Caught In Between?

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Coinciding with the 50 days of lockdown, the Kashmir story migrated to America along with the Prime Ministers’ of India and Pakistan. Though the ultimate objective was to deliver speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, the two nuke-owning leaders actually remained busy in wooing the US President Donlad Trump, reports Masood Hussain on basis of the media coverage of the high profile visit of Narendra Modi and Imran Khan

Hours after Vijay Gokhale, India’s foreign secretary released the week-long schedule of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his US visit, Houston Chronicle, the main Texas newspaper, broke news indicating the visit was going to be newsy and noisy. A Khalistani activist raked up Kashmir and used America’s The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 to get a US court issue summons to Modi, Home Minister, Amit Shah and Lt Gen KJS Dhillon, the commander of the Srinagar based 15 corps. The civil complaint accused the three of inflicting “cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment” upon Kashmiris, was aimed at only one thing – making a news.

This marked the start of Kashmir chasing, if not completely dominating the Modi’s US visit primarily focused on to attend the United Nations General Assembly, considered to be diplomacy’s perennial pilgrimage. Gokhale insisted that India’s stand on third party role in Kashmir is already ruled out and that Prime Minister will focus on what the “UNGA high level segment is meant to focus on”.

By then, a huge battery of Indian diplomats was already stationed in New York. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar and his deputy V Muraleedharan were busy meeting NAM members, the Commonwealth, the Central American grouping of SICA and BRICS and a broad spectrum of the UN membership. Preparations for Modi’s Howday Modi event at Houston were at its peak. So were India’s neighbours busy.

With an audience of more than 50,000 Indian Americans, President Donald Trump decided to join the “blockbuster” event to “reaffirm” the Indo-US “strategic partnership” and literally begin his 2020 election campaign from there. The Republican dominated Texas is home to around 300 thousand Indian-Americans, according to Pew Research Centre data quoted by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW), and they had supported Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Houston is a Democratic stronghold.

The Houston Show

As Modi and Trump, termed by some media as “brothers in arms” appeared on stage before a roaring crowd, Modi, according to Washington Post, “delivered an unmistakable endorsement of Trump’s presidency” by shouting Ab Ki Baar, Trump Ki Sarkar. It underscored “growing strategic significance” of the Indo-US bilateralism especially pushing India as a counter-weight to China. Modi lathered praise on his counterpart insisting he was popular even before getting into the White House. It was a rare case of a foreign dignitary literally soliciting support for a US president before a charged audience of immigrant green card holders. Diplomacy’s rare departure from past was even felt in Delhi but people talked in hushed tones.

In his fierce speech, Modi defended his Kashmir decision-making. “Article 370 had deprived people of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh of development. Terror and separatist elements were misusing the situation. Now people there have got equal rights,” he asserted, taking his rightwing party line abroad.

The time, he thundered, has come for a decisive fight against terrorism and those who support terrorism. Attacking Pakistan left, right and centre – obviously without naming it, Modi said Delhi’s move has “troubled some people who can’t even manage their own country”. He accused Islamabad of supporting and harbouring terrorism, making anti India hatred as their agenda.

President Trump asserted that he is the best friend of India that has ever been in the White House. Obliging the host, he avoided mentioning Kashmir and referred to the ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. “India and the US also understand that to keep our community safe, we must protect our borders,” Trump said. “Border security is vital to the United States. Border Security is vital to India. And we understand that.” He got a standing ovation from the crowd.

Among various delegations, Modi had a “special interaction” with a delegation of Kashmiri Pandits settled in US. “Kashmir mein nayi hawa bah rahi hai (New winds are blowing in Kashmir),” Modi told them, thanking for their patience for 30 years, according to TheIndian Express. “You have suffered a lot, but the world is changing. We all have to move ahead together and build a new Kashmir together that will be for everyone.”

Unequivocally supporting the steps and being “indebted” for the move (read abrogation of Art 370), the Pandits, according to Hindustan Times suggested setting up of “a task force under the home ministry that will bring together key stakeholders in India and abroad to advise the government in developing the region and repatriating Kashmiri Pandits”.

