Wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down in a dogfight on Wednesday, was returned to India at the Wagah border crossing in Punjab on Friday, March 1. The Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan, Imran Khan, announced his release in Parliament a day earlier, describing the move as a “peace gesture”. At the same time, he reiterated his call to Indian PM Narendra Modi for talks to de-escalate the situation, which he warned India not to take as a sign of weakness but as a resolve to further peace rather than hostility. The release of the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot by Pakistan was appreciated and welcomed by the international community, including United Nations (UN) General-Secretary, Antonio Guterres, and world leaders who saw the decision to be an effort by Pakistan to find a solution to cross-border disputes through dialogue. On the other side of the border, in New Delhi, the release of the Indian pilot was seen as a decision made by Pakistan under duress from the international community, specifically, “the US, UAE and Saudi Arabia,” and in consonance with the Geneva Conventions. The jingoists have described it as a “titanic win for India,” and a display of weakness by Pakistan. While PM Modi, who is currently campaigning for re-election, trumpeted the return of the pilot as a diplomatic victory. He stated that the “influence of terrorists and terrorism had been curtailed and would be curtailed even more,” and that under his administration, India would “return the damage done by terrorists with interest”. The Foreign Minister (FM) of Pakistan, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, expressly rejected the premise that Pakistan was under pressure to release the pilot, and maintained that the decision was made keeping in view the need for regional peace. An end to this hostility is essential for regional stability, and can only be achieved through joint political will, and cooperation of state institutions So far, peace overtures made by PM Imran Khan have failed to garner any favourable response from across the border. While tensions have somewhat eased, there remains a sense of disquiet as cross-border shelling along the line of control (LOC) continues to give sleepless nights to the residents of villages along both sides of the border. If nothing else, the recent escalation between Pakistan and India has brought to light various revelations, including the deliberate effort of the central government of India to downplay the indigenous nature of the Kashmiri struggle and place the blame for trouble in the region on Pakistan. More so, the situation has not only revealed the protracted violence by Indian security agencies on the helpless Kashmiris, and the revival of Hindu nationalism, but also the determination of the Kashmiris to resist state-sponsored oppression and terrorism. Needless to say, the above-mentioned situation presents a formidable array of challenges to peace and reconciliation in the region. An end to this hostility is essential for regional stability, and can only be achieved through joint political will, and cooperation of state institutions. Until this happens, peace in the region will remain hostage to the forces of obscurantism. History has shown that conventional conflict resolution options have failed to remove insuperable obstacles in way of Pakistan-India rapprochement. Both countries need to accept responsibility for peace and find a way out of this impasse. As such, there is a need to brainstorm for innovative reconciliation initiatives, such as de-militarisation, reconfiguring and redefining of territorial claims, ending proxy warfare, and greater economic cooperation and integration. Concurrently, the people of the two countries need to realise what they stand to gain immeasurably from sustained peace and partnership in terms of economic benefits, and sustainable development individually, as well as regionally. Looking at the bigger picture, South-Asia is beset with multiple issues, such as dwindling freshwater resources, overpopulation, and abject poverty, to name a few. These unprecedented challenges require regional cooperation. That can only be possible if there is peace and trust among the regional countries. For this to happen, those in government need to possess credibility and a progressive approach to leadership that allows for bold decisions aimed at long-term stability and prosperity. Both Islamabad and New Delhi require leaders who are willing to move forward from a legacy of conflict and rancour spanning half a century towards the promise of peace in the future. Despite the growing urgency for regional peace, the incumbent leadership in India has failed to respond positively to demands for de-escalation through dialogue and diplomacy. Electioneering has further upped the stakes as PM Modi campaigns to win a second term in office. Therefore, he is neither inspired, nor does he desire to engage in dialogue with Pakistan, perhaps because he has prioritised his return to power over the good of the region, and the process of peace simply does not serve as a means to achieve his singular ends. His hardline approach to the insurgency in Kashmir has evoked nothing but anger, and has strengthened the resolve of the people of Kashmir to free themselves from Indian domination. The conflict has shed light on the high levels of resilience and adaptability of the Kashmiri people to the changing tactics of the Indian security forces. By ascribing the unrest in Kashmir to Pakistan, PM Modi is choosing to overlook the fact that his repressive measures are actual drivers of violence for the Kashmiri people. Indeed, his anti-Pakistan rhetoric is a ruse to distract voters from the real issues facing India, and his grandiose promises of rapid and inclusive economic growth. The writer is a former Ambassador Published in Daily Times, March 8th 2019.