On the morning of May 24, two American diplomats landed in Srinagar. Nothing unusual as American diplomats had been visiting Kashmir Valley since 1990, when armed insurgency backed by mass uprising broke out in the region. This time, though, the civil society groups and others who met them say they were “more concerned and worried” about the escalating tension between the armies of India and Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to an intelligence report, the diplomats—David P. Arulanantham, political affairs head of the US Embassy in Delhi, and another diplomat Robert Jacob Duval—stayed at the Lalit Grand Palace, Srinagar, once the Maharaja’s residence, on the foothills overlooking Dal lake. The diplomats met a cabinet minister and a senior police official, and also visited the house of a civilian near the Dal. “They knew what is going on along the LoC between the two armies, especially in Rajouri sector,” says a Kashmiri interlocutor who met the diplomats. “They also knew about happenings in the Valley and were concerned and worried.”
Like in their previous visits, the diplomats ignored the separatist leaders. “It doesn’t matter whether American diplomats meet us or not,” says Prof Abdul Gani Bhat, former Hurriyat Conference chairman. “What matters is that they hear noises and the noises have started producing music in terms of the urgency in addressing Kashmir.” Nikki Haley, the Indian-origin US ambassador to the UN, is one reason behind this growing optimism. In April, Haley generated much expectation in the Valley and controversy in New Delhi when she said the Donald Trump administration was concerned about tension between India and Pakistan and would not wait for things to go worse. She said the US might offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to “de-escalate” the tension and even Trump might come forward to play an active role.
India dismissed Haley’s offer saying, “The government’s position for bilateral redressal of all India-Pakistan issues in an environment free of terror and violence hasn’t changed.”
But for Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, the chairman of Hurriyat’s moderate faction, “the indication by America, being the superpower, to play a positive role in the region is satisfactory for the people of Kashmir”. Pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chairman Yasin Malik, who says US mediation had led to JKLF’s decision to disarm itself in 1994 and take to unarmed means of agitation, also welcomed Haley’s statement. “The statement of US envoy to the UN is welcome. We appreciate it and hope it would be translated into action,” says Malik. Shabir Ahmad Shah of Hurriyat’s Geelani faction believes US diplomats should engage with the separatists now. During the 1990s, they would meet Shah regularly. “Once George Bush senior invited me for a dinner in New Delhi,” he recalls. “I have had meetings with then US ambassador, Frank Wisner and US senator Frank Brown. Whenever they visited Kashmir, they met us.”
The separatist leaders have always seen a role for the international community, especially the US and the UN, in the resolution of the Kashmir conflict. “We have been asking them to play their role before it is too late,” says Shah, a strong votary of US involvement, who believes the growing international importance of the Indian economy has forced a shift in US policy. In the post-9/11 world, when the then ambassador Robert Blackwill visited Jammu and Kashmir in 2002, he ignored the separatists and condemned armed insurgency. Unlike his predecessors, Wisner and Richard F. Celeste, who would interact with journalists, visit hospitals and talk to separatist leaders, Blackwill met the then governor G.C. Saxena, the then CM Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and former CM Farooq Abdullah. And he stayed at 15 Corps headquarters in Badamibagh.
US interest in Kashmir saw a revival of sorts when Barack Obama, in his presidential campaign in November 2008, said almost the same thing that Haley said this April, suggesting that the US should try to help resolve the Kashmir conflict so that Pakistan can focus on battling Islamist militants on its north-western frontier. Richard Holbroke, whom Obama appointed as special Af-Pak envoy, met Mirwaiz in Dubai, say Hurriyat sources.
Then, in 2011, US senator John McCain visited Ladakh and Srinagar. That time the state government spokesman had said the US senator held discussions “on various important issues” with the then CM Omar Abdullah and Governor N.N. Vohra. The senior Republican senator was accompanied by two foreign policy advisers and diplomats from the US embassy in New Delhi. When he called on Vohra, Lt Gen K.T. Parnaik, the then General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (Northern Command), and Lt Gen S.A. Hasnain, the then commander of the army’s Srinagar-based 15 Corps, were also present.
In Haley, the separatist leaders see a Robin Raphel moment. “Haley’s statement indicated that the Trump administration understands the threat of an unresolved Kashmir issue,” says Prof Bhat. In 1993, when the then US president Bill Clinton appointed Raphel as the first Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, she was already a frequent traveller to the Valley while serving at the US embassy in Delhi since 1991. She had described Kashmir as dispute at a diplomatic event and suggested a referendum, causing quite a storm in Delhi.
