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EFSAS Commentary

India seems to dominate the Jammu & Kashmir narrative on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly


An inflamed, bright red sidelight that played out on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York this week was the diplomatic wrangling between India and Pakistan over the situation in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). Even though the leaders of the two countries are yet to address the UNGA and are slated to do so later today, the matter has thus far overshadowed other critical issues like the Iran–Saudi Arabia crisis that were expected to hog the limelight during the current UNGA session.

The direction in which the India–Pakistan confabulation was heading became strikingly evident at the first major event on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s week-long calendar in the United States (US), the spectacular ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston on 22 September. In an unmistakable demonstration of India’s soft power, fifty thousand fervent Indians assembled in a stadium to welcome Modi to the US. That in itself was not novel or remarkable. Modi has over the last five years been gracing such community events on several of his visits abroad. The difference this time was the presence and active participation of US President Donald Trump as well as several other US dignitaries at the event. Both leaders in their respective addresses to the audience sang praises for each other and articulated the closeness of relations that they shared as individuals, and as nations. Modi’s description of Trump as warm, friendly, accessible, energetic and full of wit”, and his assertion that “India has a true friend in the White House”, were reciprocated by Trump’s words, “You [India] have never had a better friend as president as President Donald Trump… I'm so thrilled to be here in Texas with one of America's greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends, Prime Minister Modi of India… Under PM Modi’s leadership, the world is witnessing a strong, sovereign republic of India”.

Beyond these expansive endorsements of each other, the two leaders used the event to send their own respective messages loud and clear. With his focus on next year’s presidential elections, and with the knowledge that at the last elections 77% of the four million strong Indian – American community had voted for his rival Hillary Clinton, Trump saw the event as an opportunity to swing a sizeable proportion of the four million people onto his side on the back of a nudge by Modi, who commands tremendous respect and admiration among expatriate Indians. Conscious of this, Modi cleverly used the occasion to get Trump’s implied concurrence on his decision to withdraw the autonomy enjoyed by Indian Administered J&K till August 5 this year, stressing in his speech that the dilution of Article 370 of the Indian constitution was an internal matter of India that would prove beneficial for the future of J&K. Referring to Pakistan’s objections on the matter, Modi said, “Some people who cannot manage their own country have a problem with what we are doing. These people have made hatred their main policy towards India and are supporters of terrorism and it is known to everyone”. He also smartly drew in the US into the equation by questioning, “Whether it is the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attack (in the US) or the 26/11 (November 2008, Mumbai) attacks in India, where were the plotters of these attacks found?” To assuage any concerns that the US dignitaries in attendance, and the world at large, may have had following India’s moves on J&K, Modi used the occasion to assert in multiple Indian languages that “all is well” in India. The tone for the UNGA had been set.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan entered the fray the day after the Houston event by holding a bilateral meeting with Trump. Prior to that meeting, Khan had participated in an event organized by the think tank Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in which he inadvertently succeeded in painting a very sorry account of where his country stood. The questions addressed to Khan at the event inter alia pertained to why Pakistan was repeatedly being compelled to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail it out of crippling financial crises;  former US defense secretary James Mattis’ remark that he considered Pakistan to be “the most dangerous” among all countries that he had dealt with; the recently abandoned talks between the US and the Taliban; the future of Pakistan's troubled relationship with India; the dismal state of women’s and human rights in Pakistan; and how Pakistan reconciles its economic relationship with China with the treatment of minority Muslims by the Chinese government. In his responses Khan underlined the “inability of successive governments to manage our economy” as the reason for the frequent knocks on the doors of the IMF. He admitted to and blamed the training of the Al Qaeda and the Taliban by Pakistan’s Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which led to a longer term linkage between them, for radicalization in Pakistan. Khan lamented that despite its role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table with the US, the latter did not even deem it necessary to inform Pakistan before calling off the talks, and Khan learnt of the decision only in the newspapers. On relations with India, he yet again brought up the bogey of a potential nuclear war by saying that when two nuclear-armed countries engage in conflict, “anything can happen in such situations”. Khan dismissed the issue of the deplorable state of minority and women’s rights in Pakistan by claiming that “My concept of Pakistan is where our minorities are equal citizens and the rights of women and weaker sections are protected”. Khan, quite hypocritically given his keen interest in the fate minorities in India, chose to feign ignorance on China’s ill-treatment of its minorities by claiming, quite unbelievably, that he did know much about the matter as he had “enough on his plate” with issues concerning the economy and developments on his country’s Afghanistan, Iran and India frontiers.

