A Highway in Srinagar, J&K, August 10, 2019 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
TWO WEEKS AGO, Narendra Modi’s Government upended a longstanding Indian policy to leave Kashmir’s official autonomy untouched. The decision to scrap Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution was a longstanding Hindu nationalist goal, but to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its status as a state was an added insult, almost gratuitous. The twin steps were made possible by the decisive mandate handed to Modi’s BJP by the Indian electorate last spring.
Despite being a move rooted in domestic politics, the decision has already had reverberations beyond India’s borders, most predictably in Pakistan and China. Moreover, last week, India’s actions were the subject of a meeting at the UN Security Council (UNSC), a first since 1971, and criticised heavily in the Western press.
The geopolitical implications of Modi’s move can only be credibly assessed in time. What seems clear at the present juncture is that despite, or perhaps because of, a relatively fortuitous international environment, India has committed an unforced error and handed Pakistan an important, if limited, diplomatic victory. That said, Islamabad’s ability to consolidate this win remains uncertain at best. Either way, the key actor in how the global audience perceives this crisis going forward will not be the governments of India or Pakistan, but the Kashmiri people.
The geopolitical reaction to India’s actions in Kashmir is anchored by the two strongest countries in the world: the US and China.
What Modi’s foreign policy team will be most pleased with is that Washington is, at worst, mildly irritated by his decision. Such a reaction is consistent with general American practice, whereby human rights abuses in allied states are mostly ignored. Given the overarching desire to partner with India to balance China in the ‘Indo-Pacific’, New Delhi certainly occupies such a pedestal.
Even were the US inclined to criticise India for its authoritarianism in Kashmir, it certainly would not do so under its current president. Donald Trump, remember, is someone whose primary criticism of Mikhail Gorbachev was that he was not firm enough during the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rare American political figure who found China’s actions at Tiananmen Square commendable. Indeed, the ‘tough’ approach taken by Modi and Amit Shah will, in many ways, impress Trump. Likewise, other heavyweights in the administration, from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to National Security Advisor John Bolton, are unperturbed by concerns over human rights or repression in Indian Kashmir.
On the other hand, given Trump’s goldfish-like attention span, any action that brings Kashmir or South Asian geopolitics back into his mind is risky for India. What characterises Trump’s politics, aside from a virulent ethnonationalism, is a narcissistic desire for grandiosity. Simply put, Trump wants his name on big things. Hotels and buildings work just as well as healthcare plans and nuclear agreements.
When juxtaposed with Trump’s overestimated sense of his ‘deal-making’ capabilities, the implication becomes clear. Nothing would excite him more than the prospect of hanging a ‘Trump’ sign, preferably one coloured gold, on a geopolitical problem that has vexed past American administrations, be it Israel-Palestine, North Korea, or, yes, Kashmir—either as an end to itself or in service of the Nobel Peace Prize.
After being successfully goaded by a well-prepared Imran Khan last month, ‘Kashmir’ is now a word on Trump’s lips—and Twitter account. So is ‘mediation’. This will be anathema to India, which has toiled for decades to persuade American officials to stay out of the Kashmir conflict. Though the US foreign policy establishment, both at the State Department and at the Pentagon, is generally supportive of India’s position on non-interference, Modi and Shah have, as one defence expert put it, ‘provided an opening for the US to enter’.
Compared to the US, China is more strongly opposed to India’s move but also more tightly constrained. China’s objection is easy to explain. At the most general level, the Sino-Indian relationship is marked by rivalry, with both states yearning for regional hegemony. This rivalry is most obviously manifested in the issue of border disputes. Though China has generally been adept at sorting out its territorial conflicts with other neighbours, several with India, including Aksai Chin/Ladakh, remain outstanding.
China’s diplomatic reaction was swift and stern, criticising India for threatening its “territorial sovereignty” and asserting that India’s decision has no impact on its effective administrative control of the area. Separately, it provided hefty diplomatic support for Pakistan’s position in the aftermath of the move, including but not just at the UN. As retaliation in the medium term, China may strike a harder bargain in negotiations on other disputes with India, such as in India’s Northeast that borders Tibet.
But these moves aside, China mounting a sustained campaign of pressing on the Kashmir issue is a questionable prospect, for two main reasons. First, the Chinese leadership is currently focused on Trump’s trade war and the Hong Kong protests; the attention Beijing can devote to the Kashmir crisis is limited by the tyranny of prioritisation. It would be one thing had India attempted to demarcate the Line of Actual Control differently, but in only changing what goes on behind it, India has probably ensured China will be neither thunderous nor muscular in response. Second, though hypocrisy is a tireless handmaiden for states in international politics, it would be difficult for China to maintain outrage about India’s clampdown on ordinary Kashmiris while it is destroying mosques, shaving beards and carrying out the ‘re-education’ of a similarly sized population in Xinjiang.
Given this state of affairs—one superpower relatively uninterested and the other relatively tied up—Pakistan has a circumscribed set of options. Dangling the Afghanistan peace negotiations as bait may have been the obvious play in the past, but Washington would clearly enunciate its impatience with such tactics at the IMF and Financial Action Task Force. Sponsoring a full-blown insurgency, in a replication of the ugly 1990-1994 period, is also a strategy past its sell-by date, one that holds little appeal for GHQ and the ISI, both due to the international opprobrium attached to such behaviour as well the domestic costs, economic and social, attendant with jihadism.
