The Narendra Modi government has won a big diplomatic victory by persuading US ambassador Kenneth Juster to travel as part of a 15-member team of envoys to Jammu and Kashmir this week, even if its other good friend France hid behind the European Union decision not to go on the guided tour.
Significantly, the Brazilian ambassador to India, Andre Aranha Correa do Lago, didn’t travel to Srinagar although his name was on the list. Perhaps he cited his full schedule as an excuse; his president, Jair Bolsonaro is coming to Delhi this 26 January as chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations commemorating 70 years of the Constitution.
So, Juster was in the company of ambassadors from Niger (whose main opposition leader is in jail, from where he intends to run for the presidential election later this year), Togo (better known for ivory poaching) and Nigeria (where journalists say they are under attack for exposing the misdeeds of President Muhammadu Buhari).
Diplomats from Vietnam, Philippines and South Korea, allies of the US, also went. So did Norway. Actually, Norway could hardly refuse an invite by the Modi government, considering its former prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik had met separatist Hurriyat leaders Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Mirwaiz Umar Farooq in December 2018. It was left to Norwegian PM Erna Solberg to insist, when she came to Delhi last year, that her country would only mediate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan if asked.
Mirwaiz, under house arrest since the dilution of Article 370 on 5 August, had tweeted about his meeting with Bondevik:
Fruitful meeting of JRL with Mr Kjell Magne Bondevik,Ex Prime Minister of Norway. As Norway is known to play a constructive role in conflict resolution across the globe urged Mr Bondevik to help in ending the daily killings and urgent resolution of the festering Kashmir dispute pic.twitter.com/gUWEUKcUF8
— Mirwaiz Umar Farooq (@MirwaizKashmir) November 23, 2018
Certainly, the visit by ‘Juster & Others’ is an attempt by the Modi government to buy time from the world community. As the incarceration of three former chief ministers enters its sixth month, Delhi has been increasingly hard put to justify what it is that keeps them locked.
On Delhi’s part, there’s a certain delicious irony in taking representatives of the so-called free world, such as the US and Norway, to Kashmir. The US has held two critical hearings on Kashmir in the Congress, in response to which External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar cancelled a meeting with the US House of Representatives because legislator Pramila Jayapal had threatened to crash the meeting.
The guided tour to Kashmir is an extension of this muscularity: You want to see the situation in the Valley, you have to come with us. You won’t be allowed to go on your own. We will show you what you need to see.
Certainly, the Modi government has won this round. Whatever the US ambassador or his government feels and thinks after this, they will be hard put to explain why Juster allowed himself to be shepherded around in the company of men whose nations are hardly shining examples of democratic traditions.
Even if the US points out that Juster could have hardly refused an invite by the government, especially if the call came from a senior official. Fact is, the deed is done.
Hum Bhi Dekhenge
The subliminal message to the rest of India and the world is that any criticism on Kashmir, henceforth, is more or less irrelevant. Even the US is now complicit.
There’s a second message for the Kashmiris: The world has no time to listen to your complaints of human rights violations. India’s political class forgot you some time ago and is, in any case, now distracted by protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia Islamia and elsewhere.
Welcome, 2020. The Modi government’s willingness to exercise leverage in the show of power is a brutal reminder in the midst of candlelight gatherings singing Faiz Ahmed Faiz and “Hum Dekhenge” that there are two sides to every story.
By sending Kenneth Juster & Others to Kashmir, the Modi government is simply saying: Hum bhi dekhenge. We shall also see.