The Siege in Kashmir Is Damaging India’s Image Abroad

Foreign governments are aware of the disconnect between independent media’s reportage on conditions in Kashmir and Delhi’s narrative.

The world will not care about what India does in Kashmir. That seemed to be the key assumption of the Narendra Modi government (and its supporters) when it set out to change Kashmir’s special status and impose a communications blockade on the Valley. The belief was that India’s stature as a big market for weapons, goods and services would elicit no more than murmurs abroad – contracts always trounce ethics in a Realist universe, we are often told.

That view is now coming unstuck as criticism from foreign leaders and the international media is gathering momentum. The US political class is resolutely getting involved, notwithstanding Modi’s rally in Houston with President Donald Trump or foreign minister S. Jaishankar’s recent briefings to think-tank and policy elites in Washington and New York.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a strong tweet on the impact of the communications blackout and asked India to lift restrictions. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee flagged the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir in one of its reports and US Senator Chris Van Hollen has questioned why he was denied permission to visit Kashmir. Leading Democrat presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren shared an article titled ‘Two months of misery in Indian Kashmir’, expressing her concern and saying the rights of the people of Kashmir must be respected. The US State Department mentions Kashmir as a topic of discussion in its readout of recent meetings with the Indian side.

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Other nations have joined in too. The Chinese envoy in Pakistan said his country will stand by Islamabad in comments related to Kashmir, and Beijing has in a joint statement with Pakistan referred to Kashmir as a dispute that should be resolved “based on the UN Charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements”. Prominent leaders in Muslim-majority nations have spoken out, such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Delhi is trying to manage the blowback by announcing that tourists can return to Kashmir starting this week but how many visitors there will be and how they can manage without mobile and internet services remains unclear. It’s also not clear when political leaders will be released or when the curfew will be relaxed.

Regardless of how things pan out, the crisis has already significantly damaged India’s and Modi’s reputation abroad. Foreign governments will be aware of the disconnect between independent media’s reportage on conditions in Kashmir and Delhi’s narrative.

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India has been maintaining its all-is-well spin for two months, while an entire generation of politicians and activists are under arrest, children incarcerated, youth tortured and the public denied access to doctors, schools and jobs. Jaishankar offered a progressive gloss on changes to Kashmir’s status, telling audiences in Washington that recent measures would confer rights under the Indian constitution that they were hitherto being denied. He entirely passed over the fact that Kashmiris are being denied the right to assemble and speak on a matter concerning their future – and that Kashmir was being turned into an “open air detention centre”, as The Economist put it, while the Indian government was flying in liberalism along with thousands of fresh troops.

Indian PM Narendra Modi and US president Donald Trump at the ‘Howdy Modi’ event, Sunday, September 22, 2019. Photo: PTI/PIB

Jaishankar has also floated a literal reading of Article 370 arguing that because the word “temporary” was in the Article, India was free to change it. “By any standards, 70 years is a long definition of that term,” he wrote in the Financial Times last month. This argument has since been debunked. Historian Srinath Raghavan, a leading authority on India’s international relations, has in a public lecture of piercing clarity busted the myths and claims of the government and the Indian Right.

He notes that Article 370 was “temporary” for two reasons: one that J&K’s own constituent assembly was to decide which provisions of the Indian Constitution the state wanted to adopt beyond the three subjects of accession and, two, it was temporary in relation to the conduct of a plebiscite that was to decide the future of Kashmir, which the government of India “had committed” to. In other words, Kashmir’s special status was contingent on anticipated political processes at that stage, not simply a function of time as the government now seems to be arguing.

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Raghavan also points out that Article 370 remains in the constitution and has not been revoked for doing so would make Article 1, which defines the Indian union, inapplicable to the state. This underlines that India and Jammu and Kashmir continue to be legally conjoined via Article 370 even if the latter is “hollowed out”. Such textured readings of history will, in times ahead, cascade through world capitals and undercut India’s arguments further.

The situation in Kashmir has also firmly brought into focus the wider decline of democracy in India and has garnered Modi a lot of unhelpful coverage. His US trip may have been hailed as a success by the Indian media but he has been subject to scathing commentary abroad. The New York Times, Washington Post and other publications have published several news and opinion pieces critical of Modi’s record. Pratap Bhanu Mehta expounded on the “gutting” of India’s democracy in Foreign Affairs. An Indian-American student published a piece in CNN arguing that Modi and Trump were two sides of the same coin. The Guardian published a letter by academics arguing against the Gates Foundation award to Modi. Gloria Steinem, the feminist icon, and philosopher Akeel Bilgrami also wrote a column deploring the Foundation’s award for Modi.

The result of all this is that Modi has been implanted afresh among readers of international media and the global left as an illiberal figure in the league of Vladimir Putin of Russia, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Erdogan in Turkey. Whatever distance and immunity he secured from the 2002 Gujarat riots after becoming prime minister has now been lost owing to the relentless anti-Muslim posturing of his party and the situation in Kashmir.

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Looking ahead, the international climate is unlikely to get any friendlier for Modi. There is no telling which way the US presidential election will go, given the impeachment proceedings against Trump. In the event someone like Elizabeth Warren becomes president – one can anticipate that the administration will be forced to move leftward by younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (‘AOC’), Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and others. This has implications both for Modi and the Indian diaspora that backs him in the US. Those like AOC, who has already tweeted about Kashmir, will likely step up their rhetoric in the near future if the situation persists or worsens. It’s worth noting that other figures like Omar and Tlaib have issued statements of support for Kashmir, as has Bernie Sanders.

All this can draw Indian-American supporters of Modi more and more into the glare of the liberal establishment in the months to come. These can generate undesirable consequences given that Modi supporters in the US and elsewhere are known to pushback aggressively against left-wing activism, often indulging in hate speech directed at liberal US-based academics. Given the experience of AOC and others, a Democrat administration is likely to take online abuse more seriously and it is not inconceivable that zealous Indian Americans also come up for scrutiny from law enforcement authorities in the process.

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To frame it differently, a post-Trump world will potentially bring on a regime of inquiry into right-wing networks via the lens of understanding how platforms like Facebook enable political manipulation. An American establishment peering into the interplay of politics and technology from a liberal vantage can be a very different proposition for Modi and his supporters at home and abroad, especially if Kashmir continues to be on the boil.

Modi is thus in a difficult situation on several fronts, despite his dominance in India’s political sphere. He is not able to persuade Trump to isolate Pakistan and appears unsighted about the possibility of Democrats coming to power in Washington. He is neither winning the public diplomacy battle on Kashmir now nor is he likely to in the future. He cannot rollback the changes to Kashmir’s status for fear of alienating his base nor can he ease the armed presence to placate international opinion, for that will unleash unrest in the Valley.

The world hasn’t yet heard from Kashmiris and their stories will last far longer than the current blockade. No prime minister since the Emergency has faced this kind of international scrutiny – and Indians in general have scarcely faced questions about their ethical disposition and fair-mindedness earlier, committed as they seemed to pluralism and diversity. The siege of Kashmir is thus, unbeknownst to much of Indian media, accumulating its own wave of perceptual and political effects for India.

The temptation in such circumstances is to stick with hardline policies in Kashmir. It looks like only the Supreme Court can undo the mess the political leadership has created by ruling against the August 5 changes.

Sushil Aaron is a political commentator. He tweets @SushilAaron.