The Vajpayee governments brusque rejection of the Jammu and Kashmir assemblys political autonomy plan almost went unnoticed in the US. While Washingtons official reaction was unusually mild, India-watchers and Kashmir specialists in the US unanimously expressed disappointment over the decision.
The issue cropped up neither at the White House nor at the State Department press briefings. A State Department official, though, was on record saying: "Last week, the state assembly of Jammu and Kashmir called upon the Union government to grant greater autonomy and this week the Indian cabinet unanimously rejected this proposal. We see this debate as a sign of Indias healthy democracy. We dont wish to comment further." Surprisingly, the president of Henry L. Stimson Center, Michael Krepon, also excused himself saying, "I dont want to comment."
But Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, described the rejection as the "two-steps-forward-two-steps-backward" approach. "I am not surprised at the rejection (of the autonomy idea)," he said. However, he saw hope in the fact that the country has of late begun a dialogue on an issue till recently considered taboo. He also drew attention to home minister L.K. Advanis statement favouring engagement on the issue, and said there was a lot of private, track-II diplomacy going on between the state government and the Centre, and between the Centre and the Kashmiri people. This, in his opinion, "will turn out to be useful in the long run".
Former US ambassador and South Asia specialist Teresita Schaffer too expressed disappointment over the rejection. Says she: "Its a retrograde step. Instead of outright rejection, the Vajpayee government could have said well consider the matter or examine its political and legal ramifications. Such an approach would have injected a sense of confidence among the Kashmiris." She believes that "the proposal was well worth considering, even though it didnt necessarily mean making a firm commitment".
Sumit Ganguly, professor of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas in Austin and an authority on the Kashmir issue, says the manner in which the report was rejected was arbitrary and the BJP government had lost an opportunity to put in place a political process. He felt the decision went against the historic trend of greater autonomy for religious and ethnic groups the world over. "To confuse it with secession is a grave mistake," he says.
Diplomatic sources in Washington feel that the reason for the extremely mild official reaction could be because apart from appreciating Indias sensitivity on the issue, the US does not want to jeopardise the new positive trend in Indo-US relations following President Bill Clintons March visit. Moreover, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is also expected here on a state visit, the first after P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was received at the White House in May 1994.
But the rejection of the report will be taken advantage of by a small but determined lobby in the Congress supported by Khalistanis and Kashmiri separatists. Recently, the Council of Khalistan, a Washington-based lobby group, circulated a letter signed by 20 lawmakers, alleging the Indian governments involvement in the March massacre of 35 Sikhs in Chitsinghpura in Kashmir while President Clinton was visiting India. They urged Clinton to pronounce India a state sponsor of terrorism, putting it in the category of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, North Korea and Cuba. Asked whether President Clinton supported the demand made by the lawmakers, including Republican Dan Burton, a known India-basher, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said, "Well, I think, as evidenced by the five-day visit (of President Clinton) to India, we enjoy very strong relations with the country." A tricky diplomatic puzzle to crack, silence obviously serves the cause best.