To the ‘Houston Spectacle’, as The Wall Street Journal put it, there was the flip side too. There was a huge gathering (some estimates suggest 15,000) outside the venue comprising Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and Christians that various groups including Justice for All and Stand With Kashmir, a group of Kashmiri Americans, had organised under the banner of Alliance for Justice and Accountability (AJA). Sarah Philips and Sunita Viswanath were the chief protest managers. They drove in buses, trucks and tractors from Dallas and other Texas neighbourhoods to protest against Delhi’s Kashmir policy. Supporters and protesters exchanged taunts after the event, according to Houston Chronicle.

Coinciding with the event, Houston Chronicle carried a highly critical op-ed by US Senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders referring to the Kashmir lockdown. “When President Trump meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, we will hear much about the friendship between the American and Indian peoples,” Sanders wrote. “However, there will be a deafening silence when it comes to a human rights crisis unfolding right before our eyes – and that is unacceptable.”

The Outcome

The two leaders representing the most populous and the most powerful democracies of the world have many things in common. Both are ultra-nationalist far-rights, media-savvy politicians, who, according to Washington Post “govern with big personalities and stir controversy”. Was the bonhomie an American endorsement of Modi’s decision of stripping autonomy from Kashmir?

“Trump chose to signal approval (to abrogation of autonomy to Kashmir) by standing side-by-side with the prime minister.” Roger Cohen wrote in a New York Times piece Don’t Mess With Modi in Texas. “Kashmir illustrates how the Trump administration’s indifference to human rights issues offers carte blanche to leaders like Modi.”

A BBC report termed it a win-win meeting. “For President Trump, it was a chance to court Indian-Americans for the 2020 presidential election race where Texas could emerge as a battleground state,” the report said. “For Mr Modi, a PR triumph and picture with the president of the United States may help him shrug off the criticism over his recent strong-arm policies at home.”

With Imran Khan

A day later, Trump was sitting with Modi’s Pakistani counterpart, Imran Khan. For his maiden speech at the UN, Khan had left for America in advance. He actually was in Saudi kingdom for two days and later flew from Riyadh in Saudi Prince MBS’s special aircraft. His first meeting was with influential Kashmiri American, Farooq Kathwari, the promoter of Ethen Allens chain, who was once very active with his Kashmir Study Group (KSG). As Kathwari briefed him about what his group has done, Khan suggested him to “highlight the situation in Jammu and Kashmir” as it “poses a grave threat to regional peace and security”.

Khan also met America’s special envoy for Afghan peace Zalmay Khalilzad, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (one of few Congressmen who had flagged the Kashmir situation to the White House), George Soros (Open Society Foundation), Amnesty International Secretary General, Kumi Naidoo and Peter Maurer (ICRC). This was in addition to his meetings with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the Chinese Vice President, Wang Qishan, Turkey President Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian ruler. Khan also spoke to Asia Society and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

But Khan’s major meeting was with US president Donald Trump. His host repeated what he had said earlier – his willingness to mediate if both parties are willing. Khan told Trump that Kashmir was facing a “huge humanitarian crisis” where “eight million people were under siege by 9 lakh troops for 50 days”.

“Just the fact that the position of the United States – it’s the most powerful country, it can affect the United Nations Security Council, it has a voice, so we look to the US to put out flames in the world,” Khan said warning that the “crisis (in Kashmir) is going to get much bigger.” He suggested Trump to ask Modi “at least lift the siege”.

Trump said thrice that he is willing to help if both the parties agree. “It (the offer of mediation) would always stand. If I can help, I would certainly do that. And it will be dependent on both of these gentlemen [Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi]. One without the other doesn’t work…If both Pakistan, let’s say, and India wanted me to do that, I am ready, willing, and able. It’s a complex issue. It’s been going on for a long time,” Trump said. “You have to have two parties that want to agree …And if at any time they say, you know, we have some points we think you can maybe iron out, I think I’d be an extremely good arbitrator.”

On human rights situation in Kashmir, Trump said: “I want everyone to be treated well. I want it to be humane.”

At the same time, the meeting helped Trump explain some of his statements. Asked if he endorsed Modi’s remark that Pakistan was a hub of terrorism, Trump said: “Well, I really have been pointing much more to Iran. I mean, Iran if you look at what, that’s been really the state of terror. And I’ve been saying it’s the number one state of terror in the world.”

Trump praised the Houston rally but insisted Modi’s statement was aggressive but “was very well received within the room” by 59,000 people. “I heard a very aggressive statement yesterday from India. I was there. I didn’t know that I was going to hear that statement, I have to say, from India, from the Prime Minister. It was very well-received in the room, and it was a large room with 59,000 people,” Trump said. “There’s always a solution and I really believe there’s a solution to that.”

