If there’s one individual who should be happy with the Modi government’s actions on Kashmir, that must be Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. For, the BJP-led Indian government has managed to do what Islamabad has been striving for many years — to internationalise the Kashmir dispute.
First, it was the United States’ president Donald Trump, who after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Imran Khan, said he was ‘good friends’ with both and offered to mediate to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Indian foreign ministry officials reacted indignantly saying it was a bilateral issue. But it cut no ice with Trump. He has offered to defuse the Kashmir dispute at least twice after New Delhi’s categorical no.
Trump is widely acknowledged to be unpredictable and has a track record of making controversial statements. So, the first time he made the Kashmir offer, most dismissed it as another of his big-mouthed offerings. What attracted attention was when Trump persisted with his offer despite official Indian objection.
Either Trump did not care what New Delhi said on the subject, or he was doing it to please his other ally, Imran Khan. A third possibility is Kashmir may have come up during his talk with Modi.
Earlier this week, the Modi government rolled the red carpet for a 23-member European Union delegation on a “private visit” to Kashmir. Though it was organised by a private NGO, close to the Indian establishment, based in Europe by facilitating the EU team’s visit, the Modi government managed to “internationalise” the issue despite official protestations to the contrary.
Kashmir, which has remained under an unofficial, but very real siege since August first week when the central government stripped it of its special status, has been out of bounds for mainline political parties, top politicians and journalists. The state which has now been divided into two and demoted to the status of a union territory has attracted worldwide attention.
In this context, for the Modi government to allow politically sympathetic right-wing EU members of parliament into Srinagar has raised eyebrows. Not just that, this has given an opportunity for EU nationals to comment on Kashmir and come to their own conclusions about the actions of the Modi government.
The intention of the central government may have been to muster some sort of worldwide support for its actions on Kashmir, but willy-nilly it has managed to push the issue into the international arena. While one MP backed New Delhi’s decision on the grounds that it could defeat terrorist groups working from across the border in Pakistan, another MP commented “out of line” that it was time for the Indian government to allow its citizens to access the beleaguered region.
And, to top it, visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the existing situation in Kashmir cannot continue for long, implying that the siege needed to be lifted and normal life had to return there.
Merkel’s comments reflect a growing concern in Europe and the United States about the virtual withdrawal of basic freedoms in Kashmir including the absence of communication links and the reported fear of citizens in carrying out even mundane day-to-day activities.
The ministry of external affairs in defiance of criticism in letting foreigners enter Kashmir, has said there would be more visits like that of the EU delegation.
While the merits of “internationalising” per se are open to debate, the issue is the Modi government has all but altered India’s long-held policy of treating the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral issue with Pakistan. Any resolution to the dispute, therefore, has to be the outcome of a bilateral engagement with Islamabad with no third party involvement, as per this policy.
The opening up of Kashmir to foreigners, while diluting India’s policy until now, takes the dispute to another dimension — where other countries, interest groups and others engage in a discourse which is what Pakistan has wanted all these years.
In fact, one of the pet peeves of India’s right-wing now in power is that former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru internationalised the issue by approaching the United Nations in the tumultuous days after the country became independent in 1947. The Nehru government approached the United Nations asking for its intervention when irregular troops backed by Pakistan invaded Kashmir. Eventually, Indian troops managed to beat back the invaders, but a portion of the region was captured by Pakistan.
Since January 1949, the UN has had a token peacekeeping presence in both India and Pakistan — administered parts of Kashmir. According to the UN website as in August 2019, there were 116 international personnel including 44 peacekeeping troops. On August 19, a fortnight after the withdrawal of special status, the UN Security Council discussed the issue for the first time since the previous meeting on Kashmir in 1965.
In other words, the removal of special status to the region and changing the state to a union territory (meaning direct rule from Delhi) have provided new ammunition not only to Pakistan but also to China to raise the Kashmir issue internationally.
In addition, the Modi government’s change in policy in allowing entry of carefully vetted, pro-government foreigners into Kashmir, takes the dispute to uncharted territory – reflecting the establishment’s eagerness to seek international understanding while wanting to remain insulated to internal opprobrium.