries that are discussing a number of initiatives. On Thursday, two Pakistani news sites reported that the current round of negotiations allegedly date as far back as to 2018, and that Indian and Pakistan officials discussed, amongst other things, the possibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi attending a SAARC summit in Pakistan in October 2021.

“Our respective High Commissions exist and are functioning. That is a very effective channel of communication. Regarding speculation about SAARC summit, I have nothing to share with you at the moment,” MEA Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told journalists when asked about the reports by a number of Indian and international news media quoting unnamed senior government officials that have suggested the back channel dialogue is being overseen by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa, and that they have been facilitated by other countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who visited Islamabad after talks in New Delhi, “welcomed the recent steps taken by India and Pakistan to normalise bilateral relations” during a press conference, further fuelling reports about the existence of a rapprochement process.

The latest report carried by Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said that Pakistan’s U-turn last week on approving imports of cotton and sugar from India, and then putting off the decision after opposition within the Cabinet, was an “avoidable” mistake borne from “haste” in announcing the decision too early, without preparing all stakeholders. The report also claimed that the Pakistan government had hoped for the Modi government to announce a restoration of “Statehood” for Jammu and Kashmir, and a visit by Mr. Modi to J&K as signs that India was willing to soften some of its moves made on August 5, 2019. According to the “insiders” quoted, Indian and Pakistani officials had met at a number of “secret locations” in a dialogue that began in 2018, broke off for a period of prolonged tensions in 2019, and was restarted some months ago in 2020.

“Indian officials raised the issue of what they call “cross-border terrorism”. Pakistani officials assured them that Islamabad was strictly following a policy of not allowing non-state actors to engage in any armed activity,” the Dawn news report added about the talks where the issue of terrorism and Kashmir were reportedly discussed.

Speculation about the existence of a back channel was sparked after border commanders at the Line of Control issued a joint statement, the first of its kind, on February 25 this year, committing to upholding the 2003 ceasefire, after a year that saw a record of more than 5,000 ceasefire violations (CFVs). In particular, analysts had referred to the wording of the joint statement, including a desire to resolve “core issues” between the two sides, which indicated coordination at a diplomatic and government level. Subsequent developments, including Indus treaty talks, visas, as well as statements by PM Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan appeared to suggest a “roadmap” of measures was being taken by both sides in order to facilitate better ties.

In a separate story also published on Thursday, another Pakistani website, Global Village Space, said that more confidence building measures had been proposed through the alleged back-channel dialogue, adding that this was the “first time that Pakistani government sources, in Islamabad, have confirmed the existence of back-channel engagement with the Modi government in Delhi”, who had acknowledged the role of “third countries” in facilitating the dialogue.

The MEA did not respond to the specific details in either report, and has maintained a silence over previous reports citing the dialogue as well.