Limited though they may be in number, Islamabad has played well with the chips it has. That the UNSC had a meeting at all was an undoubted diplomatic win for Pakistan. It is not just that half a century had passed since Kashmir was last discussed at such a forum, marking an outpost in Pakistan’s consistent efforts to ‘internationalise’ the Kashmir dispute. Rather, the results of that meeting—qualified support from the UK, a pointed neutrality from Russia and full-throated backing from China—was a better outcome for Pakistan than most would have predicted beforehand.
The Indian Government can correctly maintain that there were no records kept of the meeting, due to its ‘informal’ designation, and that in and of itself, the meeting is unlikely to lead to anything substantive. This is a reasonable enough argument on the surface, but it risks missing the forest for the trees. Kashmir is, after a lapse of several decades, once again a hot-button issue for the ‘international community’, that amorphous amalgam of policymakers, transnational media and the activist elite. For how long this remains the case is an open question, especially given the proclivity for such causes to recede into a white noise of outrage and helplessness, but the very question of its staying power in international attention represents a drastic shift.
After being successfully goaded by a well-prepared Imran Khan last month, ‘Kashmir’ is now a word on Trump’s lips-and Twitter account. So is ‘mediation’. This will be anathema to India which has toiled for decades to persuade American officials to stay out of the Kashmir conflict
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It has been a long time since India was on the diplomatic defensive in Kashmir. Global attention to the region and the Kashmir ‘cause’ for the last 30 years has followed a set pattern: some provocation by Pakistan, met with stern Indian warnings and threats, followed by a cooling-down period often refereed by Washington, London and/or Gulf Arab states that enjoy open lines of communication with both capitals. As a consequence of Kargil (1999), New Delhi (2001) and Mumbai (2008), Pakistan’s reputation as the vastly more irresponsible actor in the region has been fairly well-entrenched, in stark contrast to India, a country whose foreign and security policies are largely seen as marked by prudence and risk aversion.
That neat dichotomy, flattering to New Delhi, has now been complicated. Having flooded an already militarised region with tens of thousands of security forces; arrested politicians, including those of a pro-India hue; snapped shut lines of communication; detained thousands of people without charge; and kidnapped and molested children, India has lost the privilege of portraying Pakistan as the sole ‘problem child’ in Kashmir.
Moreover, it has handed diplomatic and political tools to its opponents that could loosen, not strengthen, its grip on the territory. Kashmiri separatists, for instance, can justifiably claim that the territory’s instrument of accession to the Indian Union is no longer valid. And in the subcontinental struggle to define Kashmir—‘an integral part of India’ for Indians, ‘under occupation by India’ for Pakistanis—the latter have been supplied undeniable armour.
International politics, however, is not a debating society. Pakistan would be happy enough with having internationalised the Kashmir conflict, at least momentarily. But other than continuing to stridently oppose India’s actions, it has few levers available to it to push its cause further.
The next steps in the tripartite dynamic, then, are in the hands of neither Pakistan nor India but the Kashmiris. Street politics, especially, will dictate a great deal in the next months, particularly when (if?) mobile and internet communication is restored to the region.
The Kashmiri street has been a longstanding site of opposition to Indian rule, from the 1990s when funeral processions would draw hundreds of thousands, to the pellet-gunned protests of 2016-2017. Continued rallies, riots, protests and stone-pelting will constitute fodder for international journalists and Pakistan’s position that India is an illegitimate occupier of the Kashmiri people. Already in the tightly controlled environment of the last two weeks, Friday prayers have provided an opportunity for a besieged population to coordinate protesting activity—a sample of what may transpire once Kashmiris are allowed to text, call and message one another on Facebook.
The street can also prove a convenient halfway point between options deemed too nice or nasty. On the one hand, conciliatory words and boardroom politics seem to have delivered little. Usually in violent political conflicts, so-called ‘moderate’ actors are significant not because of the content of their ideological beliefs, but because they provide an option for the other side to ‘do business with’. India, however, has shown that it no longer wants to do business with such actors. By arresting the likes of Shah Faisal, let alone Mehbooba Mufti or Omar Abdullah, the futility of a Kashmiri strategy based on outreach to, and accommodation with, New Delhi has been thrown into stark relief.
On the other hand, the path of militancy and insurgency is also foolhardy, mainly because the devastating costs are borne almost entirely by the Kashmiri people. Even leaving aside Kashmiri desires, a return to the bloodbath of the early 1990s is unlikely: both India and Pakistan are different countries than they were then. India is better prepared to ensure such an insurgency does not erupt in the first place. Significant advances in military hardware and surveillance capabilities mean that Kashmir is simply too closely watched and tightly controlled for an insurgency to break out. Meanwhile, Pakistan—having been scarred by almost two decades of the war against jihadi outfits—is more hesitant to employ militant violence across the border than it once was.
This leaves street politics as the last domain available to Kashmiris to vent their considerable anger. How long and loud the Kashmiri is in the street, and how vicious and vindictive New Delhi is against him once he comes out, will determine the trajectory of this conflict in the coming months. The BJP Government will be hoping that the Kashmiri population resigns itself to its fate. Mass protests and their harsh containment, by contrast, will be a boon to Kashmiri separatists, Pakistan and China, and may even supply India’s otherwise supine opposition with fuel to take on Modi and Shah.
Ahsan I Butt is an Associate Professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a Nonresident Fellow at the Stimson Center. He is the author of Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy Against Separatists