Despite an unprecedented lock-down in Kashmir, the international community is largely supportive

by Saikat Datta

On August 15, India’s 72nd independence day, a massive crowd of people, many waving Pakistani or Kashmiri flags, gathered outside the Indian High Commission in London to protest against the Indian government’s measures to prevent protests in Kashmir.

As the crowd got out of hand and the British authorities pushed the panic button, India pressed on in a battle of wits and strategy that it is clearly winning.

On August 5 the Narendra Modi government had revoked Article 370, a constitutional provision that had given a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Among other things, it had allowed India’s only Muslim-majority state to pass its own laws, have a separate flag and also prevent other Indians from buying land in the state.

Three days after the protests in London, India lodged a complaint with the British authorities. This was timed with leaked reports that the UK had sided with the Pakistani and Chinese delegations in a Security Council meeting to discuss the Kashmir issue. The British reacted with alacrity, and even issued a formal statement denying that the British delegation at the UN had agreed with the Pakistani or Chinese delegation and their position on Kashmir. Privately, British diplomats in New Delhi reached out to key counterparts not only to deny the reports from the UN in New York, but also to assure their understanding of India’s sensitivities.

Major Diplomatic Victory

“The media back home is reporting a major crisis in Kashmir, but [my] government is ignoring the story,” a senior Western diplomat based told Asia Times. “They want to reassure New Delhi that they understand why it has made such a move.”

A number of diplomats from other key Western nations Asia Times spoke to echoed his sentiments.

The reasons for this unprecedented international support for India’s move are manifold and took years to build up.

While occasional op-eds would make a case for India vacating Kashmir, New Delhi has been building up its own case for decades. The attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York on September 9, 2001, came as a major boost to Indian diplomatic efforts.

As the US began to prepare for operations in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Indian intelligence prepared briefs on Pakistan and its role for their US counterparts. It also began to build a case that Pakistan-based terror groups were linked to the same support infrastructure that was propping up the Taliban in Kabul.

Terror attacks in India would be used as a tool to isolate Pakistan, which was the principal backer for armed groups operating in Kashmir, and other separatist elements like the Hurriyat Conference. The terror attack by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba on Mumbai on November 26, 2008 came as a major boost to India’s case.

Currently, Pakistan’s economic crisis and the threat of being blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has severely limited its options. Any perceived action by Pakistan to create a disturbance in Kashmir can have severe economic repercussions when the FATF meets in October to make a decision on black-listing.

That leaves Pakistan’s all-weather ally, China, to try and raise the issues. But Beijing has been uncharacteristically quiet after raising this initially. “China has its problems with the Uighurs and Hong Kong. They don’t want to get into another crisis and Kashmir is a low priority for them,” a senior Indian government security analyst told Asia Times.

The other major reason for the world to side with India on Kashmir is the near US$3 trillion economy that India commands at a time when global headwinds show considerable stress in the international financial system. India’s growing economic clout has seen it forge relationships that were unheard of a decade ago.

The best example for this comes from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has traditionally sided with Pakistan on Kashmir. The Arab nations within the OIC have been largely supportive of India’s position on Kashmir. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia called it an “internal affair” while the UAE just bestowed its highest civilian award, the “Order of Zayed,” on Prime Minister Modi last week. Bahrain conferred the “King Hamad Order of the Renaissance” on Modi soon after. Clearly, key members of the OIC had abandoned their traditional position on Kashmir.

As far as the US, UK, Germany and France were concerned, none of them were keen to push India on Kashmir. President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate between India and Pakistan was hastily withdrawn after India’s protest. In fact, it precipitated India’s decision to revoke Article 370 before the US could move further. France is in the middle of supplying Rafale fighter jets to India in a deal that is upwards of US$ 11 billion. It is hoping to land a bigger deal for a 120 fighter jets.

That left Russia, an Indian ally for decades, and Japan, a country that had in the past called out India’s record of human rights abuses in Kashmir. While Russia was the first country to issue a formal statement supporting India, Japan under prime minister Shinzo Abe has been much closer to India than ever before. Abe’s personal relationship with Modi has been a key factor. With major Western, Islamic and Asian powers behind India, the international community also fell in line even as the lock-down in Kashmir continued for the 22nd day.

No Dead Bodies

A series of wide-spread protests in Kashmir after the death of a militant commander called Burhan Wani in 2016 prepared Indian security forces for any fallout from the decision taken on August 5. As the world focused on demonstrations in Hong Kong, Indian security officials worked with the national security adviser, Ajit Doval, an intelligence veteran with years of experience dealing with Kashmir, to secure the lock-down.

It was clear that India was ready to keep people locked down, rather than have dead bodies from ensuing protests on the streets of Kashmir. Since the armed insurgency erupted in 1990, more than 45,000 people have been killed in terror attacks or operations by security forces.

A communications blackout ensured that groups could not come together to protest against the decision. The federal government also used section 144 of the criminal procedure code, which bars any group of five or more people from congregating in public. “This was not a curfew but a restriction,” a senior Indian police official from Kashmir told Asia Times. “This was to ensure that people are free to move around, but not in groups. So this blunted any criticism that could have risen if the population was under virtual arrest.”

Nevertheless, the unprecedented lock-down is going to pose challenges on a long-term basis. Just before the the decision was announced, India moved nearly 30,000 additional federal policemen to the state. However, there is no infrastructure to host the additional troops for a long time. “This will become a logistical nightmare soon,” the Indian police official said. “We don’t know how long we can continue to host so many troops without adequate bunkers, food and supplies.”

Another problem is the political vacuum in the state after several key local leaders, including two former chief ministers of the state, were put under preventive detention. They were arrested to ensure they could not organise political rallies protesting the revocation of Article 370.

The lock down is building a major economic crisis as the chief sources of revenue for the state remain suspended. Apple exports, a key source for revenue are down as labourers are not travelling to the orchards as the picking seasons starts. Tourists were sent home. This is likely to cause major hardships for the locals who will have to incur substantial losses to their businesses due to the lock down.

However, the lack of large scale violence along with restrictions on media have ensured that support for India’s move in Kashmir remains high.

Politically, the Indian air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan in February this year and the move to revoke Article 370 have led to a surge of support for Modi across India. His government is negotiating a contentious peace agreement with the Nagas, who have led an armed insurgency against Indian since the 1950s. The Modi government is preparing to give them far more autonomy than Kashmir ever enjoyed under Article 370. The domestic political capital that Modi enjoys across India is helping it completely shape the Kashmir narrative.