Having set this tenor prior to his meeting with Trump, Khan did not fare much better at the meeting. Aiming to gain Trump’s attention by beginning the conversation on an issue in which the US had a direct interest, Khan spoke of the need for stability in Afghanistan. To ensure continuation of Pakistan’s relevance to the US, he strongly advocated resumption of talks with the Taliban. He received a disheartening “we’ll see” from Trump in response. Graduating to the core of his pleas to Trump, Khan described the overbearing restrictions placed by India in J&K as “a siege” and warned that the “crisis is going to get much bigger”. He appealed to Trump by saying that “The most powerful country in the world has a responsibility”. Trump played his cards well by keeping the door for possible Pakistani assistance in dealing with the Taliban ajar, while also taking adequate care to not jeopardize his much more important relationship with India. The first part of his response that he would “certainly” help mediate between India and Pakistan was aimed at keeping his Pakistani interlocutor interested, as was his vague comment that everyone must be treated well in Kashmir. These were intended to provide Khan some fodder to carry back home to appease his agitated domestic audience. The second part spelt out that any mediation would only happen if both the Indian and Pakistani governments asked for it. Both Trump and Khan are acutely aware of New Delhi’s position against any third party intervention in Kashmir.   

Modi also had a bilateral meeting with Trump on 24 September. A statement issued by the White House after the meeting brought out the huge disparity in the scope and content of the deliberations that Trump had with Modi as compared to Khan. It revealed that discussion mainly focused on the bilateral trade and issues related to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, and added that Trump had noted good progress on defense and security cooperation. Both leaders also expressed concern about the situation in Afghanistan. On Pakistan and Kashmir, the statement mentioned that “Additionally, the President encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan and fulfill his promise to better the lives of the Kashmiri people”.

At the joint press conference after the talks, Modi said of Trump, He’s definitely my friend, but he is also a friend of India”. Trump described his chemistry with Modi with the phrase “as good as it can get”. He added, “I have great respect, I have great admiration and I really like him, that’s another thing”. On J&K, Trump refrained from any mention of mediation and urged Modi and Khan to find a solution. He said, “I really believe that Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan will get along when they get to know each other. I think a lot of good things will come from that meeting... it will be great if they can work out something on Kashmir”.

Despite Trump’s assessment that Modi and Khan will get along well, the possibility of them shaking hands and sitting across the table appear dim at the moment. Pakistan has, of late, been saying that it would not talk to India till the vice-like clampdown in Kashmir is lifted. There has been no indication from India that it is considering doing so in the immediate future. India’s position against any engagement with Pakistan was articulated eloquently by Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar at a program at the Asia Society in New York. He underscored that while India does not have a problem in talking to Pakistan, it certainly has serious reservations about restarting dialogue with “Terroristan”. He urged Pakistan to accept that the “model which they have built for themselves, no longer works. That you cannot, in this day and age, conduct policy using terrorism as a legitimate instrument of statecraft. I think that’s at the heart of the issue”. On Pakistan’s shrill reaction to India’s 5 August moves in J&K, Jaishankar asserted that Pakistan is stressed because it fears that its “investment” of 70 years on terrorism would be undercut if India’s policy succeeds. He said, “So theirs is today a reaction of anger, of frustration in many ways, because you have built an entire industry over a long period of time. There is a fundamental issue there which they need to understand and we need to encourage them to do - that is to move away from terrorism”.

While the speeches of Modi and Khan are yet to be delivered at the UNGA, the reactions to which would enable a final conclusion on how Pakistan’s game plan to exploit the occasion that the UNGA presented to internationalize the J&K-issue played out, at the current stage it can fairly be ventured that Pakistan achieved scant little success. A combination of factors contributed to Pakistan’s ineffectiveness. Political instability and economic insecurity within Pakistan compounded by its near-total dependence on other countries, particularly China, for its very survival have taken the sheen off whatever little diplomatic clout the country possessed. Widespread and ever-increasing concern and fear in the international community over Pakistan’s reliance on terrorism as an instrument of State policy has also eroded its credibility and acceptability substantially.

India’s stock, on the other hand, is high. Its traditional standing in the international domain as a responsible member of the community, its economic prowess and emergence as an attractive destination for business and investments, and the effectiveness of its small but efficient diplomatic corps, have all contributed to this. But above all, India’s democracy that lends legitimacy to its words and actions contrasts sharply with the dominance of the Pakistani military establishment over the country’s polity.

Little wonder then that after all his efforts on the sidelines of the UNGA, Imran Khan has been left to rue the lack of response to his campaign to bring international pressure to bear on India over J&K. Of the main speakers at the UNGA, only Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke of Kashmir. Even he, while calling for lifting of restrictions in J&K, merely suggested that “In order for the Kashmiri people to look at a safe future together with their Pakistani and Indian neighbors, it is imperative to solve the problem through dialogue and on the basis of justice and equity, but not through collision”. This too fell far short of Pakistan’s expectations.

It came as no surprise, therefore, that Khan admitted failure and bewailed on 24 September that “To be absolutely frank, I am a bit disappointed by the international community. There is no pressure on Narendra Modi to lift the siege (in J&K)”.