Kashmir in the International Spotlight
IT has been some time since visiting international heads of state offered to mediate on the Kashmir dispute while on official visits to India. The president of Turkey, no doubt took New Delhi by surprise when he politely suggested in an interview the need for India and Pakistan to calm down the volatile situation in Kashmir and offered his good offices to mediate between the two countries. Erdogan fancies himself as the pre eminent leader of the Muslim world. He has been outspoken about the treatment of Muslim minorities in other countries. After the first Israeli military attack on Gaza, Ankara chose to downgrade the close political and military relations it had with Tel Aviv.
Anyway, Erdogan is not the only world leader who has offered to mediate on the Kashmir dispute in recent months. It was after the coming to power of the Modi government and the implementation of its hard line policies towards Pakistan that put the Kashmir issue back on the international radar. Since the NDA came to power, the Kashmir valley has erupted in violence and the border between the two countries has never been as volatile in decades. More Indian soldiers and civilians have been killed in the three years of NDA rule than in the last five year term of the UPA.
President Donald Trump had said on the campaign trail that he would, if elected, use his office to find a solution to the Kashmir problem. He reiterated this offer soon after moving into the White House. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated recently that the United States “would try and find its place” to de-escalate tensions between India and Pakistan. The United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC) have also added their voices, asking for a speedy solution to the conflict as it poses a serious threat to regional peace and security. India came in for criticism from many countries at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva held in the first week of May on its handling of the Kashmir situation in particular and human rights in general. There were demands from some countries that India should repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that is in force in Kashmir. Among the countries that raised the issue of AFSPA was the United States.
The international community views Kashmir as a potential nuclear flashpoint. A spate of recent editorials and reports in the western media generally make the point that it would be a mistake for their governments to ignore the current goings on in Kashmir. China has said that the tense standoff between India and Pakistan and the rise in terrorist incidents, pose a threat to its grand infrastructure building plans for the South Asian region. China, though an “all weather ally” of Pakistan, has till now stood for resolution of the Kashmir dispute bilaterally between Delhi and Islamabad. The American liberal media represented by establishment newspapers like the NYT and the Washington Post, have been regularly carrying articles and editorials that have become increasingly critical of India's strong arms tactics in dealing with civilian protests in Kashmir. The pictures of the Indian security forces shooting at young protestors with pellet guns and the use of human shields by the Indian army have gone viral.
India's efforts to conflate civilian uprisings with terror, like Israel does, is no more able to cut much ice with the international community. Israel, for the foreseeable future, will have the protection of the United States, as it transgresses international law and puts in place an apartheid system of government. Under the Trump dispensation, there is no such guarantee for India despite New Delhi being prepared to play the role of America's junior partner in the region. The fact that Trump has not yet bothered to send a formal invitation to the Indian prime minister to visit Washington, is illustrative of the new relationship. Trump has already met with President Xi Jinping and extended invitations to controversial leaders like President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the White House.
This Indian government, like its predecessors, has reacted to the recent offers of international mediation in the time honored fashion by insisting that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. Pakistan, not surprisingly, was quick to accept the offer of Turkish mediation. Islamabad has been loudly demanding this, especially after the Modi government has been refusing to seriously engage with it and after the violence in the Kashmir valley has escalated to very serious levels. The last time the valley witnessed this level of violence was in the early 1990's.
The Turkish president’s visit coincided with two other related developments. There has been a sudden flare up along the Line of Control (LoC). The Indian army has alleged that the Pakistani army breached the LoC and killed and mutilated two Indian soldiers. The Pakistani side has strongly denied the charges and has asked the Indian military to provide “actionable evidence”. Tensions along the LoC have continued to simmer and sometimes explode after the September 2016 attack on the Indian army military base in Uri, which left 18 Indian army soldiers dead. The Indian army claimed to have conducted a “surgical strike” across the LoC in retaliation. Since then cross border firing and shelling had surged for more than two months. Soldiers and civilians on both sides of the border had been killed.
