Where is Saint Vincent and the Grenadines? This is not a trick NatGeo quiz question at the end of which you get a prize to fly to the Anglo-Caribbean island, all expenses paid.
Instead, ask yourself why Prime Minister Narendra Modi was seen smiling cheerily at the aforesaid nation’s Prime Minister, Ralph Gonsalves, at a meeting of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) that took place in Noida Monday.
There are several answers, of course. First, India has taken over as chair of the Convention of Parties (CoP) of the UNCCD and PM Modi wanted to, again, put India on the world map. Second, any such international conference gives the PM the chance to talk about what he’s achieved in India so far (tree and forest cover enhanced by 0.8 million hectares since he came to power) and what he promises to do (restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030).
Third, with 8,000 participants present worldwide during the meeting, Modi knows he has the chance to mount a subliminal charm offensive: Forget Kashmir clampdown and Assam’s 19 lakh people excluded from NRC, see what else India is willing to do for you in the long run.
Under the radar
Michelle Bachelet, UN Human Rights Commissioner in Geneva, was clearly not listening. Her opening statement at the 42nd session of the Human Rights Council Monday night included both human rights violations in Kashmir as well as the NRC exclusions, which she said had caused “great uncertainty and anxiety.”
Notice that Bachelet was, actually, quite moderate in her statement – and Delhi seems prepared to live with it, notwithstanding some proforma noises it makes. In any case, the abrogation of Article 370 is a done-and-dusted deal. The Modi government isn’t going back on what it did one month ago.
Notice, too, that the suave diplomat Ajay Bisaria, who probably learnt how Soviet diplomats played off their diplomatic enemies during the Cold War with his mother’s milk and was most recently India’s high commissioner to Pakistan until he was expelled some weeks ago, has been taking in the Geneva air for the last fortnight or so since the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France.
Of course, Bisaria has been meeting all the small, medium and big players in the Human Rights Council – every vote counts. His message is Delhi’s message, something that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval recently told Indian and foreign journalists – including The New York Times, which has been quite critical of the clampdown on civil liberties in Kashmir.
It is certainly terrible that there is a communications lockdown in Jammu & Kashmir, and political leaders have been detained. But better a lockdown than more deaths in the Valley, they say.
Moreover, at the risk of introducing unsaid humour in the serious subject of civil liberties, internet consumption isn’t a fundamental right yet, and certainly not written in the Constitution.
The fact of the matter is that the Modi government is watching, very, very carefully, on an hourly basis, the goings-on in Kashmir. It is aware that the curtailment of civil liberties – putting sitting MPs like Farooq Abdullah as well as former chief ministers like Mehbooba Mufti and Omar Abdullah, as well as scores of other political leaders under house arrest – cannot be acceptable in any civilised democracy, especially not the world’s largest.
Supine opposition at home
But who is going to speak up against the Modi government? Who has the courage to separate the issues involved in the abrogation of Article 370 and those around the infringement of fundamental rights? Not one person in the main opposition Congress, which is all at sea between its interim president Sonia Gandhi, its former president Rahul Gandhi and several other satraps both old and new.
(Forget about Kashmir and the NRC, the Congress has no time to protest the incarceration of its own leader, P. Chidambaram.)
A supine opposition allows the Modi government to transfer a large part of the blame outside.
Angling for silence outside
There is absolutely no doubt that Pakistan is ready to stoke the fire inside the Kashmir Valley. This is manna from heaven for Pakistan. Imagine the opportunity to revive the agitation in Kashmir, like it did in the early 1990s, and convince its people that an insurrection is in order.
Can India afford trouble in Kashmir as well as in Assam? Even if the BJP gives citizenship to all Hindus on its NRC exclusion list through the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, Bangladesh is certainly not ready to take the remaining Muslims back.
Michelle Bachelet’s comments on the NRC seem to have come as a surprise to the Modi government – it was expecting to get a pasting on just Kashmir. Still, it will absorb the criticism for now, because all will depend on how things will unfold in the Kashmir Valley.
That’s why Modi is now angling for a meeting with President Donald Trump when he goes to the US later this month. Certainly, the PM will offer to buy some defence equipment as well as other heavy-duty stuff, in what seems like an attempt at buying America’s silence. In any case, Trump’s treatment of the Mexicans and their incarceration on the border are hardly the textbook treatment of human rights.
India will attempt to play off Bachelet with Trump as well as China’s Xi Jinping, who comes to Delhi-Varanasi next month – his own treatment of Uyghurs and Tibetans is for the world to see.
With foreign minister S. Jaishankar crisscrossing the world to explain how Kashmir is an internal matter, the home front is being forged in the fire of an ambitious diplomatic exercise.
Both in Kashmir and outside, the next few weeks will be crucial.