Activists in the Valley still remember Raphel fondly. “During one of her visits, some lawyers started telling her what happened in 1947 in Kashmir. She cut them short, saying, ‘I know what happened in 1947, you tell me what is happening now,’” recalls a senior lawyer. Raphel used to meet separatist leaders regularly. When the All Parties Hurriyat Conference was formed on July 31, 1993, many believed she had a role in its formation as she was a strong advocate of having such a conglomerate. However, Shabir Shah says, “I don’t think the US had any role in the formation of Hurriyat Conference.”
This January, the visit of “India expert” Lisa Curtis, seen as close to the Republican Party, to Srinagar created some noise. She met CM Mehbooba Mufti, commander of 15 Corps and Mirwaiz. Some analysts in Srinagar described her visit as “Trump’s mission Kashmir”. Now that Curtis is deputy assistant to the president and senior director for South and Central Asia at the National Security Council, many presume Americans are interested once again in matters Kashmir. “The Americans cannot ignore Kashmir anymore,” says Prof Bhat. “The Trump administration has accepted that it is a problem. China too is saying it. Remember, CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) is going through the Kashmir region. The involvement of powerful countries in the region and the shaping of new alliances have made it urgent to resolve Kashmir.”
Kashmiris protest outside White House, 2017
According to a senior Kashmiri political observer, the Americans have always been interested in Kashmir. “Right from Sheikh Abdullah’s days to now, the Americans are conscious of the danger in Kashmir. After all, Sheikh was arrested for meeting American diplomats and sharing his ideas with them,” he says. In 1950, Sheikh had a secret meeting with the then US ambassador Loy Henderson in Srinagar. In the meeting, Sheikh had vigorously argued for an independent Kashmir. Later, in May 1953, American Democratic leader Adlai Stevenson, who was on a world trip after his defeat in the US presidential elections, met Sheikh in Srinagar and encouraged him on the question of independent Kashmir. Not long after, on August 9, Sheikh was arrested and removed from his post as prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. He was accused of hatching a conspiracy with foreign powers to make Kashmir independent.
A declassified CIA report of April 22, 1964, titled ‘Sheikh Abdullah and the Kashmir issue’, was released last year. The report throws light on some vital details about Sheikh and the US interests in the Kashmir region. According to the declassified document, “Sheikh Abdullah was also moved strongly by Kashmir’s feeling of separateness. Conversations with him in 1947—and, more particularly, with his wife and some close associates—bear out that he then favoured some solution in which the state would go its way. He seems to have agreed to accession to India out of the strength of his regard for Nehru and his fear that otherwise the state would be overrun by Pakistan…. In time, as Nehru continued to build a strong and centralised federal structure in New Delhi, Abdullah found himself questioning New Delhi’s policies—first privately and then in 1953 publicly.” The CIA report says this culminated in his arrest, and that the suspicion of “foreign contact was directed mainly at Pakistan, but also at the United States, which, in heyday of anti-American feeling in India, was portrayed as encouraging Abdullah in his schemes for an autonomous or independent Kashmir, which would then become a US base”.
The CIA report says suspicion of the US persisted even in 1964. It quotes a speech of V.K. Krishna Menon, former defence minister, who said “an independent Kashmir would be an American Kashmir”. The suspicion continues in 2017. That is why Haley’s April statement is seen suspiciously in New Delhi and with hope by separatists in Srinagar.
Another observer, who met the visiting diplomats, says much depends on whether PM Narendra Modi would meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on June 5 on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Astana, Kazakhstan, in the midst of heightened tension between the two countries. “If at all that meeting takes place,” he says, “then there are some chances of talks between India and Pakistan and engagement between the Centre and the separatists. That’s where the role of America comes into play.”
Chronology of escalating tension along the LoC
- Sept 18, 2016: Terrorists infiltrate and attack an army base in Uri, killing 19 Indian soldiers; India vows retaliation
- Sept 29, 2016: India announces it conducted ‘surgical strikes’ on militant launchpads across the LoC, responding to Uri attack
- Oct 28, 2016: An Indian soldier’s body found mutilated in Kupwara’s Machil
- Nov 22, 2016: Pakistan troops open fire, kill three Indian soldiers along the LoC in Kupwara
- Nov 29, 2016: Pakistan and India exchange fire along the LoC in both Baramulla and Uri
- Feb 13, 2017: Pakistan Army’s public relations wing, the ISPR, says Indian firing kills three Pak soldiers
- May 1, 2017: Pakistani forces attack Indian posts in the Krishna Ghati sector of Poonch, mutilate bodies of two soldiers; India calls it unprovoked action
- May 22, 2017: Indian Army carries out “punitive assault” on Pakistani posts as revenge and claims extensive damage
- May 24, 2017: Pakistan Army releases video purportedly showing damages to Indian military posts in response to the “punitive assault” by Indian forces
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar