Donald Trump’s latest remarks at the White House are the surest sign that the US president has no intention of backing off from his offer to mediate between India and Pakistan. But then the signs were already there, all around us.
Last Friday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke to US President Donald Trump for 12 minutes about the situation in Kashmir, in the wake of India’s decision to withdraw J&K’s special status under Article 370.
Three days later, on Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Trump and in a 30-minute conversation, complained about his Pakistani counterpart’s incendiary rhetoric which was destabilising the region. The day before, on Sunday, Khan had termed the Modi government as “fascist” and said they were a threat to Pakistan and Indian minorities.
Thereafter, Trump picked up the phone and dialed Khan, and told him that there was a need for him to tone down his rhetoric and reduce tensions. In his conversation, according to a White House readout, Trump “reaffirmed the need to avoid escalation of the situation and urged restraint” on both sides.
Thereafter, Trump tweeted: “Spoke to my two good friends, Prime Minister Modi of India, and Prime Minister Khan of Pakistan… to work towards reducing tensions in Kashmir. A tough situation, but good conversations.”
Now, if this does not sound like mediation, what does? All we have at present are readouts and press releases of the conversations, but you can be sure that given the rhetoric from New Delhi and Islamabad, there must be more happening in the deep recesses of the State Department and the Pentagon.
It stands to reason that the longer the situation takes to return to normality, the more India will be opening itself up to US involvement in the Jammu and Kashmir issue. As for Pakistan, it would be more than happy if the US gets involved. As of now, the situation in the Valley is certainly not normal, especially since thousands of persons, mainly political leaders and activists are detained and communications restricted.
And no one knows exactly how things will unfold in the Valley, not just in the coming days, but also in the weeks and months ahead. You can safely dismiss the propaganda that everything is normal and that there is widespread support for the Centre’s move in the Valley.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only has the Union government’s action added another layer of grievance to those already weighing down the Kashmiris, but it has egregiously also alienated those political elements and parties that had upheld the Indian flag through the thick and thin in the Valley.
We need not take either Pakistan or China’s crocodile tears over the changes in the legal relationship between the state and the Centre seriously. The step is certainly legally and politically infirm, but neither Islamabad nor Beijing have a legal or moral right to complain. Pakistan had dealt whimsically with the areas of the state that it controls and has never given them even a fraction of the autonomy that J&K had prior to the Article 370 decision. As for China, “autonomous” has, and will always be, a fiction when it comes to its political system.
It is difficult to determine what the government has in mind for the future. The government is deluding itself if it thinks investment and development will now pour into the region and take away the sting of recent events. Just why the population should tamely accept a political demotion for their state is not clear. J&K was never backward by Indian standards and the narrative that Article 370 or 35A were some kind of a hindrance is overblown. Investment could head to the Jammu region, but nothing is likely to go beyond Ramban and Nowshera. By itself, development has never moderated separatism, else we would not have the continuing Basque and Scottish separatism.
Since we are talking of another layer of grievance upon an already ongoing situation, the government has no doubt readied to double down on the “all-out” strategy it initiated in 2016. We are likely to see more repression, police action, arrests, not just of militants, but also their supporters.
We are now in for a longer haul in Kashmir than before the poorly thought-through actions of the Modi government. Pakistan retains the ability to make things difficult in the Valley. With New Delhi egregiously roiling the situation, Islamabad has an opportunity to encourage an escalatory cycle of violence.
Southern Kashmir was a tinderbox before August 5, and you can be sure it will remain one in the coming period. In recent years, Pakistan had scaled down its support for militancy in the Valley, but it may now shift gears again. Given New Delhi’s signal that it will not tolerate this, the possibility of a wider conflict has increased.
And this is where the US comes in. Violence and prolonged disturbances, aided and abetted by Pakistan will paradoxically bring more, not less interference. India successfully foiled US efforts to get involved in the mid-1990s, when things were far worse in the Valley by showing an improvement in the ground situation. Now through acts of commission, it has provided an opening for the US to enter.
Like all countries, the US will act along what it considers are its national interests. Foremost among these, at present, is to prevent the two South Asian neighbours getting involved in a nuclear war and poisoning the global atmosphere. Then comes the need to balance relations with Pakistan, a country that is not only nuclear-armed, but occupies a strategic location in relation to its two-and-a-half adversaries – China, Russia and Iran – and holds the key to peace in Afghanistan.
India is important as a market and also a key to offsetting Chinese power in the Western Pacific, but that only underscores the importance to the US to maintain friendly ties with both India and Pakistan and seeking to mediate between them. This, in fact, has been the leitmotif of US policy to the region since the time of Eisenhower.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
Note: The article has been updated to include a reference to Donald Trump’s remarks at the White House on August 20, 2019.