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Kashmir @ the UN: Managing the optics – Livemint

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New York: It’s been six weeks since the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi made its audacious move in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), revoking the state’s special status and dividing it into two union territories. World leaders are still struggling to understand the wider ramifications of the decision. While most of them have accepted the abrogation of Article 370 as “an internal matter,” their comfort levels vary, betraying a degree of reluctance. It’s not a full embrace. Many see the potential for a regional crisis rising given Pakistan’s incendiary rhetoric.

As heads of governments gather for the United Nations General Assembly, Pakistan’s dirty tricks department has been working overtime, ferrying people in buses for protests and planting fake news. Human rights activists are readying themselves to distribute reports, speeches and cite UN’s Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet who raised deep concerns about the situation in Kashmir in Geneva earlier this month.

Like it or not, this means “internationalization” of the Kashmir issue in a manner of speaking. To be sure the world headlines will eventually move on, but there’s no denying that New Delhi’s timing was off. The August 5 decision came just a month before two major international gatherings — the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva — giving Pakistan a ready stage for theatrics.

The Pakistani offensive

Western reporting from the ground has been uniformly negative. Editorial pages have screamed at India for the crackdown, the communications blackout and blanket house arrests of political leaders. The New York Times, said to be the newspaper of record, threw all caution and standards to the wind and allowed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to use its pages to unleash pure propaganda and vile rhetoric. Khan compared Modi to Hitler, forgetting his own country’s deeply anti-Semitic roots where 9/11 is seen as a Jewish conspiracy and Jews are considered the “enemies” of Islam. But every Pakistani voice, paid or unpaid, found a platform for hysteria – there was talk of an “impending genocide” of Kashmiris and of nuclear war. Any and every apocalyptic pronouncement was deemed worthy of print.

While Pakistani lobbyists may have partially succeeded in pushing their narrative in the western media, it’s important to remember that Pakistan itself has low to zero credibility with western leaders and arguably also within the Muslim world. Even China, advertised as Pakistan’s Iron Brother, can only go so far before bumping into reality. Last month, when China called for a full-fledged UN Security Council meeting on Kashmir at Pakistan’s behest, it only got a closed-door “consultation” with no record being kept and no press statement issued. It was a non-meeting where the US-French axis supported India and resisted Chinese attempts to foist Pakistan’s agenda.

It’s a given that Pakistan will use the UNGA to continue its offensive and heap more condemnation on India. Khan will paint a dark picture of a democracy gone rogue, taunt the world community for doing nothing and celebrate Pakistan’s victimhood. Although raising Kashmir at the UN is an annual Pakistani ritual — a tendency former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal famously called the “Kashmir itch” — this year’s performance will be even more theatrical given the previews.

The Indian gameplan

India, on the other hand, will most likely focus on Pakistan-supported terrorism in J&K over decades. Modi will feel no compulsion to explain an “internal” matter to the UN General Assembly. New Delhi has insisted the absorption of J&K into the Indian union is a strictly domestic issue and does not affect India’s external boundaries – either the Line of Control with Pakistan or the Line of Actual Control with China. Therefore the world doesn’t need to get exercised. But the world will get exercised to some extent.

Outside the UN building, protests and counter-protests will form the backdrop. Groups funded by Pakistani intelligence, which include Khalistani fronts, will face Hindutva-linked organisations and other Indian American groups in a show of strength to capture the attention of TV crews.

But here’s the harsh reality — the world is drowning in crises and western powers are preoccupied. From climate change to Brexit, from managing China’s rise to the faltering Afghanistan peace process and tackling Iran, they don’t have the bandwidth to get too deeply involved in Kashmir except to counsel restraint to both sides. Then there is the larger geo-political scenario where the United States is engaged in maintaining its supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region against an increasingly aggressive China. Beijing is steadily expanding its influence via multiple strategic plays, the Belt-Road Initiative being the most ambitious manifestation. India is a key partner for the US in the Indo-Pacific face-off while Pakistan is a frontline state of China.

Given the high stakes, Washington will not rock the Indian boat nor will France, which has backed New Delhi through multiple crises starting with the 1998 nuclear tests. Russia will flop somewhere in the middle, using India when it can without angering its new best friend, China.

Problem with Pakistan

While India is a large economy the world has deep stakes in, Pakistan, in stark contrast, presents the worst kind of problem for world leaders – it’s terrorist-infested, it has nuclear weapons, it’s poor and it requires constant bailouts. As Aparna Pande, a South Asia expert at the Hudson Institute, said, “Most countries view relations through the prism of national interest, not ideology or religion. Pakistan has hurt its own cause over the years by using jihad as a lever of foreign policy including in Kashmir.”

