China’s strategy is to attack India’s weak points and stymie its rise to the extent possible. Beijing views the Indian portion of J&K as India’s Achilles Heel
Brahma Chellaney | 23 Aug, 2019
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Pakistan saw Article 370 as Indian acceptance that Kashmir is a disputed territory. The constitutional change can help India to more ably counter the China-Pakistan nexus.
CONTROL OF THE original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is divided among India, Pakistan and China, but only India was maintaining special powers and privileges for its portion, which makes up 45 per cent of the erstwhile kingdom. Take Pakistan, which seeks to redraw borders in blood by grabbing the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley from India: Far from granting autonomy or special status to the parts of J&K it holds (the sprawling Gilgit-Baltistan and the so-called Azad Kashmir), Pakistan has treated them as its colonies, exercising arbitrary control over them, recklessly exploiting their natural resources and changing their demographic profiles. In fact, Pakistan unlawfully ceded a strategically important slice of the increasingly restive Gilgit-Baltistan to China in 1963.
Today, China occupies 20 per cent of the original state of J&K, including the areas it surreptitiously encroached upon in the 1950s or seized during its 1962 invasion of India as well as the trans-Karakoram tract (comprising mainly the Shaksgam Valley) that Pakistan ceded to it under the 1963 Sino-Pakistani Frontier Agreement. That transfer of territory was a unique case in modern history of one nation gifting another with a sizeable slice of the land that it had gained control of earlier in a war with a third country (India).
The action of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Government in revoking the statehood and special constitutional status of India’s J&K caught most by surprise, although the BJP had long espoused such a move. If anything, the Modi Government’s legacy-shaping constitutional change in relation to J&K was long in coming. The reason was that the Modi Government, in its first term, did not have majority support in the Rajya Sabha.
No sooner had the Government cobbled together Rajya Sabha majority support than it acted on J&K to level the field by giving the people there the same rights and responsibilities as all other Indian citizens. Revoking J&K’s special status, carving out Ladakh as a separate Union Territory and repealing the misogynistic Article 35A (which permitted women to be stripped of their rights in J&K if they married outsiders) were bold moves, executed in one fell swoop. The fact that both Houses of Parliament ratified the moves with two-third majorities, with several opposition parties lending support, reflects their popularity across the country.
The timing of the Government’s steps was driven not just by domestic factors but also by international considerations. Indeed, US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan might have precipitated Modi’s action in stripping J&K of its special status. “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” Trump said on July 22nd while hosting Pakistan’s military-backed Prime Minister, Imran Khan, at the Oval Office. Trump of late has been rehyphenating India with Pakistan and drawing a perverse equivalence between the two countries. This is in keeping with his administration’s new courtship of Pakistan, which has been given a key role in the current US plan to exit the war in Afghanistan.
In fact, the timing of Modi’s action was also influenced by Trump’s looming Faustian bargain with the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban. A resurgent Pakistan-Taliban duo controlling Afghanistan would spell greater trouble for India’s J&K, including through increased cross-border entry of armed jihadists. Trump is desperate to end US involvement in the war in Afghanistan and pull out the majority of American troops before seeking re-election next year. With Imran Khan by his side, Trump begged Pakistan to “extricate us” from Afghanistan.
The irony is that the US is stuck in the longest war in its history because of Pakistan, which, by harbouring the Taliban’s command-and-control base, has effectively undercut the American military mission in Afghanistan. As the top US military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”
China has increasingly played the J&K card against India in the past decade. China fomented the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, taught its ‘all-weather’ client Pakistan how to wage proxy war against India
Indeed, it is worth remembering that the US got into the Afghanistan military quagmire because of its reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s sanctuaries and leadership in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror against India also explains why the Kashmir Valley remains a terrorist hotbed.
For years, instead of taking out the Taliban’s cross-border bases, the US actively sought ‘reconciliation’, allowing the militia to gain strength. The protracted search for a bargain with the Taliban also explains why that terrorist militia was never added to the US list of foreign terrorist organisations. The American approach counterproductively has not only led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control, but also has emboldened the terrorism-exporting Pakistani military.
