Narendra Modi govt has managed Kashmir well so far, but litmus test will come when restrictions are relaxed

  • Amid this circus from across the border, India’s reaction has been calm, composed and coherent

  • India's strategy is to ignore the noise from Islamabad, secure in the knowledge that Pakistan has no real leverage

  • Modi’s bet so far has been on the assumption that ultimately, desire for normalcy trumps every other consideration

Faced with noxious rhetoric and naked war-mongering from Pakistan, India has so far shown admirable patience. New Delhi understands that for the first time in 70 years it has seized the initiative on Kashmir and it is in no hurry to let go of that advantage. After India’s abrogation of Article 370, withdrawal of semi-autonomous status and bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, Islamabad is left with very few options. In desperation, it is threatening to use nuclear weapons and promising Armageddon to spook western nations into acting against India.

 Narendra Modi govt has managed Kashmir well so far, but litmus test will come when restrictions are relaxed

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. AFP

Bereft of military or strategic options to force India to reverse its decision on Kashmir and lacking diplomatic heft to influence global opinion, a cornered Pakistan has become so unhinged in rage that it is issuing conflicting statements.

Its Prime Minister Imran Khan promises never to talk to India again only to contradict himself a few days later, writing in The New York Times that “with the nuclear shadow hovering over South Asia, we realise that Pakistan and India have to move out of a zero-sum mind-set to begin dialogue on Kashmir.”

Its ministers, including prime minister Imran, repeatedly threaten India with nuclear war only to claim the next day that Pakistan won’t be the first to push the button.

Amid this circus from across the border, India’s reaction has been calm, composed and coherent.

It understands Pakistan’s game plan and has refused to be drawn into a rhetorical slanging match, advising Pakistan to accept the reality that Kashmir is India’s “internal matter” and urging it not to “project a panic situation”.

In response to a provocative propaganda piece by Imran on the pages of The New York Times, India’s minister for external affairs S Jaishankar said he “didn’t have the time to read it.” He also dismissed Imran’s “conditional offer” for “talks” by repeating India’s well-stated position that talks and terror cannot go together.

If Imran’s ploy has been to issue nuclear threat to force western nations into pressing India for a dialogue, India understands that this is pure bluff-mongering by Islamabad. “Terrorism is not something that is being conducted in the dark corners of Pakistan. It’s done in broad daylight,” said Jaishankar in an interview with a Brussels-based newspaper.

India’s strategy is evident. It will ignore the noise from Islamabad, secure in the knowledge that Pakistan has no real leverage against India. And it will meticulously cover the diplomatic base to keep the global opinion on its side. And so far, India’s strategy has been quite successful. Except for nutty socialist leaders from the US and the UK such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn (the latter has to please his British-Pakistani community), major global powers including the Islamic Gulf nations have come out on India’s side.

This solid diplomatic support for India is not to be confused with the commentary from western media that has largely been critical of India’s move. In reality, however, US president Donald Trump has retreated from his earlier position to now call Kashmir a “bilateral issue” that both nations are capable of handling. The US military establishment is firmly behind India and has called out Pakistan as the chief destabilising force in south Asia.

Elsewhere, among the P5 nations, France has openly backed India’s position. Russia has said its views on Kashmir “exactly the same” as India’s. Even the UK, which was thought to be ganging up against India at the UNSC closed-door meeting on Kashmir, has clarified that it has “not backed” China and Pakistan.

The Gulf nations have put geopolitics and strategic interests above Pakistan’s call for ‘Ismalic Ummah’ and have come out in support of India. The optics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi getting the highest civilian honour from the UAE and Bahrain at a time when Pakistan has been trying desperately to get the Gulf nations to speak out against India, have not been lost on anyone. If the Arab states have put aside Islamic identity in favour of partnerships built on common interests, it is a testament to India’s growing clout as the world’s fifth largest economy and enduring bond with the Arab nations: an area where Modi has spent considerable political capital.

As Walter Russell Mead wrote in The Wall Street Journal “…the economic ties between India and the Gulf are deep. Of India’s 10 largest trading partners, three are Gulf states. Roughly two-thirds of India’s energy imports come from Gulf nations, and more than half of India’s remittances come from workers there. As a growing market for Arab oil and gas, as a source of highly trained and competent personnel, and as a friendly country with a powerful military and a strong interest in geopolitical stability, India is a valuable neighbour in a dangerous part of the world.”

All this is excellent from India’s standpoint as it battles a particularly tricky problem in the high Himalayas, but it is worth noting that this diplomatic goodwill is not a blank cheque. The time and space that western nations and even Arabian states are willing to give to India is incumbent on New Delhi restoring normalcy sooner rather than later in Kashmir. If the communication lockdown continues for long, it is possible that many of these nations will begin to show a little more restlessness and India might run into global opprobrium.

Despite Pakistan’s desperate efforts and dubious coverage from western press on Kashmir, global attention has still not been focused on the Valley. This is in due to various factors, including Pakistan’s ill-reputation, fatigue with separatist movements, concerns over Kashmir becoming the latest flashpoint for pan-Islamist fundamentalism and India’s rising profile. However, if the curbs on civil liberties continue and communication networks remain blocked, then India’s credentials as a democracy may come into question. Its own commitment towards democratic rights and civil liberties will create additional pressure.

As we near a month into the decision to abrogate Article 370 and imprisonment of Kashmir’s political actors, there will be increasing pressure on India to hasten up the process of “easing up”. The biggest issue for India right now, as articulated by Jaishankar during the interview with an European newspaper, is to decide between communication blackout that may ensure peace, and relaxing of such measures that may provide space for terrorists and separatists to exploit.

“It wasn’t possible to stop communications between militants without an impact on all of Kashmir. How do I cut off communication between the terrorists and their masters on the one hand, but keep the internet open for other people? I would be delighted to know,” Jaishankar was quoted as saying.

But yet this is the puzzle that India must crack, and it doesn’t have the luxury of unlimited time given the fact that lockdown conditions are likely to increase fear, anxiety and paranoia among ordinary Kashmiris whose loyalty and alignment with the Indian State is not beyond questioning.

As former press secretary to the president and ORF fellow Ashok Malik wrote in Hindustan Times, “countering radicalism and terrorism are necessary here, but by themselves, not sufficient. What Modi will ultimately be judged on is his willingness to preserve and indeed enhance the ordinary Kashmiri’s dignity. This calls for a new social contract between the Indian State and its most alienated citizens.”

Ultimately, Modi’s decision to relax norms, set Kashmiri politicians free, remove the communication blackout, reduce security and relax all curbs on civil liberties will depend on how well he understands the key question: in the battle between desire for normality, getting access to public goods/services and the search for Islamic identity, which side will ordinary Kashmiris choose?

Modi’s bet so far has been on the assumption that ultimately, desire for normalcy trumps every other consideration, and if the Indian State may create an atmosphere where aspirations may be met and grievances addressed, then the desire for an Islamic identity above all may diminish. Certain signals such as this — shut by day, Srinagar's veggie market buzzes all night — give an indication which way the wind is blowing. But the Indian State has an arduous and difficult task ahead.

Updated Date: Sep 04, 2019 07:33:08 IST