India-China Standoff Will Linger On

Is an assertive China considering a strategic shift in its equation with India? Is it ramming home claims on areas in Ladakh and following up on its protest after Ladakh became a Union territory last year? Is that what the current India-China stand-off is all about? Many experts believe that this time with incursions into Indian territory in several places in the western and eastern frontier China is sending out a message. What has surprised policy makers is Chinese intrusions into the Galwan area, where the boundary is clearly marked. This is a clear departure from the past. Indian and Chinese soldiers are in an eyeball to eyeball face-off in Pangong Tso, Demchok and Daulat Beg Oldie points.

Western experts including strategic analyst Ashley Tellis is not ruling out the possibility of a short armed conflict. President Donald Trump, has also waded in to say he is ready to mediate. As in the case of India-Pakistan and Kashmir, India has politely turned it down, not wishing to draw US into this conundrum.

Senior Pentagon official, Alice Wells also took the opportunity to lambast China. She dubbed China’s actions as provocative and disturbing. While many hardliners were thrilled with her remarks, the government wisely kept quiet. India is well aware that the Trump administration, with the presidential polls in mind is ready to point fingers at China, but Delhi would at the moment much rather tackle its issue with Beijing without interference from other nations. In short the Modi government does not wish to provoke China, while standing firm on its national interest.

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Western analysts point to China’s growing self confidence and its belief that Beijing is now militarily, economically and politically strong enough to challenge not just its Asian neighbours but the US as well. Westerner see the current stand-off as a part of China’s overall aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, its determination to keep Taiwan away from the observed status in the World Health Assembly, or Beijing’s strong armed tactics in Hong Kong, all fall into a pattern. China’s “wolf warriors’’ are a manifestation of President Xi Jinping’s resurgent China.

Border tension between the two Asian giants are nothing new.Depsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, and Doklam in 2017 were serious transgressions. Despite all this both India and China are proud of the fact that not a single shot has been fired along the LAC and peace broken perhaps just by fisticuffs between PLA and Indian soldiers.

 Incursions into each other’s territories happen. Mostly at the onset of summer where patrolling by both armies intensify. India usually downplays the intrusions and says it is because the Line of Actual Control, has not yet been clearly demarcated. Yet all experts agree that this time it is different. Mainly because the incursions had happened at five places almost simultaneously. Almost five thousand PLA soldiers are said to have crossed inside Indian territory and possibly preparing to stay on through the summer. The Galwan area is a new inflection point. Here the border markings have not been contested by either side. So China possibly wants to claim this area too.

The Galwan river flows from Aksai Chin to Xinjian province of China before entering Ladakh. Retired army officials say that the idea may be to make it difficult for the Indians to service its attachments deployed close to the Karakorum pass. At the same time clashes are frequent because India is building roads and airstrips on the border areas. So areas not earlier patrolled is now easier to access and so encounters between the PLA and Indian patrols more frequent.

However the public mood in India is much anti-China. The covid 19 pandemic has led to much criticism against China worldwide, and India is no exception. Many BJP supporters want a tougher line on China, more so as they believe that China is under pressure from the Trump administration. But in the government guided by the MEA is much more circumspect.

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Most Indian analysts rule out a military confrontation. They say both countries are pragmatic and will not risk an armed conflict. In case of escalation, India is prepared to stand its ground. Though China is way ahead of India in military capability, in the recent years Indian defence procurements have steadily risen, and today it is better equipped to face the Peoples Liberation Army. The current stand-off is arm flexing by China but will be diffused. India has infinite patience and like China has dug in its heels. No one is blinking yet. But efforts are on to sort to diffuse the situation.

At a MEA briefing on Thursday India made the point that the Indian army was following all procedures laid out in India-China bilateral protocols on border management. Several rounds of talks between commanders have so far not been able to resolve the issue. India is unlikely to budge till the PLA troops withdraw from territory inside Ladakh and status quo ante is maintained.

Is China upping the ante at a time when India is at its most vulnerable? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team is struggling with the pandemic as the curve refuses to flatten despite a strict earlier lockdown. The economy already spluttering before the pandemic, is now in the doldrums. The economic forecast remains bleak, as with many other countries, including China. But this has more to do with China’s stand on Ladakh.

The intrusions into Ladakh synchronises with China’s claim over the whole of the Aksai Chin. China captured part of Aksai Chin after the 1962 border war, while a large portion of territory was ceded to China by Pakistan, while fixing the international border between the two.

India too has begun talking of akand bharat, which includes the entire POK, China has kept up its claims on parts of Ladakh. Home minister Amit Shah said in Parliament that India was determined to get back all of the land ceded to China by Pakistan in Aksai Chin. Foreign minister Jai Shankar claimed POK as Indian territory and looked forward to its unification.

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Last August, when the Narendra Modi government decided to scrap Kashmir’s special status, bifurcate Ladakh and make it a union territory with administrative control with Delhi, China objected. In fact, two days after Article 370 was abolished, China’s foreign office spokesman said the new UT of Ladakh had incorporated territory which came under China’s administrative jurisdiction. The spokesman said it was a challenge to Chinese sovereignty.

The current stand-off in Ladakh is possibly China’s way to claim areas in Ladakh as its own. India has also been talking of Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory. POK is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and a part of Xi Jinping’s ambitious belt and road project, which India has stayed away from. India protests when roads and bridges and airstrips are built in the area.

The current crisis is likely to linger on for months. But unlikely to become another border war. China is merely flexing its muscles and India continues to hold its ground.

Domestic Brownie Points For Trump & Modi

India gave President Donald Trump exactly what he asked for. Massive crowds in Ahmedabad, the Taj Mahal in Agra and energy & defence deals in Delhi. A deal worth $3 billion for the purchase of Apache and MH-60 helicopters was finalized before the US President landed in India.

The show and spectacle in Ahmedabad’s Motera stadium, where President Trump and First Lady Melanie were greeted by colorfully dressed enthusiastic crowds set the mood for the visit on Monday, soon after the US leader landed. He was accompanied by daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, besides a host of senior officials.

It is well known that Donald Trump loves to be feted. Prime Minister Modi and his government ensured that President Trump would have exactly what he wanted. His ego got a massive boost and the visiting dignitary was clearly delighted. He showered praise on Prime Minister Modi and declared that America loved India and Washington would be a loyal friend.