Just last year, Trump tweeted that though Pakistan received more than $33 billion in American aid since 2002, it has returned ‘nothing but lies and deceit’, including providing ‘safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan’. But today, the US is coming full circle on both the Taliban and Pakistan.
After suffering its worst ever terrorist attack, the US turned against the Taliban and drove it from power in Kabul in 2001. Now, in search of a face-saving exit from the Afghanistan war, America has embraced the Taliban in high-level deal-making, which risks handing over Afghanistan to the same thuggish group that the US ousted from power. And seeking to appease Pakistan, Washington recently facilitated a $6-billion International Monetary Fund bailout for Pakistan and relaxed its suspension of military aid by clearing $125 million in assistance for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet.
Pakistan—through its brutal proxies, the Taliban and the Haqqani network—has compelled the US to negotiate the terms of its surrender in Afghanistan and seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit. This explains why the US, while sidelining the elected Afghan government in its deal-making with the Taliban, has openly signalled its readiness to accept Pakistan’s primacy in Afghanistan.
Yet another factor behind the Modi Government’s rejigging of J&K’s constitutional status was China, including its strengthening axis with Pakistan. China has increasingly played the J&K card against India in the past decade. In fact, China, which fomented the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, taught its ‘all-weather’ client Pakistan how to wage proxy war against India. China still fans flames in India’s Northeast. For example, Paresh Baruah, the long-time fugitive commander-in-chief of the United Liberation Front of Assam, has been traced to Ruili, in China’s Yunnan province. Some other Indian insurgent leaders have been ensconced in Myanmar’s Yunnan-bordering region controlled by the China-backed Kachin Independence Army.
In 2010, Beijing honed the J&K argument against New Delhi by aggressively adopting a stapled-visa policy for Indian citizens from J&K. To mount pressure, Beijing has tacitly questioned India’s sovereignty over the portion of J&K under Indian control and officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometre line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K.
The defanging of Article 370 may not stem the Arabisation of the Valley’s Islam but it will end the ambiguity on J&K’s status by integrating it fully with the Indian Union
No surprise then that China took the lead earlier this month to internationalise the J&K issue by successfully calling for a special but informal UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting on the dispute, but only in relation to ‘the India-Pakistan question’. By brazenly cloaking its own role in the dispute, including unlawful occupation of parts of J&K, China has presented J&K as just an India-Pakistan issue.
The fact is that China’s occupation, which started in the mid-1950s, has effectively gutted the 1948 UNSC resolution, which came after Pakistan seized more than 35 per cent of J&K. The mandated first step in implementing that resolution was Pakistan’s vacation of its occupation. But after China’s change of the J&K territorial map, the first step would mean vacation of both Pakistani- and Chinese-held areas of J&K. That seems impossible, given that Beijing has formally annexed parts of J&K (including Aksai Chin), built the strategic Karakoram Highway to Pakistan through the internationally recognised disputed region and is now implementing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in a similar manner.
The UNSC’s China-engineered J&K discussion on August 16th may seem inconsequential because an informal, closed-door meeting like this normally has no resolution for consideration. China, despite support from a Britain still hooked to imperial fantasies, failed to get even a joint statement adopted. A joint statement to the press constitutes the lowest level of action by the Security Council.
Undeterred, however, the Chinese ambassador to the UN sought to spin the discussions while briefing the international media. Claiming to present a “summary” of the discussions, the envoy of the world’s largest, strongest and longest-lasting autocracy—which has incarcerated more than a million Muslims and re-engineered the demography of all its minority homelands by settling Han Chinese in large numbers—spoke about the “human rights situation” in Indian J&K.
