New Delhi: In their second face-to-face meeting in three months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald trump focused on their lingering trade differences, but the situation in Kashmir still crept into their interactions.
And though Trump kept to the official US script this time in not hard-selling mediation while speaking to reporters, he made it clear, twice, that the alternative was for India and Pakistan to speak to each other and resolve their differences – something the Modi government is reluctant to do.
Modi was in Biarritz, France on the invitation of President Emmanuel Macron – who picked India, Australia, Chile and South Africa as “partner countries, involved in protecting and promoting democratic freedoms and with a major regional influence” to attend the G-7 summit on the sidelines.
Speaking to the media ahead of delegation-level talks between the two sides, Trump revealed that he and Modi had spoken about the situation in Kashmir over dinner.
“We spoke last night about Kashmir. The prime minister really feels he has it under control,” he said. “I know they speak with Pakistan, and I’m sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good. We spoke about it last night at great length.”
Whether putting Kashmir “under control” was Modi’s phrase or Trump’s gloss, it is evident that the prime minister was called upon by the US president to offer an explanation for something India insists is its internal matter.
The US president’s remarks came in the backdrop of India’s move on August 5 to remove Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and bifurcate the state into two Union territories. For the last 21 days, the state, which is now directly administered by the Central government, has been cut off from the rest of the country, as mobile phones and internet communications have been blocked. There have also been curfew-like restrictions and the large-scale detention of political leaders.
India has stated that the change to Article 370 is an internal matter. Pakistan has claimed it violates resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.
Answering a question from the international media during a joint press interaction that lasted around 20 minutes, Modi asserted that India does not want third party intervention in its issues with Pakistan.
“India and Pakistan issues are all of a bilateral nature and we do not want to trouble any country in the world to try to do anything in this,” said the Indian leader.
He added that since India and Pakistan were one nation before 1947, both countries “can get together to discuss, and also find solutions together”.
This was, incidentally, the first time in nearly four years that Modi has fielded questions directly from journalists. The only other time he has taken questions at a press conference was in November 2015, when he jointly met reporters along with David Cameron, who was the British prime minister at the time.
Modi was, perhaps, stressing the bilateral nature of India-Pakistan talks as Trump has repeatedly expressed interest in being a mediator. In fact, Trump had even alleged that Modi had asked him to mediate during a conversation at Osaka in June. This claim was quickly shot down by New Delhi.
When asked whether his offer to mediate was still on the table, Trump remarked, “I am here”, but added that the matter could be left to the two South Asian rivals. “I have a very good relationship with both gentlemen (Modi and Pakistan PM Imran Khan)…I think that they can do it themselves”.
There was a moment of levity when Modi, who chose to speak in Hindi, replied to another question on the WTO. “He actually speaks very good English, he just doesn’t want to talk,” Trump intervened. Modi guffawed, shook Trump’s hand and slapped his wrist in a friendly manner. The question was about what India’s strategy would be in the event that the US withdrew from the World Trade Organisation. “I think, I think you should let us discuss these things and when we feel the need, we will communicate to you,” Modi said.
Later, Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale asserted that Kashmir had not featured in the delegation-level talks on Monday afternoon, with the 40-minute meeting largely focussed on trade and energy. The key takeaway from the formal talks, he said, was that the commerce ministers will meet within the next one month.
Human rights concerns
In the run-up to the meeting, US officials had asserted that Trump “will likely want to hear from Prime Minister Modi on how he plans to reduce regional tensions and uphold respect for human rights in Kashmir as part of India’s role as the world’s largest democracy”.
However, there was no indication from Modi or the foreign secretary on whether the human rights situation was discussed – though Trump did note that Modi stated that the “situation is under control”.
Modi had previously complained to Trump during their phone call last week that “extreme rhetoric” from Pakistan was not helpful. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has been frequently comparing India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with Nazi Germany. Trump then spoke to Khan with a similar message to reduce regional tensions, with additional advice to scale down verbal posturing.
Imran Khan talks nuclear, again
As his address to the nation on Monday made it clear, Imran Khan didn’t moderate his rhetoric against Modi.
“They (RSS) believe that Hindus are supreme and others are second-class citizens. They have a fascist ideology, they have been side-lined by India’s past government as a terrorist organisation,” said Khan, as reported by Dawn.
Khan also stated that “they were the ones who assassinated [Mahatma] Gandhi for trying to promote Hindu-Muslim unity”.
He claimed that the RSS ideology “started to gain ground” after the death of first Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
“This was the ideology that Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah saw and worked towards the creation of Pakistan. Our ideology is based on the Holy Quran and believes in the protection of minorities; RSS has the opposite mindset.”
Khan claimed that “informal consultations” held by the United Nations Security Council as a diplomatic victory. The 15 members of UNSC met behind closed doors last week to discuss Kashmir in a meeting for which no records were kept – nor any public statement issued.
While not naming the UAE or Bahrain – which had conferred medals on Modi – Khan preached patience rather than disappointment.
“I read in the newspapers that people are disappointed that Muslim countries are not siding with Kashmir. I want to tell you not to be disappointed; if some countries are not raising this issue because of their economic interests, they will eventually take this issue up. They will have to, with time”.
He also played the nuclear card. “Will these big countries keep looking at their economic interests only? Because they should remember, both countries have nuclear weapons…In a nuclear war, no one will win. It will not only wreak havoc in this region, but the entire world will face consequences. It is now up to the international community,” he said.
Imran Khan also announced that there will be a ceremony every week to show “solidarity with the Kashmiri people”.
“Narendra Modi has made a huge blunder in arrogance… now this is a historic moment for Kashmiris to realise their decades-long dream of achieving freedom from India,” Khan stated, adding that Pakistan would “go to any length at every forum” to support Kashmir.