The world on Kashmir

Global concerns

Print edition : May 26, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a meeting in New Delhi on May 1. Photo: PTI

Army Chief General Bipin Rawat (left) arrives on a two-day visit to Kashmir on May 1. Photo: PTI

At the funeral of Naik Subedar Paramjit Singh near Amritsar on May 2. He was one of the two soldiers who were killed and whose bodies were mutilated by Pakistani soldiers. Photo: Prabhjot Gill/AP

The international community is worried that a conventional war over Kashmir could break out if India and Pakistan do not return to the discussion table soon.

It has been some time since international heads of state have offered to mediate on the Kashmir dispute during official visits to the country. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan no doubt took New Delhi by surprise when he politely suggested in an interview the need for India and Pakistan to calm down the volatile situation in Kashmir and offered his good offices to mediate between them. Erdogan fancies himself as the pre-eminent leader of the Muslim world. He has been outspoken about the treatment of Muslim minorities in other countries. After the Israeli military attack on Gaza in 2016, Ankara chose to downgrade the close political and military relations it had with Tel Aviv.

After the violence in the Valley dramatically escalated in the middle of last year, the Kashmir issue once again cropped up on the international radar. The violence in Afghanistan and West Asia had virtually put the Kashmir issue on the back burner after the end of the Cold War. It was after the Narendra Modi government took charge and implemented its hard-line policies towards Pakistan that the issue rebounded into the international spotlight. Since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) came to power, the Kashmir Valley has erupted in violence, and the border between the two countries has never been so volatile in decades as it is now. More Indian soldiers and civilians have been killed in the three years of NDA rule than in the previous United Progressive Alliance regime.

United States President Donald Trump had said on the campaign trail that if elected he would use his office to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. He reiterated this offer soon after moving into the White House. His Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated recently that the U.S. “would try and find its place” to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan.

The U.N. and the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) have also asked for a speedy solution to the conflict as it poses a serious threat to regional peace and security. India came in for criticism from many countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva held in the first week of May on its handling of human rights issues, particularly in Kashmir. There were demands from some countries that India should repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is in force in Kashmir. The U.S. was one among them.

Strong-arm tactics

The international community views Kashmir as a potential nuclear flashpoint. A spate of recent editorials and reports in the Western media generally made the point that it would be a mistake for their governments to ignore the current goings-on in Kashmir. China has said that the tense standoff between India and Pakistan and the rise in terrorist incidents pose a threat to its grand infrastructure building plans for the South Asian region.

China, which has been an all-weather ally of Pakistan, has so far stood for resolution of the Kashmir dispute bilaterally between New Delhi and Islamabad. The liberal media in the U.S., represented by establishment newspapers like T he N ew Y ork T imes and The Washington Post, have been regularly carrying articles and editorials that are increasingly critical of India’s strong-arm tactics in dealing with civilian protests in Kashmir. The pictures of Indian security forces shooting at young protesters with pellet guns and the use of human shields by the Army have gone viral.

India’s efforts to conflate civilian uprisings with terror, as Israel does, do not cut much ice with the international community. Israel, for the foreseeable future, will have the protection of the U.S. even as it transgresses international law and puts in place an apartheid system of government. Under the Trump dispensation, there is no such guarantee for India despite New Delhi being prepared to play the role of America’s junior partner in the region. The fact that Trump has not yet bothered to send a formal invitation to Modi to visit Washington is illustrative of the new relationship. Trump has already met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and extended invitations to controversial leaders such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

This Indian government, like its predecessors, has reacted to the recent offers of international mediation in the time-honoured fashion of insisting that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. Pakistan, not surprisingly, was quick to accept Erdogan’s offer. Islamabad has been loudly demanding this, especially since the Modi government has refused to seriously engage with it and after the violence in the Kashmir Valley escalated to serious levels. The last time the Valley witnessed such a level of violence was in the early 1990s.

Erdogan said in a television interview during his New Delhi visit that more civilian deaths should be avoided in the Kashmir Valley. “By having a multilateral dialogue, [in which] we can be involved, we can seek to settle the issue, once and for all,” Erdogan said. He vouched for the good intentions of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, saying that he had had long discussions with him on the Kashmir issue. Erdogan also said that settling the Kashmir dispute and improving Pakistan’s economy were the two major priorities for Sharif.

According to official Indian sources, Modi unequivocally told Erdogan during their meeting that Kashmir was a “bilateral issue” and that the main problem there was related to “international terrorism”. He told the Turkish President that India had been a victim of “state-sponsored terrorism” for the last four decades. After the talks, the External Affairs Ministry spokesman reiterated India’s position that all contentious issues between India and Pakistan had to be resolved bilaterally according to the Shimla Agreement. Under the agreement, the two sides agreed to resolve the dispute bilaterally.

