International Efforts Crucial to Navigating Volatility in Kashmir

Kashmiri Muslims protest during a security lockdown in Srinagar, in Indian controlled Kashmir, on August 12, 2019. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

On August 5, the Minister of Home Affairs of India, Amit Shah, presented a resolution in parliament to revoke Article 370 of the country’s constitution. Article 370 accorded the state of Jammu and Kashmir special rights to promulgate its laws, maintain a separate constitution, and have a state flag. Within a day, the resolution had been approved, along with a bill to bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh.

Even as debates were ongoing in parliament, Kashmir valley was in a state of unprecedented instability. Thousands of paramilitary forces had been flown in, tourists rushed out (the state owes a majority of its economic growth to the tourism industry), local politicians placed under arrest, education institutions closed, telephone and internet snapped, and a curfew imposed.

The people of Kashmir see Article 370 as a solemn commitment made to them when the state acceded to India after independence. However, the ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) has always opposed any special privileges to the only Muslim majority state in the country, and had made the revocation of Article 370 a part of its election manifesto. Now, with a brute majority in parliament and a severely fragmented and ideologically incoherent opposition, the BJP has fulfilled its promise.

In defending the government’s decision, Home Minister Shah said that the move to scrap Article 370 would end the bloodshed in Jammu and Kashmir. Many observers believe that this statement is grounded more in hope than reality. Pakistan responded sharply with Prime Minister Imran Khan stating that the current situation could lead to war between the two countries. Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa reaffirmed the same sentiment, saying that “The Pakistan Army firmly stands by the Kashmiris in their just struggle to the very end. We are prepared and shall go to any extent to fulfill our obligations.”

With India-Pakistan tensions on the rise, there is a legitimate fear that any major terrorist attack in India could lead to a fresh round of military strikes by India in Pakistan, and a matching response by Pakistan. This spiral could lead to an escalation that both countries may find difficult to contain.

Pakistan is seeking to internationalize the Kashmir issue, and in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi asked for the UN Security Council’s attention to India’s actions. The UN has so far responded cautiously, with the secretary-general releasing a statement appealing to India and Pakistan to exercise “maximum restraint” and clarifying that the “position of the United Nations on this region is governed by the Charter of the United Nations and applicable Security Council resolutions.”

Security Council members have struck similarly cautious tones, including a spokesperson for the United States Department of State noting the “broader implications” and the “potential for increased instability in the region.” China, while urging restraint and caution, also objected to the creation of a separate union territory for Ladakh, where there is an ongoing border dispute between India and China. Russia and the United Arab Emirates termed India’s decision as an internal affair and within the framework of the constitution.

Keeping in view these geopolitical realities, is there any room for international diplomacy to prevent the current situation from escalating into a conflict between India and Pakistan?

In seeking an answer to this question, it must first be recognized that the Government of India is extremely sensitive to the situation of Kashmir and considers it a purely bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, warranting no outside interference. This principle was underlined in the Simla Agreement of 1972 between the two countries. Despite this, the Kashmir dispute has not been entirely free from foreign diplomatic interventions and backdoor talks in the past.

During the 1999 Kargil War, for example, it was pressure from then-US President Bill Clinton that aided in the withdrawal of Pakistani forces and brought an end to the war. More recently, after an Indian airstrike on the Balakot terrorist camp in Pakistan in February and the capture of an Indian air force pilot, international pressure helped ease tensions between the two countries, including from US President Donald Trump.

The primary way forward now is also quiet diplomacy, directed both at Pakistan and India. Pakistan is under pressure to toe a hard line with India both from their domestic constituency and from Kashmir-centric terror groups who want to step up violence in Kashmir. The government will likely succumb to the pressure if backed into a corner. India’s political leaders, having successfully projected themselves as tough in the public eye, will likely respond forcefully to any major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist strike. Diplomatic efforts to calm down the rhetoric and ensure a measure of restraint from both sides will be critical to averting a crisis from taking place.

A second area where international efforts could prove useful is in ensuring that India’s approach to protests in Kashmir, which appear inevitable, is mature and measured. India prides itself on being a strong democracy and is very sensitive to accusations of human rights violations in general, and especially in Kashmir. Again, open condemnation will not help, and even international human rights monitoring can provoke negative responses. The 2019 report of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights on Kashmir was summarily rejected by the Indian government as a “false and motivated narrative.” There was a similar reaction to a US government report on international religious freedom. Quiet, backdoor efforts have a higher chance of succeeding.

India-Pakistan relations are at a new low, with diplomatic ties being downgraded, trade suspended, and bus and train services between the two countries ceased. Seething anger among the local Kashmiri population and pressure on Pakistan to support their movement could trigger a major terror incident. While Pakistan has sought the involvement of the international community in the Kashmir issue, this will be strongly resisted by India. More than ever, the diplomatic community will have to navigate these contradictory positions with finesse.

Deepshikha Hooda is a former Indian defense journalist and co-author of “Gujjars and Bakkarwals of Jammu and Kashmir; In the Shadows of Conflict.” She recently graduated with a masters in International Relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Boston.