‘A Big Problem’

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Scare that had frightened the minority Sikh community in Kashmir in anticipation of the US president’s India visit exploded in Delhi where communal riots killed 39 people and 200 are injured. But Kashmir somehow managed to get back to front-pages during the visit, for more than one reason, reports Kashmir Life

US President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrive to attend ‘Namaste Trump’ rally at Sardar Patel Stadium in Motera, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on February 24, 2020. Pic: Internet

“The whole India seems to be busy in making preparations for Trump’s visit, but for Sikhs of Kashmir the visit has brought with it fears that the members of the community are yet again on the radar,” businessman and prominent Sikh activist, Jagmohan Singh Raina said in a statement, on the eve of Donald Trump’s India visit. “The Sikhs are feeling insecure and they fear that something untoward might happen on the eve of the USA President’s visit.”

The minority Sikhs have a very strong reason to be insecure. Though they have survived almost unscathed in the more than three-decade-old turmoil in Kashmir, they suffered seriously in anticipation of Bill Clinton’s March 2000 visit when 36 of their members were massacred in Chittisinghpora. The massacre continues to be quite controversial in Kashmir’s contemporary history with both the sides to the crisis accusing each other of that. The massacre let a series of killings that dominated most of that summer and the real answers are still unknown.

As Trump arrived, Kashmir exhibited the same old ‘new normalcy’ that dominates the scene post-August 5. No strikes, protests or demands. At one point of time, such a high profile visit would witness Kashmir closure. But now Kashmir is unconcerned to whatever happens around. At the most, such visits trigger petty discussions before the shop-fronts, offices, tea stalls and, most often, in newsrooms.

As Trump landed in Ahmadabad to a historic welcome, a new situation emerged in parts of the capital city-state, Delhi. Communal riots ragged the region and for three days it was literally free for all. As Trump flew home, the death toll reached staggering 39 as almost 200 survived injured and are admitted to various hospitals. The slain included Muslims and Hindus including a cop and an intelligence bureau (IB) recruit.

By February noon, parts of the impacted belt were looking like Srinagar streets – massive stone-pelting, petrol bomb exchanges, arson, roads laced with stone and broken bricks, and smoke billowing from the roads almost everywhere. Soon, it was followed by police interventions and the arrests – a process that will take many months to complete.

Kashmiris enrolled in hundreds of educational institutions across India or busy in the winter business stayed away from the unfortunate spectacle, everywhere. They have maintained a distance from the CAA-NRC-NPR debate even in the major universities between Western UP and Delhi. This could be the reason why, perhaps for the first time, the rightwing leaders tried to invoke ISI in the crisis but skipped mentioning Kashmir for a clear lack of visibility on the ground.

Kashmir, however, was not missing at all during all the days of Trump’s visit. The real big issue that dominates the prime time TV in anticipation of the visit was whether or not a powerful man on earth will make any reference to Kashmir. A dominant opinion was that he will avoid it because he was quite aware of the host’s sensitivity towards, what is now being called, the K-word.

Narendra Modi government had put a lot of effort to make the visit historic. Apart from getting more than 125 thousand audiences to now one of world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmadabad, the BJP government mobilised tens of thousands of people to welcome on the two sides of the road between the airport and the stadium. The road, at many places, witnessed the construction of walls hiding the shanties of thousands of have-nots. In certain cases, they were asked to migrate for the time being.

Trump made an impressive speech detailing why America loves and respects India. Lavishly praising his host, Trump described India as “a miracle of democracy” that has achieved a lot under the new leadership. He highlighted the achievements of the Modi government in bringing about the changes in eradicating poverty, improving sanitation and making the basics accessible. He mentioned differences but asserted the shared goals and thought process. He said both the countries have suffered because of terrorism.

“The United States looks forward to providing India with some of the best and most feared military equipment on the planet. We make the greatest weapons ever made: airplanes, missiles, rockets, ships. We make the best. And we’re dealing now with India,” Trump said in his deal-maker style. “I am pleased to announce that, tomorrow, our representatives will sign deals to sell over $3 billion in the absolute finest, state-of-the-art military helicopters and other equipment to the Indian Armed Forces.”

It irked many. “The whole extravaganza made it appear that a lord and master was being welcomed by a serf. By any yardstick, India stood diminished in stature,” Communist leader, D Raja wrote in The Indian Express. “Anyone with some sense of culture and civility would have felt embarrassed. Further, President Trump chose the soil of Gandhi’s Gujarat to announce that America will sell weapons, missiles and warplanes worth billions of dollars to India.”

However, K-word returned to news after the defence deal worth the US $3 billion was signed. The two leaders, especially Trump had already indicated that the trade issues between the two countries are expected to remain unresolved for the time being. The two countries transacted the US $92 billion trade in 2019.

There were two newsy issues that the reporters were so keen to ask – the CAA and Kashmir. “I want to leave that to India and hopefully they will make the right decision for the people,” Trump said when asked about the controversial CAA, an issue that seemingly led to the Delhi flare-up.

Kashmir, however, was unlike CAA. “There has been difficulty in Pakistan and we’re seeing what we can do about it. Anything I can do to meditate and to help I would. They’re working on Kashmir,” Trump told a presser in Delhi. “We talked a lot about it at length today. No question it is a problem. They are working on it. I said I will do whatever I can do to help because my relationship with both gentlemen [Prime Minister Imran Khan and Indian PM Narendra Modi] is so good. Anything I can do to mediate, I would do,” he said. “They [Pakistan] are working on Kashmir. Kashmir has been a thorn in lots of people’s sides for a long time. There are two sides to every story. We discussed terrorism at length today,” he added.

However, when pressed further by a reporter about India’s past rejection of his offers, Trump said, “I didn’t say anything about that [being a mediator]. Kashmir obviously is a big problem between India and Pakistan, they are going to work out their problem. They have been doing it for a long time.”

In his meeting with Modi, Trump said he talked about religious freedom in India and the resolve by the two countries that they will protect “our citizens from radical Islamic terrorism”. In this effort, he said, the United States is “working productively with Pakistan”.

“A few hours after their joint appearance, Mr Trump addressed an hour-long press conference alone, where he criticised India once again for the “highest tariffs in the world”, including on the Harley Davidson motorcycles,” The Hindu reported.

Commentator termed Trump’s Kashmir reference vague. Some linked it to the growing concern within US Congress over Kashmir. The violent upsurge during the visit added to the concerns leading many members of the Congress to react.

125 thousand audiences in one of world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmadabad Pic: Internet

“Democracies should not tolerate division and discrimination or promote laws that undermine religious freedom,” Chennai born, US Congresswoman, Pramila Jayapal tweeted, adding that the “world is watching”. Congressman Alan Lowenthal also termed the violence a “tragic failure of moral leadership”, asserting: “We must speak out in the face of threats to human rights in India.”

Democrats also joined in. “It’s important to strengthen the relationship with democratic partners like India,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said. “But we must be able to speak truthfully about our values, including religious freedom and freedom of expression, and violence against peaceful protesters is never acceptable.” Added Rashida Talib: “This week, Trump visited India but the real story should be the communal violence targeting Muslims in Delhi right now. We cannot be silent as this tide of anti-Muslim violence continues across India.”

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