Modi told the media that he had had an extensive discussion with Erdogan on the Kashmir issue. He stressed that both sides had agreed “that no intent or goal, no reason or rationale can validate terrorism”. Erdogan has no reason to disagree with this formulation, as he is himself battling Kurdish separatism and Daesh (Islamic State) terrorism. He has unleashed the full might of the powerful Turkish army against the Kurds in his country and their compatriots in Syria. His government has not thought twice before riding roughshod over civil liberties and human rights as it continues its brutal war.

LoC tensions

The Turkish President’s visit coincided with two other related developments. There was a sudden flare-up along the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian Army alleged that the Pakistan Army breached the LoC and killed and mutilated two Indian soldiers. The Pakistani side strongly denied the charges and asked the Indian military to provide “actionable evidence”.

Tensions along the LoC flared up after the September 2016 attack on the military base in Uri, which left 18 Indian soldiers dead. The Indian Army claimed to have conducted a “surgical strike” across the LoC in retaliation. Cross-border firing and shelling surged for more than two months and soldiers and civilians on both sides of the border were killed.

After the deaths of the two soldiers in the first week of May, the Army said that it would respond militarily at a time and place of its own choosing. Defence Minister Arun Jaitley has vowed that the armed forces will “respond appropriately”. After the surgical strikes, India announced that it had given up the policy “of strategic restraint” vis -a-vis Pakistan. Pakistan’s Director General of Military Operations, Maj. Gen. Shahid Shamshad Mirza, has warned that any attack by Indian forces “shall be appropriately responded to, at a time and place of our own choosing”.

The other, more positive, development was the visit of the industrialist Sajjan Jindal to Islamabad. The businessman, known for his proximity to Modi, had a long meeting with Sharif. His visit was shrouded in secrecy. His last meeting with Sharif, in 2015, had led to a very brief period of bonhomie between leaders of both countries. Modi had made an unscheduled visit to meet with Sharif in December 2015, raising hopes that talks between the two countries would resume. It has been speculated that Jindal’s visit was in some way connected with yet another effort to get stalled talks moving.

Both Sharif and Modi are due to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in June. There is some talk that the two leaders may agree to meet on the sidelines of the summit. India has been rebuffing Pakistan’s attempts to get the bilateral talks restarted. Pakistan’s de facto Foreign Minister, Sartaj Aziz, was in Amritsar for the “Heart of Asia” summit in December last year in an effort to engage with his Indian counterpart. He was snubbed by the Indian Foreign Office. India has said that it is willing to talk on terrorism-related issues but not specifically on the Kashmir issue.

Relations now have ebbed to such a low that the Indian government has suspended all sporting contacts with Pakistan after the killing of the two soldiers. A group of 50 Pakistani children aged between 11 and 15 who came on May 1 on an exchange visit were sent back the next day.

Pakistan Army vs Sharif

The Pakistan Army’s leadership is not on the same page with Sharif on many issues, including meaningful talks with India, at this juncture. Its proximity with non-state actors is well established. Sharif was forced to sack his Information Minister and another of his close advisers after the Army held them guilty of leaking information to the media about the security forces being uncomfortably close to the so-called “good militants” whose main focus is the struggle in Kashmir.

As the Pakistani writer Hanif Mohammed wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times: “Most countries have an army, but in Pakistan it is the army that has a country, goes the saying.” Many political party leaders, especially those in the opposition, are steadfast in their loyalty to the Army, claiming that it can do no wrong. Unfortunately, similar hyper-nationalist feelings seem to be permeating across the border. The current ruling dispensation in India characterises all those questioning the government’s policies and the Indian Army’s actions in conflict zones as anti-national.

Missile race

Meanwhile, the missile and nuclear race between the two countries continues apace. India announced the completion of its “nuclear triad”, or the ability to launch nuclear weapons from land, air and sea, last year. In the beginning of the year, Pakistan staged missile tests of its own, including the underwater launch of a medium-range cruise missile. The Pakistani military claimed that the test was “in response” to the nuclear strategies being adopted in the neighbourhood. After the launch of the Babur cruise missile, Pakistan claimed that it now had second strike capability. The country also tested a nuclear-capable intermediate range missile with a range of 2,200 kilometres earlier in the year. This was been in response to India’s testing of Agni-V and a submarine-launched missile, both nuclear-capable.

The Indian Army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, said after taking over in December 2016 that India was ready and capable of fighting a “two-front war” with both Pakistan and China. He declared that the Army had adopted the “Cold Start” military doctrine, which gives the military the ability to mobilise resources and invade a neighbouring country within 48 hours. The Indian Army is vastly superior to the Pakistan Army in size and capabilities, but unfortunately it is the nuclear parity between the two countries that makes a military conflict not only foolhardy but unthinkable. Pakistani officials have strongly hinted that they would resort to the use of nuclear weapons if their country was invaded.

The danger of a conventional war breaking out over Kashmir is real if the two sides do not start talking soon. The fear in the international community is that such a war has the potential to lead to a nuclear holocaust affecting the globe.

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