By Abdul Basit
India’s decision to strip Kashmir of its special status has landed its relations with Pakistan in a cul-de-sac. For both sides, Kashmir has become a conundrum almost impossible to resolve. Bilateral diplomacy has apparently reached its limits to break the present logjam. Whereas Kashmiris are now increasingly unsure of their future, the international community generally appears to be nonchalant at best.
Prime Minister Imran Khan went out of his way to openly support his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in his second election bid, saying that only a strong leader like him could muster the courage to work out a modus vivendi on Kashmir with Pakistan. Khan is now hugely disappointed, as his political opponents at home keep hurling broadsides at him for his misplaced optimism. Many question his diplomatic acumen as he continues to send inconsistent signals across the border.
Despite India’s inherently precarious step on Kashmir, Pakistan, while downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending bilateral trade, and also denying airspace to VVIP flights from India, kept prospects for bilateral engagement intact by not abandoning the Kartarpur corridor project. Khan hoped that the religious corridor might help improve the bitter milieu, pressing India to revisit its Kashmir decision and resuming dialogue with Pakistan. India, nevertheless, seems unwilling to move beyond its Pavlovian responses.
In a recent interview to a French newspaper, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar ingeminated India’s hoary position of not talking to Pakistan unless Pakistan had effectively addressed India’s concerns related to terrorism. He also maintained in what could be termed as India’s characteristic hubris that Kashmir was an internal matter and that the Kashmir issue was now more about areas under Pakistan’s control. In short, India may not hesitate to ratchet up the already volatile situation but would not engage in positive and constructive diplomacy.
From India’s perspective keeping Pakistan under pressure may already be working to its advantage. Pakistan is seen as economically feeble and politically unstable. In India’s calculation, this is exactly the time when Pakistan should be brought to its knees as the latter is also facing the Damocles’ sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). India is working overtime to ensure that Pakistan is put on the FATF Blacklist or at least not removed from its Grey List. Ergo, resuming bilateral dialogue at this stage does not seem to be in sync with India’s Pakistan strategy.
The international community, especially the major powers, cannot be silent spectators. Even after more than 100 days, Indian-administered Kashmir is under complete communications lockdown. Kashmiris are suffering with no respite in sight. India is refusing to relent.
The recently choreographed visit of some 20 carefully selected EU parliamentarians has only brought embarrassment to the country. Many Indians lamented how their government had allowed the visit, especially when even Indian opposition politicians and journalists were denied permission to visit Kashmir. India may not relent but it is definitely on the defensive.
How will the current situation pan out? Neither Pakistan nor Kashmiris are likely to acquiesce. Prime Minister Khan cannot afford to show any sign of weakness. Resigning to India’s unilateral move will ineluctably cause public outrage. Opposition parties in Pakistan are already accusing the government of selling out Kashmir to India.
Kashmiris on the Pakistan side of the Line of Control are also visibly upset. Thousands tried to cross the LoC in agitation. Islamabad cannot ignore the brewing sentiment among Kashmiris. Prime Minister Khan will likely come under increasing pressure should India continue with its draconian measures in Kashmir. People under indefinite siege with no hope for respite cannot be blamed if they turn violent.
It is also a given that no matter what India does, it can neither subdue Kashmiris nor win their hearts and minds. The last seventy years are a testimony to the resilience of Kashmiris’ struggle for their right to self-determination as was committed to them under several UN resolutions. India cannot continue defying international law and expect to become a global power. It claims to be the world’s largest democracy, yet it has been denying over 12 million people their inalienable democratic rights.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi cannot be expected to restore the status quo ante without maximum external pressure and sustained resistance in Kashmir. He has crossed the Rubicon, calculating that both Pakistan and Kashmiris would eventually stomach the changes as a new normal. Unfortunately, most Indians have responded to the move positively. Even the secular Congress party now seems to have given up on its earlier objections.
One worries about the international community’s apparent insouciance to the inherent dangers in continuing conflictual relations between the two nuclear powers. As prospects for breaking the ice between the two countries remain discouragingly non-existent, relevant powers as well as the UN must help rescue the present dangerous situation. Let the people of South Asia also live in peace and prosperity.
(The writer Abdul Basit is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.)