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A visionary gamble, or a serious misstep in J&K?

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Aug 10, 2019, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Aug 10, 2019, 12:00 am IST

India-Pakistan relations have been impacted along predictable lines, if not the government’s calculated ones.

Security personnel stand guard during restrictions in Jammu on Monday. Restrictions and night curfews were imposed in several districts of Jammu and Kashmir as the Valley remained on edge with the authorities stepping up security deployment. (Photo: PTI)
 Security personnel stand guard during restrictions in Jammu on Monday. Restrictions and night curfews were imposed in several districts of Jammu and Kashmir as the Valley remained on edge with the authorities stepping up security deployment. (Photo: PTI)

The announcement earlier this week by Union home minister Amit Shah about the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India, and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories, left most of the world surprised and Pakistan stunned. There were implications for the people of J&K too, facing a total lockdown and having top political leaders interned. It inevitably impacted India-Pakistan relations as indeed how the world viewed India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s televised address to the nation on Thursday evening, ahead of his August 15 address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, revealed the government’s reasoning. The real test will come as Id-ul-Zuha approaches, and gatherings at mosques become unavoidable. The Prime Minister reflected the BJP’s ideological opposition to the concept of “one nation, two laws”. He also justified the action due to the need for good governance and economic development. The first argument has broad support among the BJP’s base and perhaps most Indians, as the merits of bringing J&K legally in line with other states appear justifiable. On the other hand, even some BJP-run states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have discriminatory laws on the sale of land to outsiders. It was really the dodgy constitutional methodology adopted for the purpose that raised eyebrows. This will no doubt face Supreme Court scrutiny. The second point about the Centre’s control ushering in “good governance” is debatable, given the quality of governance in BJP-run states like Uttar Pradesh. Also, the constant bickering between the BJP-picked lieutenant-governors of Delhi and Puducherry and the elected non-BJP governments shows the BJP’s failure at collaborative governance.

There appear to be two broad objectives behind the move. At a strategic level it attempts to circumvent a deadlock in India-Pakistan parleys. Repeatedly, the dialogue has been undermined by terrorist attacks by the Pakistan Army-sponsored jihadi network. Mutating geopolitics, with the United States rebalancing its relations with Pakistan over its criticality to the Afghan peace process, upends past strategic calculations. Second, an ideological dimension exists, as Mr Modi confirmed in Thursday’s address. The BJP wants to enfranchise the post-1947 non-Muslim migrants in J&K who under the amended nationality law can become Indian citizens. At present, Muslims constitute 96.4 per cent of Kashmir’s 6.9 million populace and 33.5 per cent of Jammu’s 5.4 million people. The delimitation exercise before the next election, as the Prime Minister suggested, could affect the current voting patterns. Currently, the Kashmir region’s 46 seats against Jammu’s 37 do not reflect the actual population, after the Kashmiri Pandits’ migration from the Valley. But politics can be unpredictable, as the BJP’s strategy depends on the delivery of jobs and economic goodies when the national economy is, by widespread assessment, still sputtering.

India-Pakistan relations have been impacted along predictable lines, if not the government’s calculated ones. Pakistan had no option but to react emotionally to this move, as it signalled that India was shutting the door on dialogue with Pakistan over Kashmir. India’s calculation is that by burying historical issues it can deny the Pakistan Army a role as defender of the nation. The immediate consequence is that diplomatic ties are downgraded, with Pakistan expelling the Indian high commissioner. Trade, which was gradually choked, is also blocked. The Samjhauta Express, the train whose very name evoked the hope of detente, is possibly suspended. These are all reversible steps, but with Pakistan linking them to the Modi government’s Kashmir gambit, any chance of modification in the near future is remote. Thus India-Pakistan relations, frozen since before the Pulwama attack and Balakot airstrikes, are now in deep freeze.

However, Pakistan, as the revisionist power, has consistently tried since 1947 to overturn the status quo. It is quite likely to agitate internationally. The initial global reaction has been measured. The UAE and the Maldives, two Islamic nations, have tilted in India’s favour. The UAE ambassador in Delhi called it an “internal matter”. Saudi Arabia has chosen neutrality, advising a bilateral resolution of disputes, despite its dependence on the Pakistani military in the Yemen war. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has invested diplomatic capital in wooing the Saudi and UAE Crown Princes. The US issued a measured statement calling for restraint. But the Indian move defies President Donald Trump’s repeated mediation offers to settle the Kashmir issue. His silence could be a reflection of saner calculations or merely calm before some Trumpian tweet, if Pakistan manages to re-link its Afghan peace assistance to a more Pakistan-friendly US position.

It is UN Secretary-General Antonio Gueterres’ position that might trouble India as he has invoked the Shimla Agreement and the UN Security Council resolutions to recommend bilateral dispute resolution. This is in keeping with his past dalliance on Kashmir, but may well be at the urging of some permanent members of the Security Council.

The Chinese reaction was sharper, perhaps in line with its territorial claims in the Leh sector, dubbing the Indian move as “unacceptable”, and voicing “serious concern” over territorial sovereignty. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar’s visit to China over this weekend gives an opportunity to discuss matters. China’s ability to manoeuvre is currently limited as it faces a spiralling civil unrest in Hong Kong, where it is bound by the 1984 pact with Britain. Also, its slowing economy, the US trade war -- which China realises is unlikely to be resolved soon – has led to the weaponising of its currency by devaluation. There is also the Indian market’s potential in a reconfigured Asian trade architecture to consider. The outcome of the coming 23rd meeting of special representatives to discuss the boundary dispute and the planned visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit in India on October 12, if not deferred, will indicate the impact of the Kashmir issue, if any, on Sino-Indian relations.
Global Times, which is often reflective of Chinese official thinking, suggested bilateralism to India and Pakistan with the warming that India should “stop complicating the Kashmir situation”. China’s stance at the UN would be the final determinant of its actual position.

Mr Modi confirmed on Thursday that J&K could revert to full statehood after the restoration of “good governance. Meanwhile, Pakistan may, despite the FATF oversight, unleash jihadi assets against India, as surplus fighters become available after the Afghan peace accord, just like after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. The next few weeks and months will show if the Centre’s Kashmir gambit was a visionary gamble, or like demonetisation a serious misstep.

Tags: amit shah, article 370