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Though violence has wracked north east Delhi during the Trump visit, the President has refused to comment on that or the Citizenship Amendment Act. On Kashmir, while he again offered mediation, he made it clear that he was willing to help only if asked. Though he spoke of fighting Islamic terror, he was not really aiming at rebuking Pakistan. For Trump Islamic terror is ISIS or Al Qaeda and not groups operating against India. Nevertheless he assured India that Pakistan is being urged to clamp down on these groups and Prime Minister Imran Khan is getting there. Trump also spoke of religious freedom and mentioned not just minority Muslims but Christians as well. The Christian right in the US is part of Trump’s support base.

Some are disappointed that no major deals were announced, though a mega trade deal is in the offing. Two MoUs were signed on mental health and safety of medical products. A letter of cooperation between Indian Oil Corporation and ExxonMobil India LNG was also signed. India is now looking to US to diversify its energy market. Energy imports from the US which stood at $7 billion in 2019 will rise to $9 billion in 2020

The significance of the Trump visit goes way beyond deals or the personal chemistry between Modi and the US President. “It reinforces the connect between people of the two countries and it will resonate on every aspect of the relationship, from the strategic global partnership, maritime security, to trade and energy cooperation, homeland security,” foreign secretary Shringla said at a news conference after the talks at Hyderabad House.  

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The fact that President Trump chose to come on a standalone visit to India, and on an election year, shows exactly how far relations between India and the US have improved. The people connect with 4 million Indian American’s playing a major part in this effort and contributing to the US economy, the sky is the limit for these two democracies. People in both countries endorse the ties. This is in sharp contrast with India’s relations with Russia, which are excellent at the governmental and political level, but poor on people to people contact. Getting private business off the ground between India and Russia is a major problem, despite the best efforts of New Delhi and Moscow. But there is no such difficulty when it comes to Indian investment in US. Business leaders are eager to do so.

The transformation of ties between the two countries, which were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, began with the Indo-US nuclear deal in 2005. The strategic consideration underlying Washington’s decision was to checkmate China’s growing military and economic might in Asia. By building ties with democratic India, another large Asian country and helping modernize its defence capabilities.

US wants India to be a part of the Indo-Pacific defence architecture an area which now includes the Indian Ocean. This works for both India and America, though Delhi has so far resisted the idea of joint patrolling of the Pacific, near the South China Sea. This has to do with avoiding a confrontation with China.

Trump’s visit should be seen against this background. And if a few billions go into US coffers in the process of building up India’s defence capabilities, it is fine. So far New Delhi has stuck to its promise of buying the S 400 missile defence system from Russia, despite enormous US pressure. Washington must realise that a country like India cannot be coerced.

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It serves India for China to realise that Delhi has powerful backing in the international community. Though finally every country has to look after its own interests and not back on US or Europe to come to their help, developing India’s defence capabilities is important, more so as China has transformed its army, navy and air force.

Successive Indian prime ministers from Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi know the importance of friendship with the US. Manmohan Singh risked his prime ministership to get the deal through, despite opposition from a large majority of his party men as well as the BJP and the Left parties. Singh realized more than any other leader that the civil nuclear deal would open many doors for India and help Delhi to finally be counted as a force in the world.  India’s nuclear apartheid ended with the signing of the pact for which former President George W Bush did some heavy lifting.

The need to counter authoritarian China with a democratic India is shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. So it does not matter which party finally wins the November elections, India-US ties will remain strong. However a Democratic President, especially if Bernie Sanders is the winner, will certainly have much more to say about human rights, treatment of minorities and Kashmir. For Trump these are India’s internal problem and he trusts Prime Minister Modi to take care of them. But democratic values are important and even Trump cannot totally ignore them up to a point.

Both Modi and Trump have gained domestic brownie points from the visit. Modi’s image among his followers will get another major boost after Trump’s fulsome praise of him as a leader with a vision. For Trump the India trip so close to elections may help to garner Indian-American votes, though most have usually opted for Democrats. More important Trump can boast of the welcome he received by adoring crowds in India, a rarity for him on visits to other parts of the world. Critics here believe India may have erred in opting blatantly for Trump in the November elections. But that remains to be seen.

India And Sri Lanka – Cleaning The Slate

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to India this week (February 7-11) will be an opportunity to forget past bitterness and begin on a clean state. The former strong man will get a warm welcome in the Capital, when he arrives in for his first official visit in his new avatar. Delhi is as eager as the Rajapaksas to improve relations.

The emphasis will be on getting the political relations right, considering that the Rajapaksa’s second term as President, where he openly wooed China and gave short shrift to India, was a nightmare for New Delhi. This was the period when Colombo allowed Chinese submarines to dock in Colombo and allowed Beijing to spread its wings across the island nation, despite Delhi’s security concerns.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters allege that India had a hand in his defeat in the 2015 elections. They blame the former RAW official posted in the High Commission in Colombo of organising the anti-Rajapaksa front of like-minded people from both the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party to oust Rajapaksa. Whatever be the truth of the allegations, suspicion remained. But all that is now in the past as the two sides hope to rebuild frayed ties. 

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The Rajapaksa brothers (President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda as well as state defence minister Chamal) know that it is important to have good relations with India for all ruling dispensations in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa who is the main strategist for the family, had built his bridges with India soon after he lost power. During private visits to India, he had made it a point to call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His closeness to maverick politician Subramanian Swamy ensured access to the PM.

Though the LTTE has been wiped out, Tamil-speaking minorities in the north and east of the island, indeed even those living in Colombo, look to New Delhi for support. In the initial stages when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam began their movement against discrimination by the Sinhala-Buddhist majority, they were solidly backed by New Delhi and Tamil Nadu. So far while the Tamils have been given some of their rights, the complete devolution of power to the provinces have not yet come through. India will be urging Mahinda Rajapaksa to carry out all the provisions of the 13th amendment, which was brokered by India in the past. The Tamil National Alliance, the party of Tamil MPs has been urging the government to fulfil the promised devolution provisions.

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It is unlikely that the Rajapaksa brothers, who believe in a unitary state, will be in a hurry to fully implement the 13th amendment to the Constitution. In fact President Gotabaya himself believes that rebuilding the Northern Province and bringing development to the Tamils is more important then giving them greater autonomy. `Development over devolution,’’ is what Gotabaya thinks is the need of the hour. The Tamil population which have long yearned for more meaningful devolution may not quite agree. Aware of this, New Delhi will continue to push for devolution.

India is also in the mood to ensure that the past mistakes are not repeated because that will push Sri Lanka into China’s waiting arms. This is at a time when PLA vessels, including warships are increasingly plying the Indian Ocean region and developing close ties with India’s immediate neighbours.The BJP government since 2014 has been working towards strengthening ties with all its Indian Ocean neighbours whether it is Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri lanka and Maldives.  