Still, it would be a mistake to believe that China’s UNSC machinations yielded nothing. The fact is that these machinations are only emboldening Pakistan and its terrorist proxies. Pakistan currently hosts 22 UN-listed terrorist entities and at least 133 of the UN-designated global terrorists. China’s scheming also aids separatists in Indian J&K.
In fact, China’s diplomatic success in convening the UNSC meeting—even if it resulted in only talk, no action—sent a jarring signal to India, bringing its J&K policy under international spotlight. The closed-door huddle at the UN headquarters represented the first official UNSC meeting on Kashmir since 1971, when Indian military intervention helped create Bangladesh. Indeed, the Chinese machinations have served as a reminder to India that China’s J&K interference will only increase. This is partly due to the CPEC projects in Pakistan-held J&K, where Chinese military presence is growing, including near Pakistan’s Line of Control with India.
Make no mistake: China’s strategy is to attack India’s weak points and stymie its rise to the extent possible. Beijing views the Indian portion of J&K as India’s Achilles heel.
Against this background, the J&K constitutional change can help India to more ably counter the Sino-Pakistani nexus centred on Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. For starters, India has separated its J&K-related territorial disputes with Pakistan and China by carving out Ladakh as a new federally administered territory and turning the rest of its J&K from a state into a Union Territory with a legislature.
Separating Ladakh from J&K was long overdue. In defiance of the grassroots demand for Ladakh to be made a separate entity, this vast frontier region critical to India’s national security was kept for decades under the administrative control of a J&K leadership which was from the Kashmir Valley and often secretly sympathetic to secessionists. The result was that Ladakh—the bulwark against the Chinese military’s march to the southern foothills of the Himalayas—remained neglected and economically backward.
Today, with jihadists increasingly calling the shots in parts of the Kashmir Valley, the constitutional change empowers the Central Government with greater authority in dealing with the J&K security situation. Three decades of a Pakistan-sponsored Islamist insurrection in the Valley made continuation of the status quo indefensible and unsustainable. After years of bloodshed—a period in which Pakistan sought to exploit the Indian J&K’s special status—a change became imperative.
In fact, Article 370, although designed to reassure J&K’s Muslim-majority population by granting substantial autonomy to the state, came to be seen by Pakistan as Indian acceptance that J&K is a disputed territory. That only encouraged the Pakistani establishment to up the ante. Article 370, by allowing only permanent residents to own land, also encouraged Islamists in the Valley to change, by force, demography and property holdings by expelling Kashmiri Pandits. This expulsion constituted one of the most successful and swiftest ethnic-cleansing operations in modern world history.
With its diverse ethnic and religious communities, J&K was a microcosm of pluralistic India, before its syncretic culture and traditions came under a sustained Islamist onslaught. Since 1989, with successive governments in New Delhi helpless to arrest the trend, the pluralistic traditions of Kashmir have largely given way to a Wahhabi/Salafi culture. The defanging of Article 370 may not stem the Arabisation of the Valley’s Islam but it will certainly help to end the ambiguity on J&K’s status by integrating it fully with the Indian Union.
India has managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action. But India now must brace up to its internal-security and regional challenges. The militant stronghold of the Kashmir Valley makes up just 15 per cent of the area of the J&K state, to be dissolved on October 31st. But it is home to 55 per cent of the state’s population. The current Government restrictions on movement and communications directly impinge on constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. Yet, given the high risk of a deterioration of the security situation, these restrictions can be eased only in a graduated manner.
Let’s be clear: While the people of Hong Kong are fighting for democracy, the armed jihadists in the Kashmir Valley reject democracy and wish to establish a caliphate. In this situation, authorities must lift or re-impose restrictions in the Valley’s troubled districts as part of a decentralised, calibrated strategy that seeks to build peace at the local level in each borough through reward and punishment.
Three decades of a Pakistan-sponsored Islamist insurrection in the Valley made continuation of the status quo indefensible and unsustainable. After years of bloodshed-a period in which Pakistan sought to exploit the Indian J&K’s special status-a change became imperative
India’s bigger challenge relates to the deepening Sino-Pakistani nexus. This nexus increasingly keeps the Indian armed forces and police on their mettle. India is the world’s only country wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy even basic international rules and norms.
