The Modi-Trump chemistry was on full display as they clutched hands, joked and beamed for the cameras during their meeting with reporters at Biarritz on Monday. Most of the countries around the world have accepted India’s position on the Kashmir issue

by Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd)

The Modi-Trump chemistry was on full display as they clutched hands, joked and beamed for the cameras during their meeting with reporters at Biarritz on Monday. After weeks of contradictory statements on mediation over Kashmir, President Trump seems to have backed off as he said, “I am good friends with both PMs (India and Pakistan). But I think they can manage it themselves.”

The US President is unpredictable, but at least for now, it does appear that Pakistan is utterly failing in its efforts to internationalise the Kashmir issue. Most countries are treating the Indian Parliament’s decision on Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir as an internal affair of India that warrants no international intervention.

The result of the Modi-Trump meeting was hailed as a big diplomatic victory for India, and the world indeed cares little about Indian constitutional decisions on Kashmir. However, it would also be wrong to believe that this matter has now passed out of the international glare. International concerns were never about the constitutional provisions surrounding Kashmir, but about two more substantial issues that emanate from the ongoing conflict in Kashmir.

The first, and the more important, issue is the deterioration of relations between India and Pakistan and the fear of a war breaking out between the two neighbours. Clearly, Pakistan will play on this fear. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been regularly invoking the threat of a nuclear war and in his latest address to the nation, he said, “If the conflict moves towards war then remember both nations have nuclear weapons, and no one is a winner in a nuclear war. It will have global ramifications. The superpowers of the world have a huge responsibility.”

Despite our claims of the international isolation of Pakistan, it remains a strategically important country. The US needs Pakistan for keeping the Taliban on the negotiating table and for the logistics sustenance of US forces fighting in Afghanistan. Last month, the US, China and Russia invited Pakistan to join their consultation process to facilitate a peace process in Afghanistan. The value of Pakistan in China’s long-term strategy is well known. In his book, The Grand Chessboard published more than 20 years ago, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “Geography is…an important factor driving Chinese interests in making an alliance with Pakistan and establishing a military presence in Burma. In both cases, India is the Geo-Strategic target.”

As long as Pakistan remains important to the US and China, its attempts at drawing these two countries into the current imbroglio are unlikely to cease. While the US has now clearly stated that this is a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan, the fact also is that there is currently no possibility of a bilateral solution. Diplomatic ties have been downgraded, trade suspended, and guns are booming along the Line of Control. Despite Prime Minister Modi’s assertion that “India and Pakistan were together before 1947 and I’m confident that we can discuss our problems and solve them together,” any serious dialogue appears unlikely in the near future.

In these circumstances, India will have to adopt a responsible and measured diplomatic stance. It would be better if we eschew statements on India’s nuclear policy and other provocative statements that may cause further alarm among the international community.

The second issue that could see some involvement, particularly from western democracies and the United Nations, is that of human rights in Kashmir. In his first reaction to the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, the United Nations Secretary-General had expressed concern “over reports of restrictions on the Indian-side of Kashmir, which could exacerbate the human rights situation in the region.”

There is a lot of difference between how liberal western democracies preach and practice human rights, particularly when they engage in conflicts outside their territories. The 2018 report of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan attributed 674 civilian casualties (406 deaths and 268 injured) to international military forces, 94 percent of which were from aerial strikes. Notwithstanding this, as the world’s largest democracy, India has to remain sensitive to human rights, lest it draws any unwanted attention and plays into Pakistan’s machinations.

There are already many voices in the international media decrying the curfew-like conditions and internet blackout in Kashmir. The longer the crackdown continues, the louder these voices will get. There is a real dilemma here for the government. A premature easing of restrictions could see the immediate anger of people spilling out on the streets and civilian deaths in police-protester clashes. Continuing with the restrictions could feed long-term resentment that makes conflict resolution even more difficult. The government will have to walk a tightrope for now, but what will really help in the long run is a comprehensive strategy for Jammu and Kashmir that is a combination of political, social, psychological, and economic steps, combined with an effective information campaign.

Most of the countries around the world have accepted India’s position on the Kashmir issue. The real worry for the international community is encapsulated in the words of a US State Department spokesperson, “We note the broader implications of these developments, including the potential for increased instability in the region.” The most reassuring signal to the world would be the start of a dialogue between India and Pakistan to ease tensions, but this appears unlikely. The practical thing for India to do is to cut out the rhetoric, ignore Pakistan’s outbursts, and focus on a comprehensive plan to bring normalcy to Kashmir.

Author is former Army Commander Northern Command. Views expressed are personal