Revocation of special status to Kashmir elicits muted response from Trump administration

A woman holds her child as she walks past security personnel under rain in Jammu on August 5, 2019. Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir placed large parts of the disputed region under lockdown early August 5, while India sent in tens of thousands of additional troops and traded accusations of clashes with Pakistan at their de facto border. (Getty Images)

For the Trump administration, beset by the horrific killings of more than 30 innocent civilians in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, by domestic terrorists, including by a white supremacist, the Indian government’s revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution that provided Kashmir special status for decades, was the last thing on their mind.

In a muted reaction, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a statement on August 5 that the United States is “closely following the events in the state of Jammu and Kashmir” though she noted that the Indian government had made clear that this decision was “strictly an internal matter.”

“We are concerned about reports of detentions and urge respect for individual rights and discussion with those in affected communities,” she said, and added, “We call on all parties to maintain peace and stability along the Line of Control.”

Administration sources told India Abroad that the U.S. had not been napping by New Delhi’s decision, since External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar had briefed U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, about the Indian government’s intent to revoke this special status for Kashmir, when the two had met on the sidelines of the ninth East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Bangkok on August 1.

But former career diplomats, who have served in South Asia, other experts and policy wonks specializing on the subcontinent, in interviews with India Abroad, predicted that turbulent times are inevitably on the horizon and could make for explosive times in the region.

Retired U.S. ambassador Teresita C. Schaffer, a veteran India and South Asia expert, who, with her late husband, both retired career diplomats, had over 60 years of combined experience between them, serving as ambassadors to the subcontinent and enjoying stints in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, noted that “doing

away with Kashmir’s limited autonomy was a long-time goal of the BJP, one that (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi espoused though he had previously seemed to be in no hurry.”

But Schaffer, currently a Senior Advisor to McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C., said, “The latest moves have already proved deeply offensive to the state’s Muslim population, who fear that this is the beginning of a move to change the demographics of the state,” and added, the Indian government decision “were greeted with outrage, not surprisingly, in Pakistan, and they have been badly received by India’s opposition as well.”

Interestingly, she pointed out, “This action comes about two weeks after President Trump, in a press conference before he met with the visiting Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, claimed that Prime Minister Modi had asked him to mediate in Kashmir. Pakistan was delighted; Indian government spokesmen angrily denied that anything like that had been said.” 

Schaffer opined that “these latest actions may in part have been intended to make it crystal clear that despite what President Trump or anyone else may say, India has no intention of moving toward international peace-making steps.”

India has long insisted on strictly bilateral talks with Pakistan, and has kept its occasional political overtures to the Kashmiris strictly fire-walled from its periodic talks with Pakistan.

Noting that “at present, most of Kashmir’s political leaders are under arrest, the Internet and cellphone communications have been shut down in the state, and there is a heavy police presence on its streets, Schaffer opined that “the short term outlook is for harsh mutual criticism by India and Pakistan and street violence in Kashmir.”

She also warned that although “the nuclear armed neighbors may not be moving intentionally toward war,” there was no denying that “the current environment makes miscalculation a much greater risk.”  

Michael Kugelman, the Deputy Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, described New Delhi’s decision as “a bold, unprecedented, and controversial decision that is bound to reverberate regionally in ways that India would prefer it not.”

“We are talking of a unilateral decision to alter the status of Kashmir-one of the most fraught disputes in the world,” he said, and added, “To be sure, Pakistan, despite its vows to do something, has limited options of response. Still, Islamabad can respond in ways that range from diplomatic--seeking to build a global campaign to oppose India’s measure-- to destabilizing--sending its militant assets into India to cause trouble.”

Meanwhile, Kugelman said, “Kashmir itself could plunge into deep unrest, once India relaxes its security lockdown. In effect India may believe it’s solved a problem, but in reality it’s just made the problem more complex.”

SumitGanguly, a Distinguished Professor of Political Science and the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington, expressed apprehension over the Indian government’s move.

“I fear that this hasty decision done without any parliamentary consultation could easily backfire. Already the Valley is home to a host of alienated youth, and it is entirely likely that this decision may aggravate those feelings, at least some of them are likely to turn to violence,” he said.

Ganguly, author of highly acclaimed, “The Crisis in Kashmir: Portents of War, Hopes of Peace” and several other books on Kashmir, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, said his real fear is that the government  move will lead to a renewed outburst of violence in the Valley. “Many young Kashmiris in the Valley will construe this decision as a real slap in their faces.”

Asked if this was actuallyan attempt by the Modi Government to dilute the demographics of the Muslim majority of Kashmir, he acknowledged that seems to be the motive. 

“I do believe that this is exactly their hope. Whether or not it is actually realized is another matter altogether. I doubt that droves of individuals who have no blood-soil relationship with Kashmir will suddenly move pell-mell to Kashmir,” Ganguly said.

As for reports that Islamabad will exercise all possible options to counter the “illegal steps” being a party to the international dispute, he said Pakistan’s reaction is entirely predictable.

