Why India needs to tread carefully on Kashmir

India has won world's trust on Kashmir. But there is intense scrutiny and there is zero room for slip-up.

Agencies
Narendra Modi and Imran Khan at the UN General Assembly.
India has managed to convince the world about Kashmir, for now. But there is intense scrutiny and there is zero room for slip-up.

On Friday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan issued an open call to arms to the people of Kashmir (and Pakistan) against India’s actions in Kashmir, which was probably the most damaging thing he said from the UN platform, even more than threatening nuclear war in the Subcontinent.

“Has PM Modi thought what would happen when the curfew in Kashmir is lifted? Do you think people in Kashmir would accept that you have withdrawn the special status? They, too, will come out on the streets after the curfew in the state is lifted. There will be bloodbath when the curfew is lifted from the state,” Khan said. “If there is bloodbath, Muslims will pick up arms, not because of Islam, but because they will see there is no justice when it comes to Muslims.”


India has placed the problems in Kashmir within the global context of international terrorism, whose epicentre is Pakistan. Pakistan is placing the Kashmir issue within a manufactured context of “Islamophobia” and “injustice to Muslims”. Houston, we have a problem.

India set a blistering diplomatic pace in the past month, as it went out of its way to convince partners and sceptics about its August 5 decision to de-operationalise Article 370 and reorganise Jammu & Kashmir into two Union territories. From the UN Security Council to the UN General Assembly via the UN Human Rights Council, India pulled out all the stops to build diplomatic capital behind what is arguably the toughest political decision taken. By and large (not counting China and Pakistan), India has succeeded.

Three clear messages have been articulated by PM Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar. First, Article 370 was temporary and needed to be deactivated to integrate and bring development to the state. Second, reorganisation of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh are internal matters of India; no external boundaries have been affected. Third, India will deal with Pakistan “bilaterally” when terrorism from Pakistan comes down. As Jaishankar said in New York this week, “the one message I don’t want to give is you do terrorism by night, and it’s business as usual by day”.
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This has been accepted by and large by the international community both on the strength of India’s institutional and governance history as well as a fair degree of Kashmir fatigue. The fact that there hasn’t been open violence in the Valley, Indian security forces haven’t been killing protestors and that quasi-normal life prevails there have made things easier to believe.

Pakistan’s protestations notwithstanding, its history of fuelling terror in India has seriously diminished its credibility. Pakistan’s outrage stems from the fact that its entire political and security existence was predicated on the belief that Kashmir would become part of Pakistan.

That’s not going to happen. A Jammu & Kashmir with a special status held out hope. That’s gone. In addition, it is clear that India is the only country in this region with a legal claim to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir . With the Afghan peace deal dead for the time being, Pakistan’s usefulness is eclipsed for the moment. The definite possibility of going into an FATF (Financial Action Task Force) blacklist is equally unsettling. So terror and articulated outrage remain Islamabad’s best bet right now.

What happens now? It stands to reason that the Centre will open political dialogue with different sections of Kashmiri leadership. Some political detentions should be eased, because it makes absolutely no sense to keep Indian politicians in Indian jails. Yes, they may be part of the system that needs to be overhauled, but if “integration” is the mantra, the road map ought to run through them. So far, we have not seen any overt attempt to make them part of the solution, but sources say the coming weeks will see a lot of action by the government in Kashmir.
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Simultaneously, we are likely to see intensified anti-terror operations against Pakistan-sponsored groups as well as local terrorists in the Valley. Regardless of Khan’s pious exhortations to people to not cross the LoC (Line of Control)) into India, reports from the ground say that terror camps are all buzzing with activity. The Indian system expects terror activity to pick up from this week, with posters in Kashmir calling for “action” from September 27.

Nobody expects this to be an easy climb. Militancy has been endemic to J&K for over three decades. It has been a fractured state for over 70 years. Overcoming alienation and damage will take years of painstaking work. It would be easier to do it away from the headlines, too, but that’s too much to ask. The Indian state has prevailed in other tougher theatres, but Kashmir has an international dimension that makes it unique.
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The US, at the operational level of the administration, will push India on some of these counts, like releasing leaders. That is a pressure India will have to internalise — such pressure keeps Pakistan happy, and, hopefully quiet. The world of international relations may be polite, but it is brutal. The international community will be waiting for India to slip up, so India’s manoeuvring has to be precise, its diplomacy unrelenting and counter-terrorism operations effective.
Tall ask, but nothing India has not done before.

The external challenges will be evolving — for instance, Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy for Afghanistan, met both Zamir Kabulov from Russia and Jaishankar in the past week. It is possible that they might take another shot at Afghan peace on more sensible terms.

What role might Pakistan play, and can that be leveraged for more responsible behaviour by Islamabad? For the Indian system accustomed to dealing with Kashmir in a particular way, the fast-moving developments call for a different kind of approach to solutions. Whether the system shows the requisite imagination, courage and commitment will be tested.
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