New Delhi’s tough policy towards Nepal and the decision to blockade that land-locked nation in 2015, has had severe consequences for India. Nepal turned to China for help. The Chinese naturally grabbed the opportunity. The Chinese are today well entrenched in neighbouring Nepal, thanks to Prime Minister Oli’s close ties with Beijing. China is giving India a run for its money in the Himalayan nation. India realises the dangers of China’s presence in its immediate neighbourhood, and is hoping to counter the dragon in its periphery. This means wooing the neighbours, and ensuring that Indian interests in the region are protected.

South Block is no mood to give more space to China in its immediate neighbourhood. And with China investing massively in Sri Lanka, from the Humbantota Port, to modernising the Colombo port and building the USD 1.4 billion port city in the capital, which would house an International Financial Centre. Delhi has no time to waste.

India has also stepped up its efforts. In fact, the move to woo the Rajapaksa brothers began with foreign minister S Jaishankar rushing to Colombo soon after Gotabaya’s election victory, inviting him to visit and reassuring him that Delhi was ready to do business with the new regime. Gotabaya helped matters by announcing that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy would be neutral as the island had no wish to get involved in the rivalry between the two Asian powers. Gotabaya came to India soon afterwards in November 2019, and had meaningful conversations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders. India announced a credit of $400 million to boost development and a further $50 million for security. Sri Lanka lost 250 people after the Easter bombings. Anti-terror cooperation is high on the list of bilateral ties now. In fact, Indian intelligence had warned their Lankan counter part of a possible terror attack. But the squabbling coalition of Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe did not act on the information.

Apart from the ongoing project of building 50,000 house in the war torn Northern Province, announced in 2010, India and Japan are joining hands to build a deep sea Container Terminal in Colombo port. This was announced in 2019. India will also work towards refurbishing the Trincomalee oil farm in the Eastern province.  At one time, decades back, India was worried about US eyeing the oil tank project in Trincomalee. Now though India has been working at refurbishing some of the old tanks. Sri Lanka has leased out the oil tanks to India, to jointly operate a strategic oil facility. This is not a new project but the Modi government now is paying much more attention and will take up the work in earnest. This will help in the integrated development of Trincomolee and the entire Eastern province. Trincomalee is strategically located in the eastern side of Sri Lanka and in the heart of the Indian Ocean. According to reports from Colombo the US is also eyeing Trincomalee port, perhaps to checkmate China’s presence in Humbantota further south of the island.

Keeping all this in mind, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit this weekend is important. Last month China’s foreign minister Wang Yi was in Colombo on an official visit. China will continue to be an important partner of Sri Lanka. Considering that Beijing has the money power to back it, no developing nation wants to close the door to China. So despite criticising Mahinda Rajapaksa for giving a free reign to China, the India-friendly government of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickeremasinghe, allowed China to continue the projects it had signed with the previous government. So South Asian neighbours will benefit from the India-China rivalry playing out in the region.

Though China’s cheque book diplomacy works wonders, people to people contacts are much better with India. Buddhism is a strong link and Sri Lankans, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa does not miss an opportunity to visit the holy sites in India. He will be visiting Sarnath as well as Bodh Gaya during this trip. The religious and cultural bonds are India’s strong points. All this will come into play as India hopes to contain China in its neighbourhood.

Growing Chinese Footprint In Myanmar: Should India Be Worried?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day visit to Myanmar (January 17-18) was closely watched by India. Xi reinforced his pet Belt and Road Initiative which had slagged, though Myanmar had signed in by 2018. President Xi’s personal push will give the much needed political impetus to bring fresh energy to the BRI projects in Myanmar.

Myanmar is in the doghouse at the moment with few Western corporates willing to invest in the country, since the 2017 military crackdown on Rohingya minorities, many of whom had to flee the assault of local Buddhists as well as the army. The UN had termed it a genocide against the country’s Muslim minorities. All through this period and even earlier when the military junta got no truck from the Western democracies for the house arrest of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, China had steadfastly stood with Myanmar.\

Once again when the government as well as democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been heavily criticised for not protecting the Rohingyas, China sided with the government in power. China’s stand was on expected lines as the Communist Party of China had never bothered much about human rights, leaving it to individual nations to deal with their problems. The one exception is Kashmir, where it has consistently supported ally Pakistan and raised the matter twice at the United Nations Security Council. Even that did not pay off as no resolution was passed against India, thanks mainly to other members of the UNSC.

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With Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the saddle, Rohingyas who would in normal circumstances thronged to India, were not welcome. So they fled to Bangladesh and few have the confidence to return home. New Delhi went out of its way to stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and her government. So while the rest of the international community, led by the US and Europe had turned against Myanmar, Asian giants India and China have continued their steadfast support to the government in Naypyitaw, Myanmar now has excellent political relations with both countries.

Despite the common approach to Myanmar, India is uneasy at China rapidly spreading its wings in a country on its backyard, bordering its sensitive north eastern states. For any country, its immediate neighbourhood is vital for its security and having China on its very door step is a matter of grave concern to strategic planners. Every neighbour of India and China like to play out the rivalry of the two Asian powers to their own advantage. It has happened in Nepal and in Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapakse. It can also happen in Myanmar.

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For now China is way ahead of India in Myanmar. As the world’s second largest economy, China has the economic clout to finance infrastructure projects across the world. Developing nations are desperate for money and one that comes with no strings attached on democracy and human rights is what these nations want. This is why Myanmar is so happy with President Xi Jinping’s visit. For Myanmar, largely isolated from the international community since the 2017 massacre of Rohingyas, China’s support is a boon. And it is reinforced by generous financial gains for Myanmar.

At the end of the visit the joint statement released by the two sides is an indication of the growing trust between leaders of both countries.  The statement read that China “firmly supports Myanmar’s efforts to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests and national dignity in the international arena”, an obvious reference to Western criticism of the country. China was also keen to advance “peace, stability and development in Rakhine State”. China is today Myanmar’s largest investor. Significantly, Xi and Suu Kyi talks yielded thirty three agreement, though as always these remain opaque.

One of the earlier schemes, was the Kyaukphyu deep sea port in Myanmar restive Rakhine state. This was signed by Xi when he visited Myanmar as vice president in 2009. The project is of vital geostrategic significance as it gives China access to the Indian Ocean. Chinese submarines and warships have in recent years extended its presence in the Indian Ocean, through which much of its oil is transported from the Gulf. India has been worried about China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean.

