As the Indian state held Kashmir in a vice-like grip in the past two months, the murmurs of international protest appeared to grow louder. Along with the stock response of human rights organisations based in the global North, a handful of politicians in the West, including US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, have condemned India’s actions in the region. The Western media, which has never met a non-Western secessionist movement that it did not like, has responded in a predictable vein, with The New York Times editorial board, for instance, calling for the United Nations to intervene in the matter. The Washington Post and The Guardian have echoed this stance.
But in reality, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah managed global opinion because the criticism seemed largely boiler-plate.
This is because powerful Western nations as well as venerated Western media organisations like The New York Times have zero authority in criticising the actions of the Indian state in Kashmir.
World record no different
The general ignorance, in press and Western policy circles alike, about the complexity of the Kashmir issue, only compounds this lack of Western moral authority to pontificate on Kashmir. To make this point is not to defend the BJP-led government’s actions of stripping Kashmir of its autonomous status, arresting scores of Kashmiris, including children as young as 9 and 11, and bringing life to a complete standstill in the region.
Yet, the West’s own record is in principle no different from the actions of the Indian state. Throughout its history, the West has repeatedly sought to remake the world through extreme, barbaric violence to suit its own needs, appetites, and interests – a bitter lesson that non-Western societies have not forgotten. This holds as true for the longer arc of Western colonialism as it does for post-second World War initiatives of Western aggression, which are typically masked behind the fig leaf of ‘humanitarian intervention’ or hypocritical doctrines like ‘responsibility to protect’ that seek to justify the violation of international law by the West in invading sovereign nations.
Israel’s attacks to US ‘War on Terror’
On 18 July 2014, in the wake of Israel-Palestine tensions stemming from the killing of Israeli teenagers by Hamas, Israel launched a full-fledged military blitzkrieg against the Palestinians in Gaza. In the one-sided conflict that followed, the Palestinians lost over 2,200 people most of whom were civilians, and nearly 500 children. Israeli casualties, in contrast, amounted to six civilians and 64 soldiers.
The US and Canada strongly backed Israel. The rest of the Western world, as indeed the UN, shied away from unequivocally condemning Israel’s egregiously disproportionate response, creating a false equivalence between the crimes committed by both sides. The Western media was, for the most part, no better in its response. The New York Times even rewrote a headline from “Four Young Boys Killed Playing on Gaza Beach,” to “Boys Drawn to Gaza Beach, and Into Center of Mideast Strife.”
Neither the US nor the Western media was doing anything it had not done before. From the US invasion of Iraq in 1991 in the First Gulf War to the practice of ‘extraordinary rendition’ in the context of the War on Terror, in which US allies torture suspects on their own soil on command from the US, the West is guilty of a deep hypocrisy in professing any commitment to human rights, respect for sovereignty, or support for self-determination. The gullibility of US media in swallowing the official line for the invasion of Iraq only underscores its complicity in the devastation of the lives of large numbers of Iraqis.
Narendra Modi has clearly made the decision of scrapping the special status to Kashmir for the sake of accumulating domestic political capital, as a remedial measure for disastrous economic policies. But he has also cannily anticipated the measure of international political response to his government’s actions. For all the abiding problems Western investors face in India, no Western nation wants to lose Indian markets by alienating any Indian government. The growing clout of Indians abroad, a constituency that the BJP has nurtured, has also played a vital role in keeping a check on adverse comments.
At a historical moment that can only be described as pessimistic, global enthusiasm for supporting and nurturing secessionist movements is generally at a low. The record of Kashmiri terrorism, whether homegrown or emanating from Pakistani-based groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba that are supported by Pakistani intelligence services, does the cause of Kashmiri azadi or freedom no favours either. Little wonder, then, that on Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, the Indian Prime Minister with characteristic lack of irony wrote an op-ed for The New York Times titled “Why India and the World Need Gandhi”.
A divide in the West
There is also one crucial difference between the reaction of the West to Delhi’s actions in Kashmir now to that in the 1990s – when it had drawn a unified chorus of protest from Western capitals and Western media. That was the time the United States took its role of being the ‘global police’ quite seriously. This time around, there is a distinct disjunct between the reactions of global leaders and the media, a nuance that seems to have been lost on most commentators on the issue.
Modi knows that any response from Western politicians to the Kashmir imbroglio will likely be theatre meant for domestic consumption. India has always maintained that Kashmir is an integral part of India, at most a disputed territory, neither an occupied region nor a colonised nation, contrary to the nomenclature employed by much of the world media.
Confederacy of strongmen
India’s consistent stand on Kashmir gives Western politicians and parties a convenient pretext to hedge their responses. Both Britain and the US, countries where politicians have expressed concerns about Kashmir, have had an especially poor record in recent times of excluding immigrants and vilifying minorities. While the UK post-Brexit seeks to impose limits on all types of immigration to the UK, Donald Trump administration’s policy has sought to bar Muslims from various countries from entering the US.
China’s recent statement that Kashmir is a bilateral issue walks back its earlier public expression of concern at India’s actions. China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population, similar in troubling ways to what India is now doing to Muslims in Assam, undermines its criticism anyway. The so-called Muslim world, whether Saudi Arabia or Turkey, appears least interested in internationally politicising the Kashmir issue. And from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin, Trump to Xi Jinping, the confederacy of authoritarian strongmen seem to find in Modi a kindred spirit.
Media criticism fits Modi’s rhetoric of being unfairly vilified by a hypocritical and duplicitous press, a claim that is readily lapped up by his ardent followers. The uncomfortable truth is that on Kashmir, Western politicians and Western media alike have no moral footing on which to level any accusation against India.
The author is an Associate Professor at the Santa Clara University. Views are personal.