With China’s protection, Pakistan will continue to use armed jihadists as a force multiplier against India. China provides Pakistan security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the UN. Covert nuclear and missile assistance from Beijing also continues. So, Pakistan cannot afford to stop being China’s loyal client, especially since that relationship—however lopsided—aims to tie down India.
India needs to tackle head on Pakistan’s protracted proxy war by seeking to impose costs on the Pakistani military generals (the terror masters), rather than on their expendable terrorist proxies. India’s 2016 ground-launched surgical strike after the Uri terrorist attack and the more recent Balakot raid in February targeted only the terrorist surrogates, leaving the generals unscathed to continue their death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy against India.
The power behind Pakistan, however, is China, against which India is reluctant to even speak up. In fact, Beijing is using the profits from its spiralling trade surplus with India to expand its military capability and advance its aggressive ambitions without firing a shot. India is effectively funding its own containment. China already dominates India’s telecom sector but New Delhi, instead of banning Huawei from its 5G trials, is still searching for a middle ground.
No surprise then that Indian policy is emboldening Beijing to up the ante through both Pakistan and direct border provocations. China has also been engaged in other diplomatic needling, including calling the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh ‘southern Tibet’ since 2006. Although J&K is split among three countries (with only India claiming the whole of it), New Delhi, by refusing to speak up, has allowed Beijing to cleverly present itself at the UN and elsewhere as a sort of neutral party interested in lowering tensions between two of its ‘friends’, India and Pakistan.
The Wuhan spirit did not survive even a week after the April 2018 Wuhan summit. Yet, despite China’s latest provocations, President Xi Jinping will be in India in October for a second Wuhan-like informal summit, which could be held in Varanasi.
Before that summit, China intends to take India round and round the mulberry bush in yet another round of border talks. The fruitless border negotiations are being held ad infinitum since 1981, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, with Beijing dangling a new carrot every few years but refusing to abandon its revanchist claims on Indian-governed territories. Beijing’s newest carrot has been meretriciously labelled ‘early harvest’ proposal by a gullible Indian media, although the proposal remains completely shrouded in mystery. The proposal will likely turn out to be little more than another ride for India on the Chinese merry-go-round.
New Delhi, instead of lending a helping hand to Beijing’s strategy of engagement as a façade for containing India, must start imposing economic and diplomatic costs on China in a calibrated manner, including by taking a leaf out of Trump’s trade-war playbook. China’s predatory trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative has yet to seriously take off.
Economically, the least New Delhi can do is erect roadblocks on China’s inroads into key Indian sectors. Politically, India needs to strengthen its hand by exercising countervailing leverage. If India continues to ignore China’s provocations, including the recent UNSC machinations, it will be negotiating from a position of weakness when Modi hosts Xi in October or when next month National Security Adviser Ajit Doval meets his Chinese counterpart in the border talks.
More fundamentally, J&K is a core issue of secular identity and national security for India. While India’s J&K is open to foreign media, the Pakistani- and Chinese-controlled portions are not. To report from Gilgit-Baltistan or ‘Azad’ Kashmir, Pakistan requires foreign journalists to seek military permission in the form of a No-Objection Certificate. The open access India grants to international media, however, has resulted in biased coverage by journalists focusing only on security measures, stone-pelting rowdies and hospitalised rioters. The negative coverage carries wider implications. For example, an adverse report on J&K released by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in June 2018 relied mainly on such distorted media coverage.
The changed constitutional status of J&K is a watershed for India. In the short run, the security situation in the Kashmir Valley could worsen, resulting in India coming under greater pressure from domestic and foreign critics and human rights groups. But over the longer term, J&K’s greater integration and development are likely to contribute to the normalisation of the situation in the Valley. India must stay the course unflinchingly, bearing short-term pain to secure long-term gain.