Kyaukphye is emerging as a vital cog in the BRI scheme. Kyaukphyu is the terminus of Chinese oil and gas pipelines. This area has oil and since May 2017, it has carried 22 million tons of crude oil from Kyaukphyu to Yunnan province of China The Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and economic zone calls for an investment of nearly $1.3 billion. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor was added when Aung San Suu Kyi visited China in 2017. The economic zone envisages a railway line between Kyaukphyu to Kunming the capital of Yunnan province, through Mandalay. Aung San Suu Kyi once a great friend of India, has played her cards right and hopes to benefit from friendship with both Asian rivals, now that the US and Western democracies have turned against her.

During a banquet for Xi, Aung San Suu Kyi assured China that her country always stand by its giant neighbour. “It goes without saying that a neighbouring country has no other choice, but to stand together till the end of the world,” reports quoted her as reassuring the visitor. Myanmar’s military are also on board. While on a visit to Beijing last April, commander-in-chief of Myanmar’s army, senior General Min Aung Hlaing had assured his hosts that the armed forces backed China’s BRI and wanted it to be a success in Myanmar.

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Considering the current bonhomie between China and Myanmar, where does India stand? As pointed out earlier, political relations are excellent, with India going out of its way to extend support to Myanmar over the Rohingya issue. Concern about China’s growing footprints in Myanmar in 1992, when it was under military rule and Aung San Suu Kyi was backlisted by the junta, made Narasimha Rao change track. India had, like the Western world, refused to deal with the military rulers. But seeing Beijing fill in the vacuum, Rao decided to engage with Myanmar’s ruling regime. Now Myanmar is seen as a bridge between India and the ASEAN nations.

During the first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, talk of connectivity projects took shape. The Kaladan Multi Modal Transport was conceived and begun around 2010. Yet even now the project is not complete, though India has completed the deep sea Sittwe project, again in Rakhine state and handed it over to the Myanmar government. The problem with Indian projects is that the time taken to complete a project takes too long. The government realises this and steps are now being taken to co ordinate work between different departments of the state and central governments and Myanmar authorities better.

To compete with China in the neighbourhood, India needs to be much more efficient in executing projects. Delhi needs to consider why it has done so well in Afghanistan and replicate that model. India is lagging far behind China and needs to be more focussed unless it wants to lose Myanmar to the Chinese dragon. Efficient execution of projects and abundant cash flow has made China a potent force in the region.

India has lost much valuable time but can catch up if it gets its act together. Instead of concentrating on massive projects, India’s strength is in institution building and working in fields of agriculture and small water projects which touch lives of ordinary people. Delhi has to play to its strengths and not imitate China. Perhaps that it the key to success against the rising Asian super power.

Zalmay Khalilzad with Taliban representatives

India Must Remain Involved In US-Taliban Peace Talks

Taliban ended 2019 by kindling hopes of a ceasefire ahead of signing a peace deal with the US. But a few days later they went back on their word, perhaps due to internal differences within the group or for unknown strategic considerations. But whether now, or later in the year, a peace deal is likely to be announced, with or without pre conditions like a cessation of hostilities.

The Taliban has said often enough that fighting will stop only after foreign forces are out of Afghanistan. President Donald Trump would be desperate for an agreement considering that US elections are due this November. What the contours would be is not known, but the Taliban will ensure that they get a large piece of the pie in any political settlement worked out between the Afghan parties.

Also Read: Has Trump Plan Edged India Out Of Afghanistan?

India needs to keep this is mind, and prepare for an eventuality when the Taliban becomes an important part of the Afghan political scene. The good news for India is that Afghanistan has changed drastically since the time the Taliban was in power till 2001. People are no longer in the mood to be cowed down and sacrifice the gains made in the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani years. Womens’ rights have become pivotal as well as democratic principles. Ashraf Ghani’s victory in the presidential elections bears witness to this positive narrative. People came out to exercise their democratic rights during the parliamentary elections in 2018 despite the boycott called and the blood-letting by the Taliban. The same is true of the 2019 presidential polls. Luckily for Ashraf Ghani and by extension India, the President’s decisive victory will make his position stronger during the intra Afghan talks.

India had sent two of its former diplomats to Moscow in 2018 when Russia organized a meeting with representatives of the Taliban. Realising that all regional powers were engaging with the Taliban, and not wanting to be left as a by stander as the peace process seemed to gather momentum, Delhi sent retired diplomats to the meeting. They were tagged as “non-officials’’ keeping in mind India’s reservations about engaging with the Taliban. Both former diplomats later said that they did not get an opportunity to exchange pleasantries with the Taliban representatives at the meet. They just observed from a corner table of the hall. Perhaps that’s true. But it is unlikely that Indians have not been in contact with lower functionaries of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Sure there has been no interaction at the higher levels. By sending two “non-officials’’ to the Moscow meet, New Delhi signaled that it was ready to do business with the Taliban in future.

It is also unlikely that if the Taliban becomes a part of the ruling establishment in Afghanistan, India would be asked to shut down its embassy as happened earlier.

What is evident from the US-Taliban negotiations is that the latter is now perhaps a tad more pragmatic than earlier when Mullah Omar headed the movement. By interacting with the US as well as China, Russia and Iran, besides the Gulf nations, it  is gradually coming to grips with the dynamics of pragmatic power play. The Taliban today though still staunchly wedded to its Islamic ideology is likely to be more practical in governance. The people of Afghanistan, especially in Kabul and other urban centres will not tolerate banning women’s education, a stop to all kinds of music, public beheadings and destruction of Bamiyan Buddha carvings is unlikely to happen. They may all be manifest in the countryside far away from international focus.

The final political settlement will see the Taliban emerge as the main power centre, and be in a position to dictate terms. It is well known that Pakistan, already anxious about India spreading its wings across Afghanistan will certainly try its best through the Taliban to clip Delhi’s wings. Islamabad will use its influence to try to close down some of  the consulates. Besides the main mission on Kabul, Indian consulates are in Kandahar, Mazar-e-sharif, Jalalabad and Herat.

The consulates have been a sore point with the Pakistani establishment and this will certainly be part of the agenda. How much dictation the Taliban will take from Pakistan is also a question. The fiercely independent Afghans are loath to take dictation from others.The Taliban are also aware that ordinary Afghans are happy with India’s developmental work, which have touched their lives. 

Successive Indian governments, starting from the Vajpyee era, through the two terms of Manmohan Singh’s term and now the Narendra Modi government had wisely focused on people to people contacts in Afghanistan. Luckily Pakistan’s opposition to Indian boots on the ground has paid off for New Delhi. By its non-aggressive stance, India has been able to win the hearts and minds of local Afghans. The Taliban are aware of this. In fact last year a Taliban spokesman had said that India can continue with its development works. Whether the leadership of the Taliban are of the same view or it was an off the cuff remark is difficult to gauge.

