India’s decided earlier this month to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state.
The state will be bifurcated it into two union territories – Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh – which will be accountable directly to the federal government.
Whether India likes it or not, its Kashmir decision has international ramifications and Modi’s government will be gauging them carefully.
That is relatively good news for India’s Narendra Modi-led government which has staked much of its political capital on coming through on this long-promised move after winning a landslide second consecutive election in May.
President Donald Trump said in a bland statement: “We are closely following the events in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. We take note of India’s announcement revising the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir splitting the state into two union territories.”
The US state department spokesperson amplified this hands-off attitude: “We note that India has described these actions as strictly an internal matter,” adding: “We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability.”
Having raised a storm of protest after having offered himself as mediator between India and Pakistan recently, which led to an official denial from New Delhi that Modi had asked him to help out, Trump seems to have been prevailed upon by the state department not to get involved in what is seen as an intractable issue given the positions of both sides.
Washington’s keenness for a complete withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, for which it needs the help and support of Pakistan, is increasingly being de-linked from its strategic, economic and military ties with New Delhi.
The US’ muted reaction to India’s Kashmir move is the latest example of that.
China in its response has said it is “seriously concerned” about the current situation in Kashmir and called on India and Pakistan to “peacefully resolve relevant disputes through dialogue to safeguard regional peace and stability.”
“The parties concerned should exercise restraint and act with caution, especially to avoid actions that unilaterally change the status quo and exacerbate tension,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said.
Pretty much proforma.
The twist, however, was on Ladakh.
Beijing issued a separate statement objecting to the formation of the union territory of Ladakh, highlighting China’s claims over the area.
“China opposes India’s inclusion of Chinese territory in the western section of the China-India boundary under its administrative jurisdiction. The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable,” the statement read.
India was urged “to be cautious in its words and actions on the boundary issue,” for good measure. (China and India have 3,488-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC) between them and have held 21 rounds of talks so far to resolve the boundary dispute.)
The Indian riposte was swift, with the foreign ministry iterating that the move was an “internal matter concerning the territory of India…. India does not comment on the internal affairs of other countries and similarly expects other countries to do likewise.”
But the penny had dropped for the Indian side.
While the Indian foreign ministry emphasised that both sides have agreed to maintain peace and tranquillity in border areas on the basis of the relevant agreements, Foreign Minister S Jaishankar followed up this conciliatory approach on his three-day visit to Beijing (Sunday-Tuesday).
He told his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Monday that “differences between the two countries should not be allowed to become disputes”.
He followed it up on Tuesday by reassuring Wang in a bilateral that the change in Kashmir’s status was a “purely internal, administrative matter of India” to ensure better governance.
“It has no implication for the boundaries with China… neither the external boundaries of India or the LAC with China. India is not raising any additional territorial claims,” he said in a direct attempt to assuage Beijing’s concerns.
He also headlined the importance New Delhi ascribes to ties with Beijing in an interview with Xinhua – “As the two largest developing countries and emerging economies, cooperation between India and China is of great importance not only bilaterally but to the world. We must cooperate closely if we are to realize the Asian century.”
How far China is mollified by this outreach and how it deals with pressure on it by ally Pakistan to support Islamabad’s attempts to raise the issue of Kashmir’s status change at multilateral fora including the UNSC remains to be seen.
But there is a sense in both capitals that the Indo-China entente initiated by Xi-Modi needs to be built on and not allowed to be held hostage by Kashmir.
Islamabad has been livid ever since the announcement was made and has ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure to follow its condemnation of India’s new Kashmir policy.
Within 24 hours of the move taking effect, Islamabad recalled its High Commissioner from India, downgraded diplomatic ties and suspended all bilateral agreements including those covering trade, transit and transportation.
Symbolic moves such as marking its Independence (National) Day on August 14 as “Kashmir Solidarity Day” and scathing speeches from the Prime Minister and other senior establishment figures describing New Delhi’s Kashmir move as the coming to fruition of the Indian ruling dispensation’s “Nazi-like ideology” that “targets Muslims” have also been the norm.
The Imran Khan administration, which has cross-party support on Kashmir, is trying hard to get the world to join its condemnation of India but without too much to show for it for till now.
Pakistan has written to the United Nations Security Council to take up the issue but Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi himself is downplaying expectations of a great success on that front.
Islamabad’s strategy is clearly to portray India as a threat to regional stability and a rights oppressor for the “tyranny it has unleashed on Kashmiris”.
There has been some purchase for Pakistan’s stand in China albeit Beijing is more concerned with Ladakh as opposed to Kashmir, within the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and among pressure groups such as British MPs who have sizeable Pakistani-origin voters in their constituencies.
But official support for Islamabad’s stand on the issue have so far not been forthcoming from any quarter.
South Asia/Other Powers
Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives and Bangladesh have all either maintained a studied silence or described the constitutional amendment and bifurcation into smaller administrative units of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir as an internal matter of India.
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe highlighted the fact that Ladakh has now become the first Buddhist-majority territory/state in India.
Russia strongly backed India’s move terming it “well within the framework of the Indian Constitution” while the UK said it is “watching the situation and supports appeals for all parties to remain calm”.
Iran too kept itself equidistant saying it expects India and Pakistan – “as its regional friends and partners” – to adopt peaceful methods and dialogue to take effective steps to protect the interests of the people in the region.
Says Akshay Mathur, Director of Research, Gateway House, Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai: “The prime reason for the subdued reactions and even support for India is that its Kashmir decision hasn’t touched any international boundaries. Neither the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan nor the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China is impacted. It is genuinely India’s internal affair and within its sovereign domain.
“Secondly, diplomacy is a sum of micro efforts and New Delhi has been intensely engaging with the major powers and its neighbours, including and especially China, for over five years. The first signs of that effort paying off can be seen as ties earlier seen as problematic have become genuinely broad-based with multiple levels of engagement. It is not just about one issue any more and that leads to accommodation on both sides.
“Lastly, there’s the fact is that India is increasingly seen as a powerful and not weak democracy with an economy that is potentially a magnet for many players to engage with for mutual prosperity. New Delhi is in that sense carved out space for itself to take robust internal decisions if needed while fulfilling its responsibilities as a stabilising regional power.”