Every major terrorist attack around the world has ultimately led investigators to Pakistan. Jim Mattis, former US defence secretary and the latest American luminary to pronounce judgment, has called Pakistan “the most dangerous” of all the countries he has known. Western diplomats no longer buy Pakistan’s storyline on Kashmir, especially the histrionics. But they may humour Khan a little because of Pakistan’s strategic location and the need to keep an eye on its nuclear weapons.

Every major terrorist attack around the world has ultimately led investigators to Pakistan (Getty Images)

President Donald Trump briefly let Khan dream about Kashmir mediation because he wanted Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan peace process. But he quickly moved to advising a bilateral settlement. He then practically endorsed what Modi had told him during the G-7 summit in France about Kashmir: “The prime minister really feels he has it under control.” He then decided to appear at Modi’s rally in Houston (it will be held on September 22), delivering a gut punch to Pakistan.

Trump has shifted closer to the traditional US position – Washington is willing to assist if both sides ask for help. Also, with the Afghan peace process in disarray, Pakistan’s utility will diminish in some measure.

Pressure in the US

But as the Kashmir clampdown has continued, other parts of the US government have grown uncomfortable. Most notably, the State Department conspicuously shifted from its initial somewhat hands-off position to one calling for the release of political leaders in Kashmir. Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokeswoman, said in early September, “We continue to be very concerned by widespread detentions, including of local political and business leaders and the restrictions on the residents of the region.”

Pande of the Hudson Institute, explained, “Western democracies like the US, UK and France, view India as a fellow democracy that seeks to uphold the liberal international order. While they accept India’s arguments on Article 370 being an internal matter, they do expect India to return the situation in Kashmir to normal as soon as possible.”

Some amount of pressure has also come from the US Congress, which as the legislative branch is answerable to constituents. The Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, began getting a “lot of phone calls” from constituents distressed about family members back home around mid August. Whether the calls were genuine or from people masquerading as Kashmiris, it’s hard to say. According to well-informed sources some Congressional staffers have been hoodwinked by a well-organised ISI plan to flood the switchboards on Capitol Hill.

The pressure resulted in a decision by key House Democrats to hold a hearing. Indian diplomats requested the hearing be postponed until October after the UNGA and Congressman Brad Sherman, the Asia subcommittee chair, agreed. He understood how Pakistani lobbyists might exploit a genuine hearing for their political purposes. Sherman, who has long been concerned about the fate of minorities in Pakistan, will review the human rights situation in the entire region, not just Kashmir. The fate of Baloch, Ahmadi, Sindhi, Hindu and Christian minorities in Pakistan will be discussed as will be the Rohingyas in Myanmar. The hearing may spark another round of negative reporting.

Many in India and abroad have found the Kashmir coverage in the western media to be unfair and filled with “half-truths and untruths” as India’s ambassador to the US, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, characterized it. Kashmiri pundits organised a demonstration in front of TheWashington Post’s office to protest the “one-sided coverage” because it didn’t address the “de jure lawlessness that existed in the state due to Article 370.” While it’s true the coverage was tilted, it’s also true that messaging from New Delhi was less than adequate, especially in the initial days. The government has barred foreign reporters from going to Kashmir, which also has irked the State Department and Congressional Democrats.

And as a regional expert who did not want to be identified said, “If you are a democracy, you will be criticised when you move away from your principles for whatever reasons.” An aspiring global power also must develop a thicker skin and learn to take criticism.

But why has India done poorly in the battle of narratives, especially against a country whose chief export is terrorism? For starters, successive Indian governments have failed to bring the stark reality of Pakistani games in the so-called “Azad” Kashmir to light. A well-structured campaign to highlight the abuses would have punched some holes in the relentless Pakistan campaign. Constitutional crimes of a far worse nature have gone unnoticed in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Islamabad has carved and cleaved POK at will over the years, annexing parts, ceding parts to China and leaving an entire area it belatedly christened Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009 without access to communication for decades. Last year, Pakistan issued the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, which effectively seized whatever powers remained with the local council and handed them to the prime minister. India protested at the time but took no other steps to beat the drums on the steady absorption of POK into Pakistan. The myth of “Azad” Kashmir has never got the attention it deserves. The Pakistani press ignores it, the Indian press barely notices and the international press doesn’t even register it as a problem.

In conclusion

For many days following the August 5 decision, New Delhi barely spoke publicly to the world outside. The briefings for Delhi-based diplomats didn’t help in the PR battle. Since nature abhors a vacuum, the field was occupied by critics who threw out wild figures on the number of troops, claimed widespread abuses by security forces, used estimates of 4,000 for arrests and generally painted things black. Earlier this month the government began giving updates – an extremely bureaucratic accounting of LPG cylinders and such – but still no politician who can speak for Modi came out to explain.

Why not give an official ballpark figure for the number of army and paramilitary troops in Kashmir? Why not tell the world how many people are in detention? In the absence of basic facts, India’s foes are making hay while its friends abroad keep asking, “What is the end game?”

Seema Sirohi is a journalist and columnist based in Washington DC

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