Delhi’s stand on Afghanistan has so far paid off. It has echoed the elected governments stand and marked out the red lines—that the hard earned democratic values cannot be sacrificed. India’s option is to continue to support the democratic forces in Afghanistan and concentrate as it has always done on development. At the same time whenever possible to be in touch with the Taliban. Not talking to the Taliban should never be an option as they are a part of Afghan society. Keeping in touch with all sections, supporting the democratic government of Ashraf Ghani for now, and working for the people would finally pay dividends.

No one knows when a political solution is worked out, but Delhi will know that Islamabad or rather Rawalpindi will try to use its influence to keep India out. How finally all this pans out is not known, but Delhi needs to keep its ears to the ground.

India-Sri Lanka: Off To A Fresh Start

Sri Lanka’s presidential election has thrown up the Rajapaksa brothers once more to the centre-stage of the island’s politics. And in keeping with family loyalties, three of the brothers are now part of the cabinet. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa the Prime Minister, while Chamal the eldest of the siblings is a cabinet minister. Thus, the Rajapaksa stamp will define this government.

Will Gotabaya play the China card, as his brother did during his second term in office? Does Delhi need to worry that China will spread itself out in an island which is literally in India’s backyard? With the Chinese Navy now regularly plying the Indian Ocean waters, will it become a security concern for New Delhi? In short what does the return of the Rajapaksa brothers mean for India and Sri Lanka’s Tamil problem?

For one there is “gotaphobia” among many in the island nation, including minorities and liberals. Tamils, who accuse Gotabaya and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa of large scale human rights abuse during the last days of military campaign against the LTTE, would want both to be tried as war criminals. The powerful Tamil diaspora is likely to get active again. For a while, when the unity government was ruling and the Rajapaksa was not in power, the move to drag them to the International Court of Justice took a back seat. India, US and other European nations also did not bother much. For the moment, it seems that New Delhi is ready for a fresh start.

India has been on the ball on Sri Lanka. The return of the Rajapaksa family was expected and alarm bells did not go off in India. Instead, New Delhi played its cards smartly. As soon as Gotabaya was announced as the winner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lost no time in greeting and congratulating him. Modi was the first foreign leader to do so.

Once Gotabaya was sworn in, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar flew in to Colombo to personally convey Prime Minister Modi’s message to the new President. An invitation to visit Delhi has been given an expected. It sent the message that India was ready to forget the past and build a healthy relationship with the new power centre in Colombo.

Jaishankar is familiar with Sri Lanka and had served there at a critical period when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was deployed in the north and east of the island country. He understands the workings of its political system and knows all sections of political leaders. The Tamil National Alliance leaders will be delighted as they know the minister personally. As foreign secretary too, Jaishankar had visited Sri Lanka several times and knows its politics.

So far Gotabaya has made all the right noises. He has stressed that he will follow a neutral foreign policy. During Rajapaksa’s second term in office he had tilted towards China in a big way. China built the Humbantota port, a white elephant to many, in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s home town, and was awarded the modernization plan of the Colombo port project and building of a swanky new business district from reclaimed land at a cost $1.4 billion (China is an expert on that. Remember how it churned sand from the ocean floor in the South China Sea). President Xi Jinping oversaw the foundation laying ceremony in 2014. Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa was becoming a staunch ally of China while India worried the growing dragon’s influence in its backyard.

While this was a sore point with India, more worrying was a Chinese submarine docking in Colombo harbour for refueling, rest and recreation in September 2014. The island nation is literally a stone’s throw away from the Indian coastline. Concerns on the PLA’s naval wing, going in and out of the island was regarded as impinging on India’s security interests. Even after India expressed its concern when the submarine came back to dock in Colombo in November, Lanka said it was on a routine visit on its way to the port of Aden. So when Rajapaksa was trounced by Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, New Delhi heaved a sigh of relief.

In fact, the Rajapaksas were bitter about the role of India during the elections. Gotabaya himself had said at that time that India, US and other foreign powers worked indirectly to defeat the ruling regime. But the quintessential politician that his brother is, Mahinda never said a word in public. He made it point to meet up with Prime Minister Narendra Modi whenever he came to India on private visits and to reassure Delhi that he was a friend. So much of the heavy lifting had already been done by Mahinda when the brothers were not in power.

India has smelt the coffee. It was clear from the beginning that the unity government made up of traditional rivals Sri Lanka Freedom Party and a section of the United National Party were not up to delivering good governance. The mood of the people was clear when the regional party headed by Rajapaksa clean swept the local council elections. India knows it has to do business with the Rajapaksa clan and it will do so.

Delhi has also to come to terms with the fact that Chinese influence in its periphery will continue. It does not matter which government is in power in Colombo. Sri Lanka is already in debt to the Chinese. Despite all the noise made by the opposition over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision to give China the business city project over environmental norms not being followed, the Srisena-Ranil Wickremasinghe combine, got China back on the project. China has the money and all developing nations are looking for cash to finance infrastructure projects. Sulking about this will be of no help. It is important to get Colombo on India’s side by continuing to strengthen ties. India and Sri Lanka have more in common – culture and religion — than Colombo can ever have with Beijing.

At the same time, it is important that the new government carry forward the national reconciliation process. Jaishankar conveyed this to President Gotabaya when he met him last week. This will certainly be on the agenda when the President visits India next week. India had made the first move in reaching out to Gotabaya, and he has reciprocated. It is a good start. The coming months and days will show how the relationship works. Now is too early to make an assessment.

My personal view is that ties will improve dramatically. If Gotabaya plays the China card, India can also hit back by encouraging the Tamil diaspora to rake up the human rights abuse during the LTTE campaign. But with Pakistan and other countries now raising the Kashmir issue, Delhi would rather not take that path. Both sides have learnt from past mistakes and Colombo would rather have good relations with its immediate neighbour. This does not mean that Gotabaya will not play ball with China. But, possibly, it will not be at India’s expense.

Nepal Joins The Chinese Checkers Game

India’s obsession with Pakistan continues. After a short break in between, we are back to square one, more so after August 5, when Delhi stripped Kashmir of its special status and divided the state into two Union Territories. Expectedly Pakistan went to town on Kashmir. It is an excellent stick with which to beat India and expose Delhi’s “perfidy.’’

So all bilateral visits are now eyed through the Pakistan/ Kashmir prism. And President Xi Jinping’s visit to Chennai for the second informal summit with Prime Minister Modi was no exception. Some questioned why Xi was invited since Beijing had expectedly sided with Pakistan on Kashmir. Was it necessary for Modi to go out of his way to entertain the leader of a country who has been sleeping with the enemy since independence?