After the meeting, White House also issued a brief statement, saying: “The two leaders discussed … ways to de-escalate tension between Pakistan and India, including combating terrorism, and the importance of Indo-Pakistani dialogue to resolve disputes between them.”

Meeting Modi Again

A day later in his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, Trump said though the emphasis is on trade, Kashmir will come up. Modi mentioned the US$2.5 billion investment that Indian company, Petronet is making.

“I had a very good meeting with Prime Minister Khan.  It was a long meeting and we discussed a lot.  And I think he’d like to see something happen that would be very fruitful, very peaceful.  And I think that will happen, ultimately.  I really believe that these two great gentlemen will get together and work something,” Trump said in response to a question.

When asked that Pakistan, by Imran Khan’s own admission, has “thirty, forty thousand terrorists”, Trump said: “I mean, the message is not for me to give, it’s for Prime Minister Modi to give.  And I think he gave that loud and clear on the other day when we were together.  He gave a pretty loud message.  And I’m sure he’ll be able to handle that situation.”

To an almost identical question, he said: “Well, I haven’t heard that.  I haven’t heard that.  And I know this: that your Prime Minister will take care of it.  So if there’s a problem, he’ll — if there’s a problem, he’ll take care of it.  It would be great if they could work out something on Kashmir.  We all want to see that.  I’m sure we all want to see it.”

Unlike the joint presser with Khan, this time the leaders of two major democracies of the world took quite a few questions. Later, top diplomats from India told media that the Prime Minister reiterated that there was no room for a third party and that India would talk to Pakistan only if the terrorism infrastructure is dismantled and not used as a state policy.

Balancing Act

The international media wrote a lot about the tensions that Trump administration might have had in managing the two warring neighbours. His re-election tension apart, Trump is caught between India and Pakistan since July, literally.

Seemingly, the White House is making a great balancing act. Trump has been reiterating that he will help the two countries only if they wish so. He also has been insisting that he wants something to be done in the complex issue. His statements indicate optimism but lacks detail. But he has his own interests as world’s major power and power broker.

After meeting the two leaders, Trump did not stop talking. “With respect to Pakistan and India, we talked about Kashmir. Whatever help I can be, I said, I offered, whether it is arbitration or mediation or whatever it has to be,” Trump said on September 26, in his opening remarks to a media interaction. He reiterated that he will “do whatever he can, because, they are at very serious odds right now and hopefully that will get better.” He added: “You look at the two gentlemen heading those two countries, two good friends of mine. I said, fellows work it out, just work it out. Those are two nuclear countries, gotta work it out.”

In one of his statements, Trump indicated a meeting between the arch rivals. “I really believe that Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Khan will get along when they get to know each other,” Trump said on September 24. “I think a lot of good things will come from that meeting.”

Many people think that it indicates the White House is up to something. But the flip side is that the most powerful man on earth has serious credibility issues.

Criticism and protests apart, Modi continued with his schedule and there were no interruptions. There was lot of criticism over The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation extending him the yearly annual Global Goalkeeper award for his Swachh Bharat Abhiyan under which 100,467,789 toilets were built and 599,963 villages were declared open-defecation free. Those opposed to the move included three Nobel prize laureates – Shirin Ebadi (Iranian), Mairead Maguire (Northern Ireland) and  Tawakkol Abdel-Salam Karman (Yemini journalist).

A Kashmiri executive of the Foundation resigned in protest and the liberal Indian Americans wrote scathing criticism of the move. But on Sunday last, as around 200 people, wearing I stand by Kashmir T-shirts, protested outside the venue, on a call by Stand with Kashmir, Modi received the honour at the Seattle headquarters of the Foundation in an impressive function.

Official Stand

The official stand of the US State Department was finally articulated by Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, in her address to the UN General Assembly on September 27, hours before the India and Pakistan premiers were supposed to deliver their speeches.

“We hope to see rapid action (on easing restrictions in Kashmir) – the lifting of the restrictions and the release of those who have been detained,” Wells said. “We look forward to the Indian government’s resumption of political engagement with local leaders and the scheduling of the promised elections at the earliest opportunity.”

