Modi Trumps the Donald with firm stand on Kashmir

President Donald Trump meets with Prime Minster Narendra Modi of India at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 26, 2019. Modi declined Trump’s offer to mediate India's dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Longtime career diplomats at the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council, and South Asia observers have heaved a sigh of relief that President Donald Trump, during his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the sidelines of the G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France, had expunged the word ‘mediate’ from his lexicon and acquiesced to Modi’s contention that Kashmir is a bilateral between India and Pakistan.

These sources acknowledged that they were “holding their breath” that Trump would not blurt out that he stood ready to mediate, exacerbating the acid reflux he had precipitated on July 22, when, during a White House meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, he had made the dubious claim that Modi had asked him to mediate the Kashmir imbroglio, which India immediately denied.

The sources told India Abroad that Modi’s apparent “charm offensive” in Biarritz, but more importantly, preemptively making clear to Trump that he has got the situation in Kashmir “under control,” and that India “doesn’t want to trouble any third country,” to mediate, was catalytic in Trump’s acquiescence that the Kashmir issue has to be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan.

“All the issues between India and Pakistan are bilateral in nature, and we don’t want to trouble any third country. We can discuss and resolve these issues bilaterally,” Modi told the media with Trump by his side on Aug. 26 after their overnight discussions on the margins of the G-7 summit.

The sources said that their apprehensions that Trump would once again publicly bring up his offer to mediate were compounded because even on the eve of the G-7 summit, Trump continued to use the word ‘mediate’ following his calls to Modi and Khan on Aug. 19 as war of words between New Delhi and Islamabad began to escalate in the aftermath of the Indian action on Article 370 on Aug. 5.

On Aug. 20, in an interaction with reporters, Trump, in describing the situation in Kashmir as “explosive,” went on the say that “Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have Hindus and you have the Muslims and I wouldn’t say they get along so great.”

And then once again giving both New Delhi and the career diplomats in Washington who deal with South Asia acid reflux, declared, “I will do the best I can to mediate.

“I’m going to be with Prime Minister Modi. I’ll be with him over the weekend in France,” Trump said, referring to the G7 Summit.

“Pakistan Prime Minister Khan was here just recently. I get along really well with both of them,” he said.

Trump reiterated, “Kashmir is a very tough situation, and it’s been going on for a long period of time. So, you know, I think we’re helping the situation. But there’s tremendous problems between those two countries. And I will do the best I can to mediate or do something. Great relationship with both of them, but they are not exactly friends at this moment. Complicated situation.”

But Trump said India and Pakistan have been having “these talks for hundreds (sic) of years, even under different names,” and then declared, “A lot has to do with religion. Religion is a complicated subject. You have the Hindus. And you have the Muslims. I wouldn’t say they get along so great. That’s what you have right now.”

But his continued use of the word mediate, once again set off the career diplomats dealing with South Asia in the State Department and the National Security Council into damage control and clean up mode, with an official during a background briefing before Trump left for the G-7, making clear that the U.S. had no intention of mediating on Kashmir.

The senior State Department official said Trump’s calls to Modi and Khan were not mediation but a good-faith effort to encourage both countries to resolve the Kashmir issue bilaterally.

When pressed that “if this is not mediation, what else is?” the official, explained, “The president has offered to mediate if asked by both parties. He’s not been asked by both parties to mediate. But the president’s interest in helping to encourage stability in South Asia is not new.”

When asked about Pakistan’s decision to take the Kashmir issue to the International Court of Justice, the official said the U.S. did not favor such a move, saying that while “its Pakistan sovereign decision whether it wants to approach the International Court of Justice, our view is that a resolution in Kashmir is not aided by multilateralizing it.

The answer is direct a conversation between India and Pakistan.”

During their media appearance at the G-7, Trump said that the night before, he and Modi had spoken about Kashmir “at great length” and obviously convinced by Modi that there’s no need for third party mediation, acknowledged that he believes that both India and Pakistan can resolve it on their own.

BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, obviously elated over Trump’s climb down from his earlier offers of mediation, said in New Delhi, “Pakistan’s propaganda was dealt the final blow in the meeting between the PM and President Trump. Pakistan was hoping to get some statement which will give it a last ray of hope. The meeting has categorically confirmed that any issue concerning India and Pakistan has to be discussed bilaterally.”

Trump, during his appearance with Modi also said, “We are talking about trade, we’re talking about military and many different things. We had some great discussions, we were together last night for dinner and I learned a lot about India.”

Later, he tweeted that he had “a great meeting with my friend Prime Minister Modi,” and Modi replied with his own tweet, saying, “Excellent meeting with @POTUS @realDonaldTrump! We had useful discussions on bilateral matters. We agreed to address trade issues for mutual benefit soon. Looking forward to expand cooperation as large democracies for the benefit of our citizens and global peace and prosperity.”

Meanwhile, Khan, in a televised address on Aug. 26, obviously chagrined by the bonhomie between Trump and Modi and the U.S. President’s reversal on Kashmir, vowed to continue fighting for the rights of Kashmiris and said he would shortly embark on a diplomatic tour soon to raise the issue in international forums including the UN General Assembly in September.

“I will tour the world and tell them what is happening... the Modi government is pursuing a policy which brought havoc globally in the past,” he said, and apparently taking a swipe at the United Arab Emirates which Modi had visited before proceeding to France, and been accorded a rock-star welcome, predicted, “Many Muslim governments, which are not openly supporting us due to their business interests, will sooner or later support our position... It is imperative that we should stand by Kashmiris. We should give a message to Kashmiris that we are with them.”

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