The spectacular cultural show with the Shore temple in the background and the walk through of three monuments in Mahabalipuram was completely unnecessary as China would continue to bat for Pakistan. While China and Pakistan had always been close strategic allies, now an economic dimension has come into play, making the alliance far stronger. Pakistan’s Gwadar port in Balochistan is at the heart of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Xi had already committed USD 60 billion for the massive infrastructure project s. So ties have gotten even closer.

Now there is talk of China having a military detachment to guard its infrastructure projects around Gwadar. A Chinese force in Balochistan will be an added worry for India. India has refused to be part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative on the grounds that some of the projects planned would pass through PoK, which India claims is part of its territory. So it is a question of sovereignty.  

India’s decision to continue engagement with China is a correct one. It is important for leaders to keep exchanging views especially in today’s volatile world. The foreign ministry is well aware that China will not abandon Pakistan. But there is a world outside the all-consuming India-Pakistan narrative, and it is this that New Delhi hopes to tap.

Officials say they know that China will back Pakistan but that does not mean India has to stop contacts with China. Diplomacy does not work like that. The effort is to keep it just at that level and not let it develop further than that. The establishment knows that despite talk of an Asian century where India and China are working together, the two are natural rivals in Asia.

Though China is working towards replacing US as the world’s only super power of 2050, it is also making sure that in Asia it is the sole regional boss. India may have ambitions but its economy and defence needs much work to be done before it can even think of challenging China. In such a case, the only alternative is to work with other nations who also wish to contain China. India is doing just that and China recognizes the signals. Delhi need not declare it from the roof top.

The strategic shift in US-India ties, which began with the civil nuclear agreement of 2005 between Manmohan Singh and George W Bush was aimed precisely at that. That process was carried on by Singh and Barak Obama and later with Narendra Modi. The Trump-Modi equation also has much to do with Washington’s desire to use a major country in Asia like India, to contain China’s rising military and economic might in Asia. Renaming the Pacific Command as Indo-Pacific is a signal to China. India’s defence agreements with the US is also progressing with the signing of two important military pacts. The Malabar exercises between India-US and Japan is also viewed with suspicion by China.

To top it all, the elevation of the US-Australia-India-Japan quadrilateral (“quad’’ for short) security dialogue to a political level with foreign ministers of the four nations meeting on the sidelines of the UNGA in September was decidedly seen in Beijing as a move against China. But that has not stopped Beijing from accepting India’s invite. This is the way the world works.

China has been closely watching the growing warmth between India and the US with some concern, but can do little to stop it. In the same way many in China believe that the quad is an instrument to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, and this arc of democratic nations can one day become a defence alliance. China is naturally wary of these moves. “Respecting each other’s sensitivities’’ a phrase that has come up both in Wuhan and Chennai would mean India’s tango with US and its allies for China, while for India it would be Beijing’s embrace of Pakistan. It works both ways.

So if China’s strategic interests call for closer co operation with Pakistan against India, it will do so. India too has sent out signals with its growing closeness with the US, Japan and Australia. This does not mean that India and China will not go ahead and work together in areas which benefit both nations.

 Ironically, despite the massive media hype about Pakistan, and naturally Kashmir, casting a shadow on the Wuhan spirit, Kashmir did not come up in the conversation between Modi and Xi, according to foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale.  He spoke to reporters at the end of the informal summit. But added that Xi briefed Modi on Imran Khan’s recent visit to Beijing. Khan must have spoken about the situation in Kashmir, but the MEA insists that the K word did not come up.

Whatever was said will possibly remain with the PM and his MEA team. The two leaders concentrated on bilateral ties and ways to enhance relations between Asia’s two largest nations. Trade deficit between India and China has long been a concern for Indian leaders. Since the days of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Delhi has been asking China to open its markets for Indian pharma and other products. Despite repeated promises including in Wuhan, nothing much has changed in the ground.

This time, however, Modi and Xi are trying to work out a new mechanism to solve the problem. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her Chinese counterpart will meet later in the year to see what can be done. The Indian side appear satisfied with the outcome of the summit. A third informal summit is expected to take place in China. The PM himself said the “Chennai Connect” would take forward the Wuhan Spirit. While critics thrash China for its Pakistan connect, what should be of greater concern is its move in Nepal.

President Xi flew to Kathmandu from Chennai and received a tumultuous welcome. The entire cabinet, led by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli were there to receive him. China is planning to build a railway track from Tibet to Nepal. While Nepal has always played the China card against India, Oli is now looking for strategic autonomy in its foreign policy.

Simply put, he wants to wean Nepal away from over dependence on India and make overture to China. Beijing has grasped this with both hands and is moving swiftly to contain Indian influence in Nepal. While Pakistan is already in China’s sphere of influence, Delhi has to ensure that Beijing is contained in Nepal, a country with an open border with India.

Is India Giving The Devil A Foothold In Kashmir?

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. But with the lockdown in the Valley, murmurs on human rights have begun and are likely to gather momentum

India’s decision to scrap Kashmir’s special status and bifurcate the state has been a shot in the arm for Prime Minister Imran Khan. It has given Pakistan the perfect opportunity to exploit Delhi’s action to its advantage.

India-Pakistan ties will continue to deteriorate. It could go out of hand if there is a major terror strike in Kashmir. Delhi is bound to retaliate and the world community would scramble to restraint the two nuclear armed neighbours. In such a case US President Donald Trump will certainly try to weight in. He has been waiting in the wings nudging both sides to talk.

China is likely to bat for “all weather friend” Pakistan in such an event. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is at the centre of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. The two countries are now bound not just by strategic ties but vital economic considerations.

Indian and Chinese troops have got into a scuffle in Ladakh this week and is a hint of more aggressive patrolling by China on the border. It possibly has nothing to do with Ladakh becoming a union territory, but China had objected to the Indian move soon after March 5. China already occupies 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin as well as 5,800 sq km in Shaksgam Valley of J&K. India has constantly made the point that the CPEC runs through Indian territory which Pakistan occupied illegally in 1947.

It was mainly due to China’s efforts that the United Nationals Security Council held a closed door discussion on Kashmir last month. At the end of the Chinese foreign minister Wang Wang Yi’s recent visit to Pakistan, Kashmir was part of the joint statement. All this is not surprising. It will be interesting to see how far China is willing to go in support of Pakistan on Kashmir. Much will also depend on how the second informal summit between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping pans out later this year. As of now Xi is scheduled to come in October, tentative dates are 11-14, though a formal announcement.

