As India prepares to mark Independence Day on August 15, protests against PM Narendra Modi’s Kashmir status change and crackdown are set to keep the disputed territory in the spotlight. It’s a focus New Delhi would rather avoid.
Eid al-Adha — the Muslim “Feast of the Sacrifice” – is being marked with a grim symbolism in the Kashmir Valley this year as a population silenced, surveilled and seething in the world’s most militarised zone once again confronts the failure of the international community to tackle the latest violation in an intractable, decades-long conflict.
The picturesque Himalayan region of Kashmir is dangerously contested territory, parts of it claimed by India, Pakistan and China. While the three nuclear armed nations have gone to war over territorial disputes over the past seven decades, the rights of Kashmiris and their dreams of self-determination have been systematically sacrificed, like lambs to slaughter for the Muslim festival.
A week after India gutted a key constitutional article that governed the relationship between the disputed region of Kashmir and the central government in New Delhi, the contrast between the responses in diplomatic corridors and the anger on the streets and social media sites could not be starker.
Braving curfews and checkpoints manned by troops armed to the teeth, protesters have been taking to the streets in Srinagar, the main city in Indian-administered Kashmir, according to journalists granted tightly controlled access to a region that has been under a lockdown and communications blackout since August 5. While some of the restrictions were easing for the Eid al-Adha festival, communications and the Internet remained cut Sunday.
Outside India, protests broke out over the weekend in neighbouring Pakistan as well as outside Indian embassy and consulate buildings in Western cities such as New York, Los Angeles, London and Birmingham, home to a diaspora displaced by decades of conflict, with protesters chanting, “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime”.
Powerful chanting at the Kashmir solidarity rally in NYC: “From Kashmir to Palestine, occupation is a crime” pic.twitter.com/Lsw5ZUBImD
Jewish Voice for Peace (@jvplive) August 9, 2019
As Pakistan and India mark 72 years of independence from British colonialism on Wednesday, August 14 and Thursday, August 15 respectively, demonstrations and counterdemonstrations are once again set to grab headlines, underscoring the empty promises, repression and dashed hopes that have been the lot of Kashmiris divided across heavily militarised borders.
The furor on social media and the streets are a world away from the cautious statements issued by the UN and the radio silence in Western capitals in response to India’s sudden scrapping of Article 370, a constitutional clause granting the state of Jammu and Kashmir autonomy.
Britain — the old colonial power whose hasty exit from the subcontinent without settling the Kashmir dispute sparked the crisis – called for “the situation to remain calm”. The US State Department meanwhile denied Indian media reports that New Delhi had consulted and informed Washington of its decision to revoke Article 370.
In a statement released days after India imposed an unprecedented lockdown on Kashmir, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he had been following the situation with “concern” and recalled a 1972 agreement between India and Pakistan that calls for a bilateral resolution to the crisis by “peaceful means”.
Abandoning the veneer of bilateralism
The UN statement invoking a “bilateral resolution” came days after Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the international community to intervene in the crisis or risk regional instability.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi visited Beijing over the weekend and announced that Pakistan, with China’s support, will take up India’s unilateral actions in Kashmir with the UN Security Council.
The bloody post-colonial history of Kashmir is littered with Pakistani calls for international mediation on the intractable crisis. India, in contrast, has long blocked any attempt to internationalise the issue, rejecting external arbitration to resolve the crisis. As a larger, militarily stronger power, India’s interests are better served by bilateralism and the maintenance of the disputed region’s status quo, which gives it the key Kashmir Valley.
On August 5 though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration abandoned even the veneer of bilateralism that has characterised India’s official discourse and helped New Delhi avoid international attention and censure over its violations in Kashmir.
The ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) unilaterally scrapped Article 370 while simultaneously depriving India’s only Muslim-majority state of statehood. In one fell swoop, the state of Jammu and Kashmir — which included the Hindu-dominated areas of Jammu, Muslim-majority Kashmir and the primarily Buddhist Ladakh region – came directly under central government control in a federal political system.
While the scrapping of Article 370 and another constitutional clause preventing outsiders from acquiring land in Kashmir was a BJP campaign issue ahead of the 2019 general election, the manner in which the Modi administration conducted the move caught the international community by surprise.
Days before the announcement, under the ruse of a heightened terror threat, New Delhi deployed tens of thousands of additional troops into the already militarised zone. Telephone services – including landlines – and Internet services were cut, local political leaders arrested and public gatherings banned.
Unequal powers, unequal influence
Pakistan predictably responded by downgrading diplomatic relations, suspending bilateral trade ties and expelling the Indian ambassador in Islamabad. But as an economically and militarily weaker power, Pakistan’s diplomatic options are limited.
“Pakistan struggles with an image problem overseas and has difficulty getting its voice respected. It has tried the UN General Assembly to project its voice, but it lacks credibility on the world’s stage,” said Michael Kugelman from the Washington DC-based Wilson Center in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Part of the problem has been the issue of terrorism and Pakistan’s support for militant Islamist groups, which India has successfully leveraged in the international community, particularly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US and the 2008 attacks in India’s commercial capital, Mumbai.
Finally, India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy, coupled with its economic growth and market potential, makes major world powers hesitant to offend New Delhi. “The world’s key capitals value their partnerships with New Delhi since India has tremendous market opportunity, which is why they don’t want to rock the boat,” explained Kugelman.
India’s standing on the world stage
But the Modi administration’s latest unilateral move threatens to jeopardise India’s standing on the world stage.
While major powers and heads of multilateral institutions may still be cautious about censuring New Delhi’s actions in the disputed region, a growing international awareness of the crisis could fuel public anger as was witnessed by protests outside India over the weekend.
The demonstrations in Western capitals and major cities are likely grow later this week with pro-Kashmir groups calling for a major protest outside the Indian High Commission in London on Indian Independence Day. Meanwhile supporters of India’s BJP are also scheduled to hold a demonstration in London on Thursday, raising the spectre of headline-grabbing heated debates. In the Kashmir Valley, the easing of restrictions is likely to spark another wave of protests and unrest, keeping the issue under the international spotlight.
“As the Modi government puts a foot on the accelerator of its Hindu nationalist agenda, it could imperil India’s fairly pristine reputation overseas,” said Kugelman. “Delhi needs to be careful with its optics and the tactics it uses to quell the unrest in the Valley otherwise more negative headlines will put pressure on Western governments to call out India. If major stakeholders start calling out Indian violations, it will then get Pakistan in the place it’s always wanted diplomatically.”