Wells reiterated US President was “willing to mediate if asked by both parties”, insisting at the same time that Delhi India has time and again refused help. “The world would benefit from reduced tensions and increased dialogue between the two countries and, given these factors, the president is willing to mediate if asked by both parties,” AFP quoted her saying. She specifically mentioned Khan’s high-pitch statements and asking why Pakistan was silent over China. “A lowering of rhetoric would be welcome, especially between two nuclear powers,” she said. “I would like to see the same level of concern expressed also about Muslims who have been detained in western China, literally in concentration-like conditions.”

Experts Say

Deutsche Welle reported that Pakistan’s diplomatic efforts have received “a lukewarm response” from world leaders. “It is President Trump’s balancing act. He believes in a transactional relationship with any country, and right now both India and Pakistan remain equally important for him for different reasons,” Ali K Chishti, a Pakistani security analyst, told DW. “Khan’s visit to the US is important, but Washington would like to focus more on the Afghan peace talks.”

“There is little diplomatic upside to directly challenging India,” Dr Paul Staniland, an associate professor at the University of Chicago told The Strait Times. “India is an important economic and strategic partner, or potential partner, for countries ranging from France to the US to the Gulf states. It’s also clear that the government of India won’t be rolling back its policy anytime soon, and many countries are leery of seeming to back the Pakistani line.”

Sameer Patil, a former assistant director at India’s National Security Council Secretariat is now International Security Studies Programme fellow at the Mumbai-based Gateway House. He told the newspaper: “Just as China has utilised its market size as leverage, India has also started to think this is something which ought to be used for foreign policy objectives.”

The trade between India and America witnessed some tensions in recently. For the first time since 1970, US ended duty-free access for about US$5.7 billion worth of Indian exports under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme meant for developing nations. In retaliation, India enhanced tariffs on 28 US products, including almonds, apples and walnuts. India purchases almost half of America’s almonds exports is the second major importer of American apples.

In 2019, Indo-US bilateral trade in goods and services stood at US$142.1 billion – Indian exports at $83 billion and imports from the US at $58.9 billion.

“The Modi government has managed Trump and his administration quite well, knowing when to flatter and when to push back,” Dr Ian Hall, an international relations professor at Australia’s Griffith University was quoted saying.

“Washington understands that India matters, because India complicates Beijing’s calculations, not just in South Asia, but across the Indo-Pacific.”

“There is not much that Pakistan can do at the moment. India’s repeal of Article 370 is essentially a fait accompli. But Islamabad could try to push back harder against India, and its most effective tactic in this regard would be to send militants into Kashmir to blow some things up,” Micheal Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, was quoted by DW saying. “The next time, there’s a militant attack in Kashmir – and it’s a matter of when, not if – the India-Pakistan relationship could well find itself on a war footing.”

Khan’s Frustration

This must be frustrating for the cricketer Prime Minister. He gave a vent to his frustrations while talking to the media on September 25, in the sideline of the UN General Assembly.

“To be absolutely frank, I am a bit disappointed by the international community,” Hindustan Times quoted Khan telling reporters. “The reaction would have been different and more urgent had it been 8 million Europeans who had been put under siege or Jewish people or Americans – it would been different just eight Americans.” He added: “There is no pressure on Narendra Modi to lift the siege.”

This he said after meeting Trump and his British, German and French counterparts. Apart from various US think-tanks, Khan spent a lot of time when influential media outlets of the region. The only support had came from Turkey and his old time ally, China. Khan understood the reason for the lack of international alarm: “The reason is India, people look upon India as a market of 1.2 billion people… Some are appalled by it but by the end of it, they think of it as a market.”

So what are the options, Khan was asked. “What options do we have apart from this? Attack India, clearly, that’s not an option apart from that, we are doing everything possible. Apart from starting a war we are doing everything possible.”

Speaking to reporters, a day later, Khan warned of an “impending genocide” and “indifference of the world towards Kashmir’s sufferings”.

“Eight million people in an open jail is unprecedented in this day and age. … The biggest worry is what happens once the curfew is lifted? We fear with 900,000 soldiers there, there will be a massacre,” Time quoted Khan saying. “There’s a potential that two nuclear-armed countries will come face to face at some stage.”

“My main reason for coming here was to meet world leaders at the UN and speak about this. We are heading for a potential disaster of proportions that no one here realises,” New York Times quoted Khan saying. “It is the only time since the Cuban crisis that two nuclear-armed countries are coming face to face. We did come to face to face in February.”

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