There is no silver lining in sight for India and Pakistan for now. India’s talks and terror cannot go hand in hand, now has Pakistan’s insisting on no dialogue unless Kashmir’s former status is restored. There is no way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government will do so. Abolishing article 370, is part of the BJP’s ideological commitment.

The international community has given India a long rope on Kashmir. Some in India are crowing that Pakistan has been unable to get the world community to condemn India. That is correct. But human rights issues are looming over the government and despite claims that the internet and mobile services are partially lifted and the curfew like situation will eventually end, the ground reality is different. The murmur on human rights has already begun, and is likely to gather momentum.

Islamabad has been on the backfoot for nearly a decade trying to deflect accusations about the terror networks operating from its soil. Islamabad efforts to hammer the point that it has borne the brunt of terror strikes on its people and security forces did not get much traction. This is mainly because it is well known that Rawalpindi has used terror outfits against both India and Afghanistan. Also both the US and NATO forces had first-hand experience of Pakistan’s double dealing.

Now Islamabad is getting a chance to point fingers at India’s action in Kashmir. For once the world is willing to listen, as Pakistan’s foreign minister as well as its diplomats are putting across their views on Kashmir in America, US and the Gulf to expose India.

At the UN, Pakistan will hope to catch the world’s eye on Kashmir. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be addressing UNGA on the 27th of this month. Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan will speak after Modi’s address. He will certainly talk forcefully on the past UN resolutions in Kashmir, and point to flagrant violations of people’s rights in Kashmir. Much of Indian diplomacy must now necessarily be centred on defending its position on Kashmir.

India and Pakistan are back to square one, with each country attacking the other in international forums. This week it was at the Human Rights Council in Geneva where India and Pakistan clashed. Pakistan claims it got 50 countries to support a joint statement at the Human Rights Council Chief, calling for respect and protection of fundamental human rights of the people of Kashmir, lifting of curfew and ending the communication shutdown and released of those detained. It is a throwback to the late 80s and 90s when Kashmir was a constant presence in all bilateral meets in Europe and US. Indian diplomats will have to work overtime to counter Pakistan. Balochistan will be highlighted by India. It will be a grueling few months for foreign minister Jaishankar and his team.

Not that any of this matters in the long run. What is important is for the Modi government to begin talking to the people of Kashmir. Muscular policy and a strong nation is part of the BJPs ethos. But needs to be tempered with concern for their well being. The sooner the government begins to reach out with compassion to the people of Kashmir the better.

The current partial lockdown cannot continue indefinitely. The main aim of the government was to be able to tell the world that there was no major loss of life. That’s commendable, but people’s voices also need to be heard. India is still a democracy and while the rest of the country, as well the Jammu area have welcomed the government move, the voices of the valley need to be heard.

Home Minister Amit Shah has said the removal of article 370, would help the authorities to fight terrorism effectively. He plans to rid Kashmir off terrorism and bring development back to the state. At the same time the Centre hopes to introduce new faces in politics. But for this government needs to begin a dialogue with people. The sooner India begins to take some corrective measures the better it will be able to manage the diplomatic fall out over Kashmir. There is no need for the government to waste energy on convincing the people of the country. Most Indians support Prime Minister Modi’s decision. The first move was meticulously planned but what next, is a legitimate question to ask the government.

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval claims that the majority of Kashmiris are happy with the removal of special status. Who are these people? Possibly, the Hindus of the state who are ardent supporters of the BJP. But they don’t represent the views of the entire population.

Prime Minister Modi needs to take a leaf out of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book. The PM is a great orator and should try to convince Kashmiris that India cares for them. Winning hearts and minds of Kashmiris is vital unless Delhi wants to give Kashmir in a platter to Pakistan.

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Citizen Register – Is India Going The Myanmar Way?

As final Assam National Register of Citizens is released, leaving 1.9 million people stateless and homeless, a massive humanitarian tragedy is likely to confront the state

A time bomb is ticking in Assam as the state braces to cope with the fall-out from the final publication of the National Registrar of Citizens released on August 31. A massive humanitarian tragedy may confront the state as roughly 1.9 million people are likely to become stateless and homeless. The figure is from the final NRC which was released on August 31.

Is India now going the Myanmar way? The Muslim Rohingyas are stateless with no rights. Time and again they are attacked and have no access to either government health care or any other facilities provided for ordinary citizens. The plight of the Rohingya refugees have caught the imagination of the world. India risks the same outrage from the international community, unless it has thought through what it aims to do. Kashmir is already in focus. Add the plight of four million stateless people and Delhi will have a major human rights problem in hand. Will the rest of the world be as accommodating as they have been so far with Kashmir?

Neither the Centre nor the Assam government have given a clue of what they intend to do with this mass of people whose lives are being torn apart. It has been a haphazard exercise ridden with mistakes. That could be overlooked considering the huge numbers. Yet as people are at the centre of the NRC, mistakes take a deadly toll on individuals and families. There are several instances reported of the grandparents considered as Indian citizens while the sons and daughters are blacklisted as foreigners. Much depends on the official behind the desk who has enormous powers over these hapless individuals. Time and again the BJP government, both at the Centre and the state have assured people that they have the  right to appeal and that not a single genuine citizen need worry. But assurances on paper and what happens on the ground are two different things.

 Where will these people be kept? At the moment Assam has six detention camps that operate out of make-shift facilities in local prisons in Goal Para, Dibrugarh, Silcher, Tezpur, Jorhat and Kokrajhar. According to reports 10 more are going to be built. But when? And what happens to them after Saturday? According to reports in the local newspapers, Assam’s first stand-alone detention centre is being constructed in the border district of Goalpara, which will be able to keep 3,000 people. But that is a drop in the ocean considering the numbers.

 As most of the stateless are allegedly from neighbouring Bangladesh, has Dhaka been consulted? Has Sheikh Hasina’s government agreed to take back at least some of these detainees? Nobody knows. Delhi is keeping its cards close to its chest. When foreign minister S Jaishankar was in Dhaka earlier this month and asked at a news conference about the NRC, he said it was India’s internal problem and he would not answer any questions on the process.

In the past Bangladesh had said that they would take back those people who had relevant papers to show they were from that country. A majority of the stateless are poor, illiterate peasants who have no papers to prove their identity. India has excellent relations with Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League government. Delhi is unlikely to do anything to upset that equation.

