Culminating in the “informal, closed-door meeting” of the United Nations Security Council on August 16, the past two weeks have been revealing. They have made apparent three different strands to the diplomatic challenge India faces following the bifurcation of Jammu
and Kashmir and the removal of Article 370. In some senses, this is the biggest such challenge created by a domestic event since the Pokhran II nuclear tests. Many of the lead actors are the same. However, India’s leverage in the international system is much greater than in 1998.
The first challenge is the civil liberties debate. Seen dispassionately, it represents a pressing dilemma for democratic governance – between lockdown conditions that ensure peace, and a relaxing of such conditions that makes space for incitement and violence. There is no easy “sweet spot” or “right moment”. A graded easing of administrative arrangements in the Valley has begun and schools and offices are due to re-open. With the advent of the apple harvesting season in a few weeks, political activism is, in any case, likely to decline. If the government can maintain stability till then, it would have passed a milestone. Summer 2020 is another story.
Predictably, the Narendra Modi government has been condemned by a familiar assortment of New York/London-based know-alls, fringe left activists, Pakistani state agents masquerading as aggrieved neutrals, and freelance self-determinists representing nothing but their bylines. Despite this, New Delhi is determined to stick to its timelines and not be rushed. The perception here is that woolly-headed idealists and theoreticians in the West’s “opinion factories” are completely out of touch with the realist politics unfolding in Asia, across several geographies.
The second strand relates to Kashmir per se – the historical dispute between India and Pakistan. As is obvious, Kashmir is now less of a priority for the global system than it once was. Pakistan desperately wants it to stay alive. Yet, for most major powers, there is little to gain by either wasting political capital in pressuring India on the Kashmir issue, or in promoting a quasi-independent, inevitably Islamist territory at the intersection of South and Central Asia. That may have been a Cold War fantasy; today it is a nightmare.
Apart from Pakistan, Kashmir is being kept on the table by two self-appointed third umpires – China and the United Kingdom. They were aligned at the Security Council meeting and outmanoeuvred only by the strident support India received from France and the United States, and some smaller countries. On its part, Russia took a careful middle path. It said the matter was bilateral and opposed internationalisation; on the Chinese demand for a collective statement after the meeting, it remained silent (neither supporting nor opposing).
What explains the UK’s conduct? There are two factors. For a start, the Pakistani-origin community’s role and influence in British electoral politics has made London extremely vulnerable to extra-territorial state manipulation. British diplomats talk airily of “our Kashmiri diaspora”, when in fact they refer to a population descended from
Mirpur (in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) that largely self-identifies with the Pakistani community in the UK, and with the Pakistani state and its strategic goals.
That aside, in what can only be described as unreconstructed atavism, sections of the British establishment seem to continue to believe that they have a role in “resolving” Kashmir. In reality, they are irrelevant and entirely unwelcome. Perfidious Albion has needlessly opened a new front. It will hear more on this from India in the coming days. The ugly violence outside the Indian High Commission in London on Independence Day, only reluctantly and weakly criticised by local authorities, has not helped.
The final strand relates to China. It has been extraordinarily hostile, even talking of “human rights violations” for probably the first time in diplomatic memory. This, while Hong Kong is in turmoil and Xinjiang is crowding its concentration camps. China would want Kashmir to continue to simmer as this is an inexpensive mechanism by which India is kept bogged down by Pakistan. In reimagining the contours of the Kashmir issue, testing international response, and getting tacit endorsement from a cross-section of countries – including in the Arab world – China realises India has made a significant advance. As an international cause, Kashmir is becoming yesterday’s news.
Even so, China’s principal concern is not Kashmir – it is Ladakh. As a standalone Union Territory, fully under Union government administration, Ladakh will get the attention it has long deserved. This could have profound implications. In the past 70 years, the Chinese have done more than any other power to change the ground situation in the erstwhile Kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir and its periphery. They have occupied the Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin. As part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, they have built infrastructure that is both dual-use and, in some cases, simply military-use in Gilgit-Baltistan. Separately, with the annexation and militarisation of Tibet and Xinjiang, they have converted historical buffer regions into armed frontiers.
In the coming decade, if India acts strategically in Ladakh and builds appropriate capacities, some of the Chinese investments and assumptions (as described above) could be at risk. As shrewd realists, quite unlike their intellectual auxiliaries in the West, the Chinese understand India is playing for the long term. They are alarmed not by today’s realities – but tomorrow’s possibilities.
The author is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation.
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