Ganguly said it’s a no-brainer that “they will now bring up the matter in every international fora that they can. Whether or not the world will care is another matter. I suspect that some Muslim countries will make sympathetic noises, but I doubt that they will do anything reallytangible. China, of course, will weigh in on behalf of Pakistan.”

Domestically, he said that since the the BJP has a comfortable majority and the general elections are far away, apart from a handful of Muslim leaders who will, no doubt, protest the government decision, the vast majority of Muslims in India are too preoccupied with the demands of their everyday lives to get out and hold mass protests

Ganguly said, “Engaging in collective action takes time, energy and commitment, and most  Muslims, while unhappy will not muster the necessary resources to engage in organized protest.”

Deepa Ollapally, Research Professor of International Relations and Director, Rising Powers Initiative at George Washington University, said, "We need to remember a bit of history on Article 370. One of its biggest objectives was to maintain Kashmir’s regional ‘Kashmiriyat’ identity.”

She recalled, “Early Kashmiri Muslim leaders like Sheikh Abdullah felt their identity could be preserved better in a federally oriented Indian political system than in a unitary Islamic Pakistan that could easily smother it.”

But Ollapally argued, “In recent decades, the ground reality is that the existence of Article 370 has not prevented rising Kashmiri alienation or terrorism in the state. But giving Kashmir a special status in turn gave India a special status as a country willing to be much more imaginative in its treatment of minorities than its neighbors.”

“One can only hope for the sake of the country and its democracy that the government will quickly follow up this risky decision with a bold strategy to counter terrorism and Kashmiri disaffection simultaneously,” she said, and added, “The biggest question is what the government’s intentions are now."

Richard Fontaine, president and CEO of the Center for a New American Security(CNAS) and a former foreign policy advisor to the late Sen. John McCain, before which he enjoyed stints at the State Department, the National Security Council and on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared, “It's a major move, to say the least.”

He noted that “the BJP had announced its intent to take such a step in its election manifesto, but actually acting on it generates huge uncertainties - and serious possible tensions.”

According to Fontaine, “If and how the local population, Pakistan-based militants, and the Pakistani government will respond remains unclear, but we could well be in for a bumpy ride ahead.”

He said, “President Trump's offer to mediate Kashmir talks quite obviously is a non-starter with New Delhi, but the administration can play a useful, private roll in urging calm on all sides.”

Asked if the Indian government’s decision could have also been a shot across the bowvis-a-vis the U.S., in the wake of Trump's offer to mediate the Kashmir imbroglioand his clear embrace of Imran Khan, which clearly shell-shocked New Delhi and had them angrily denying that Modi had ever requested Trump to mediate as Trump had claimed, and there were the likes of External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and others quickly asserting that Kashmir was a bilateral problem to be resolved by the parties concerned, Fontaine acknowledged, “It could be, but we just don’t know at this point.”

But he reiterated that “it’s worth remembering that the BJP had put this in its election manifesto, and then won the election big.”

“That on its own would encourage action,” Fontaine said. “But again, hard to say what all the motivations are just yet.”

Milan Vaishnav, Senior Fellow and Director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, echoing the sentiments of all of the others, said, “ To call this a political earthquake would be an understatement. As with demonetization, Prime Minister Modi has caught the opposition on the backfoot, this time employing clever legalism, the absence of an elected government in Jammu and Kashmir, and a deterioration of the security situation in the northern state to his advantage.”

He argued that “Modi and the BJP see the incorporation of Jammu and Kashmir into the Union as unfinished business of seven decades, although the move raises as many questions as answers--will the Supreme Court uphold the Government’s questionable legal strategy? What impact will this have on unrest in the Valley?”

And, Vaishnav noted, “Given that this move was preceded by a complete lockdown of the state, what are the far-reaching impacts of Indian federalism?

Shuja Nawaz, distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and till recently the Center’s first director, said, “Tempting though it may be for a muscular riposte, Pakistan will need to give a measured response but not provoke India into further aggressive actions on the Line of Control. That will detract from the needs and wishes of the Kashmiris.”

But Nawaz, author of ‘Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within,’ acknowledged, “The Indian action on Kashmir, especially the downgrading of the state to a territory under the Center will likely create further problems for it with the Kashmiris.The BJP is obviously aiming to strengthen its own domestic Hindu base.”

Meanwhile in Pakistan, he predicted, “This crisis will likely unite the political parties behind whatever action the National Security Council takes. It also gives Prime Minister Imran Khan an opportunity to show statesmanship by inviting opposition leaders to join briefings on the situation and seek their views on how to go forward.”

“Interestingly, this crisis will also be a test for President Trump. After his offer to mediate on Kashmir between India and Pakistan, will he play a role as  global statesman or not?” Nawaz said.

Many of the experts were also of the consensus that India, will have to expect Pakistan raising the Kashmir issue at all possible fora, including at the forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly in September. Prime Minister Modi is scheduled to travel to New York City for the UN General Assembly session and address the session on September 28.

News reports from India have said  New Delhi has launched a diplomatic offensive briefing key diplomats from the countries currently in the UN Security Council (UNSC) to counter any adverse reactions to its decision and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and other senior officials of the Indian External Affairs Ministry had briefed all 15 members of the UNSC.

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