But what will the government do with the four million alleged foreigners. For one it is impossible to keep them under detention indefinitely. People of Assam are happy that finally foreign nationals have been identified. They have long struggled for this. The student’s agitation in the late 70s was all about protecting the identity of the local Assamese. The 1985 Assam Accord had promised to identify foreigners and deport them. Not much had happened however. The fear of being reduced to a minority in their own homes is something that has haunted the Assamese for decades. The fear was that Assam would be the second Muslim majority state after Kashmir. Ironically with the abrogation of article 370 and 35 A of the constitution, which forbids “outsiders’’ from other Indian states from buying land in the state is now no longer applicable. Kashmiris worry that in a couple of decades, the state will no longer have a Muslim majority.  Ironically in Assam the government is proposing to ensure that the Assamese majority keep their status intact.   

The only way out to deal with the alleged foreigners is to allow people to remain but ensure that they have no voting rights. This will assuage the Assamese that illegal voters will not have a say in the elections. There is concern in the local BJP unit in Assam that as much as 40 percent of the foreigners identified are Hindu Bengalis from former East Pakistan and current Bangladesh. The Amendment to the Citizenship Act was brought in with these people in mind. The amendment allows for all Hindu refugees to seek Indian citizenship. There have been demonstrations by local units of the BJP in Assam that Hindus should not be humiliated in this fashion. The government will find a way out for the Hindu Bengalis, considering that the BJP has already got the Citizenship Amendment ready to take care of that contingency. 

Can the rest of the people, identified as foreigners continue to live and operate out of Assam? A stateless population will be exposed to all kinds of atrocities, as Myanmar has proved. The BJP seems to be playing with fire, considering there is talk of having NRC across India. That would be disastrous and light the fires of social tension across the country. Will any government in its right mind push this self-destruct button?

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Will Modi’s Gamble In Kashmir Pay Off?

Indian Prime Minister may have stalled the US for the moment but the world’s eyes are focused on Kashmir as India and Pakistan are on the edge. Meanwhile, a lock-down in the Valley only hurts our democratic credentials

The mood in India is celebratory. The general consensus after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in France (the first since scrapping of Kashmir’s special status) is that this round has gone to India. Modi has drawn the line on third party mediation and told Trump where to get off.  Neither the US President nor any other nation needs to intervene in what is a purely bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. This has been the traditional Indian stand on Kashmir but in the context of Trumps recent statements, it had to be reiterated.

Considering that Trump had since his July 22 meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan spoken several times of his wish to play peace maker, there was concern in South Block at what to expect from the mercurial Trump. There was a collective sigh of relief in India at the way the conversation panned out, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Biarritz.

Prime Minister Modi may have stalled the US President for the moment but the world’s eyes are focused on Kashmir as India and Pakistan are on the edge. With the peace talks between US and the Taliban about to be clinched in Doha, and Pakistan’s importance in the process, Imran Khan’s hands have been strengthened.

In recent years, Kashmir had been pushed out of the global narrative. Modi’s decision to abrogate article 370 and the consequent lockdown of the Valley has given Islamabad just the opportunity it wanted.

Pakistan is mobilizing all resources to bring Kashmir back to centre stage. Initially the response from the global community was muted, but gradually that graph is changing. The reason for this shift is not due to scrapping of the special status but the complete communication embargo. Bringing back a semblance of normal life to the Valley thus is the need of the hour. That is a big ask, considering the mood of the majority of Kashmiris.

Pakistan claims that it has “succeeded in internationalising the issue of Kashmir”. Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed in an address to his people, hours after the Modi-Trump meeting, “We talked to world leaders and embassies. UN for the first time since 1965, convened a meeting on Kashmir issue. Even international media has picked it up.”

Playing on the US and the rest of the world’s fears about a nuclear fallout between the two South Asian foes, Imran Khan emphasised: “If the [Kashmir] conflict moves towards war then remember both nations have nuclear weapons and no one is a winner in a nuclear war. It will have global ramifications. The superpowers of the world have a huge responsibility…whether they support us or not, Pakistan will do everything possible.”

Modi on its end has made it clear that third party mediation was not welcome. At a news conference, with Trump sitting beside him, he made it clear: “All issues between India and Pakistan are bilateral in nature and that is why we don’t bother any other country regarding them.” Modi also added that India and Pakistan were one country before Independence and that he was “confident that we can discuss our problems and solve them, together”.

How did the conversation on Kashmir go behind closed doors, is not known. The Americans team had briefed reporters ahead of the meeting that the situation in Kashmir and concerns about the communication blockade would be raised during the President’s meeting with Modi. But the Indian Prime Minister seems to have convinced Trump that the situation would not go out of hand or lead to regional instability.

Trump made this known at the joint news conference when he said: “We spoke last night about Kashmir, Prime Minister really feels that he has it under control, and now when they speak with Pakistan I’m sure that they will be able to do something that will be very good.” He also added that he was available if anyone needed his help. Does this mean that Modi had given the green signal for talks with Pakistan?

For Pakistan, Kashmir is the core issue. By scrapping Article 370, the government’s contention is that Kashmir is just another state in India. Thus, Pakistan’s claim that it is a party to the Kashmir dispute becomes redundant. New Delhi will possibly be ready to talk about Siachen, Sir Creek and other issues, but not Kashmir. From that position any kind of dialogue with Pakistan appears impossible, whatever Modi has said to Trump about talks.

Imran Khan has said in a recent interview to the New York Times, that he is no longer willing to talk to India. He had tried in earlier but New Delhi possibly regarded his attempt to mend ties as a sign of weakness. India’s response has been that terror and talks cannot go together.

Talks may be out, but the Modi government has to work at lifting restrictions in the valley. Restoring communication lines is a must as a blanket ban cannot continue indefinitely in a nation which proudly flaunts its democratic credentials.    

After all, Kashmiris are Indian citizens. They were not consulted when government decided to scrap Kashmir’s special status and are angry. The BJP has singularly failed at reaching out to the ordinary Kashmiri. Considering that opposition leaders were sent back from the airport on Saturday just proves how difficult the situation is.

It is also true that the moment restrictions are lifted, the Valley will erupt in protests which could lead to violence. Handling protests and stone-pelters would be a major challenge considering that Indian police and para military forces are ill equipped to deal with such a situation.  

A new intifada is likely to take shape in Kashmir. Separatists and jihadi groups will naturally try to exploit the situation. Besides, well known anti-India groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hizbul Mujahideen will again become active. These are the usual suspects but the ISIS and Al Qaeda sub-groups will also fish in troubled waters. The Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind, linked with Al Qaeda, is working at forming a loose jihadi alliance against India, according to reports from Pakistan.

New Delhi has a tough task ahead and the next few months will show whether Modi’s gamble in Kashmir has paid off.

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