After the deaths of the two Indian soldiers in the first week of May, the Indian army has said that it will reciprocate militarily at a time and place of its own choosing. The Indian defense minster, Arun Jaitley, has vowed that India's armed forces will “respond appropriately”. After the “surgical strikes” last year, India has announced that it has given up the policy “of strategic restraint” vis a vis Pakistan. Pakistan's Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), Maj. Gen. Shahid Shamshad Mirza, has warned that any attack by Indian forces “shall be appropriately responded to, at a time and place of our own choosing”.
The second more positive development was the visit of an Indian industrialist, Sajjan Jindal to Islamabad. The businessman, known for his proximity with the Indian prime minister, had a long meeting with Nawaz Sharif. His visit was shrouded in secrecy. His last meeting with Sharif in 2015 had led to a very brief period of bonhomie between the Indian and Pakistani leaders. Modi had made an unscheduled visit to meet with Sharif in December 2015 and hopes were raised that talks between the two countries would restart once again. It has been speculated that Jindal's visit is in someway connected with yet another effort to get stalled talks moving once again. Both Sharif and Modi are due to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit to be held Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, in June.
There are some talks that the two leaders may agree to meet on the sidelines of the SCO summit. India has been rebuffing Islamabad's attempts to get the bilateral talks restarted. Pakistan's de facto foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz was in Amritsar for the “Heart of Asia” summit in December last in an effort to engage with his Indian counterpart. He was snubbed by the Indian foreign office. India has said that it is willing to talk on terrorism related issues but not specifically on the Kashmir issue. Relations now have ebbed to such a low that the Indian government has suspended all sporting contacts with Pakistan after the killing of the two soldiers. A group of 50 Pakistani children, aged between 11 and 15, who had crossed over on May 1 on an exchange visit, were sent back on the orders of the Indian government, the next day.
The Pakistan Army's leadership is not on the same page with Sharif on many issues, including meaningful talks with India, at this juncture. The army's proximity with non-state actors is well established. The prime minister was forced to sack his information minister and another of his close advisers, after the army held them guilty of leaking information to the media about the security forces being uncomfortably close to the so called “good militants” whose main focus is the struggle in Kashmir. As the Pakistani writer, Hanif Mohammed wrote in an opinion piece in the NYT, “Most countries have an army, but in Pakistan it is the army that has a country, goes the saying”. Many political party leaders, especially those in the opposition, are steadfast in their loyalty to the army, claiming that the army can do no wrong. Unfortunately, similar hyper nationalist feelings seem to be permeating across the border. The current ruling dispensation in India characterizes all those questioning the government's policies and the army's actions in conflict zones as anti-national.
Meanwhile the missile and nuclear race between the two countries continues apace. India had announced the completion of its “nuclear triad”, the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the land, air and sea last year. In the beginning of the year, Pakistan staged missile tests of its own, including the underwater launch of a medium range Cruise missile. The Pakistan military claimed that the test was “in response” to the nuclear strategies being adopted in the neighborhood. After the launch of the Babur Cruise missile, Pakistan has claimed that it now has second strike capability. Pakistan has also tested a nuclear capable intermediate range missile with a range of 2,200 kilometers earlier in the year. This has been in response to India's testing of Agni-V and a submarine launched missile, both nuclear capable.
The new Indian army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, had said after taking over that India was ready and capable to fight a “two front war” with both Pakistan and China. He declared that the army had adopted the “Cold Start” military doctrine which gives the military the ability to mobilise and invade a neighboring country within 48 hours. The Indian army is vastly superior in size and capabilities than the Pakistani army but unfortunately it is the nuclear parity between the two countries that makes a military conflict not only foolhardy but unthinkable, as far as humanity is concerned. Pakistani officials have strongly hinted that they would resort to the use of nuclear weapons if their country is invaded. The dangers of a conventional war over Kashmir breaking out is real if the two sides don't start talking soon. The fear in the international community is that such a war has the potential to lead to a nuclear holocaust affecting the globe.