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Why Kashmir is a crisis for the world, not just India and Pakistan

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The 15-member United Nations Security Council reluctantly gathered Friday in a closed-door session to discuss an issue it would have preferred to wish away but which, once again, has become impossible for the world to ignore: Kashmir.

They did what the U.N. often does — not much, but enough for both Pakistan and India to claim victory and gloat to their domestic audiences. Meanwhile, they had nothing to offer to the people of Kashmir, not even a word of consolation.

All of this creates a problem not just for the region but the world — and, perhaps, an opportunity for the United States to act in the world’s best interests.

This crisis began on Aug. 5 when India unilaterally eliminated the autonomous status of the disputed territory of Kashmir that had been the fundamental legal basis and a primary condition of its temporary incorporation into India. Eleven days later, as the Security Council concluded its meeting, Indian-held Kashmir was still under complete lockdown: totally silenced and shuttered, home to one of the largest concentrations of military anywhere on the planet; its capital, Srinagar, turned into a barricaded garrison, the world’s largest prison.

Famed Indian novelist Arundhati Roy and many other leading intellectuals have described the unilateral annexation of Kashmir as a body blow to Indian democracy with, in Roy’s words, “a distinct whiff of colonialism.” Importantly, between revoking parts of India’s constitution (Article 370) and possibly engineering religious demographic change in Kashmir, the fundamental basis of India’s relationship to Kashmir has been irrevocably changed.

As if on cue to remind anyone who might have forgotten just what is at stake — and just hours before the U.N. Security Council meeting — Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh raised the specter of nuclear war and triumphantly proclaimed that India might now abandon its “No First Use” nuclear doctrine. This, on the heels of threatening statements from India’s ruling party leadership that the next step for India is to reconquer those parts of Kashmir currently under Pakistan control.

The mood in India has triggered the expected anger in Pakistan, with its Prime Minister Imran Khan accusing the Indian government of “acting like Hitler’s Nazi party,” describing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions in Kashmir as a prelude to “ethnic cleansing” and warning the international community that ignoring India’s actions would be appeasement.

Indian commentators are in shock at the extremist Hindu nationalism (Hindutva), jingoism and militant majoritarianism of Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP).

If you are saying to yourself, “But aren’t India and Pakistan always like this — constantly at each other’s throats, forever blaming the other, keeping the world on edge?” allow me to suggest that today’s situation is dangerous and frightening at an entirely new level.

As the New York Times’ editorial board argued, Modi’s antics of Aug. 5 made the most dangerous place in the world — Kashmir — even more dangerous. In doing so, he has made the Kashmir question more “international” than it has been in at least half a century. Here is how:

  • By unilaterally changing the status of an internationally disputed territory — which, although occupied by India, is also claimed by Pakistan and under sanction of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions — all aspects of the international status quo on Kashmir have also been brought into question. This includes, for example, the very nature of the so-called “Lines of Control” that serve as borders between the Pakistan-, China- and India-occupied parts of Kashmir.
  • The drastic nature of India’s unilateral action reflects a de facto abandonment of its long-held position that all matters pertaining to Kashmir should be decided between Pakistan and India. This is a seismic foreign policy shift for India but also reflects a historical progression. India first took the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations in 1948, seeking a multilateral resolution and accepting the principle that the issue should be resolved on the basis of a plebiscite reflecting the will of Kashmiris. That referendum never happened. By 1972, India held more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war and used its new leverage to enshrine in the Simla Agreement an insistence on a bilateral approach. Now, in 2019 — at a moment of India’s economic and political confidence and of Pakistan’s isolation and weakness — Modi has upped the ante again by declaring India’s intent to ‘“solve” the Kashmir question unilaterally. India’s new unilateralism has left the Simla Agreement dead; with no bilateral option to exercise, the still-simmering conflict has no place to go except to become international.
  • Ultimately, the conflict in Kashmir has become international again not only because Pakistan and India have so miserably failed to resolve it bilaterally but because the human implications of this failure are so stark. It took nearly two weeks for India to begin easing just a few of the restrictions on movement and communication in Srinagar, but the government had to immediately reimpose the clampdown amid a wave of violent clashes. It is not clear how long Kashmir can remain barricaded, but it is very clear that normalcy can no longer be expected. Not surprisingly, the tension has spilled into deadly clashes between India and Pakistan. The prognosis is not good. Not good at all.

The fact that the U.N. Security Council did meet on Kashmir, albeit reluctantly, suggests that the major powers do realize that the conflict again requires international attention. One hopes they also realize that not having found a resolution to the Kashmir conflict is not only the greatest failure of India and Pakistan, it is the unfinished agenda of the U.N. — in fact, one of the longest unresolved disputes on its docket.

One wonders if it is wise counsel or a dereliction of duty for the major powers to ask India and Pakistan to resolve their differences themselves. Any parent of squabbling children will confirm that the strategy of “just go away and sort it out yourself!” can only work so long, and often not at all. In this case, it has not worked for more than 70 years. 

Given India’s unilateral action, where is the space or scope for a bilateral conversation between India and Pakistan? Where might it take place? What might come of it? Yes, dialogue is always a good idea — but can anyone honestly see that happening without it being mediated by the Security Council or by a great power that can influence both Pakistan and India?

Which, of course, reminds us that there is one major power whose leader is ready and willing to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir. This would be a good time for President Donald Trump to make good on his offer.

Adil Najam is a professor of international relations and the founding dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter @AdilNajam.

Tags Donald Trump Imran Khan India India–Pakistan relations Kashmir Kashmir conflict Narendra Modi Pakistan United Nations Security Council
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