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It’s the one yardstick by which all Pakistani politicians and military leaders are judged. Every Pakistani leader worth his vaulting rhetoric must successfully handle the Kashmir “dispute” with India in public, so crucial an indicator it is of political fortunes and longevity. Faring well vis-a-vis the ‘hostile’ eastern neighbour in this crucial area, especially before an international audience, is a must.
Under rising pressure and fierce criticism from his political opponents at home in the wake of India’s decision to scrap Article 370 and bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Imran Khan on August 7 responded by expelling the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad, Ajay Besaria, and decided to withhold the new Pakistani high commissioner to Delhi. The Pakistani PM, who chaired a high-level meeting during the day that was attended by senior members of the civilian government as well as the military establishment, also took a series of steps to downgrade relations with India—bilateral trade was to stop and the Wagah-Attari border closed.
Clearly, the aim of the Pakistani leadership is to ratchet up tensions with India to a level that would grab focus of the international community and pave the way for the United States or the United Nations to intervene and force India to return to the talks table with Pakistan. The Pakistani response to a large extent was on expected lines.
Until recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan was being hailed as a hero for having convinced the US president that Kashmir was a ‘flashpoint’ in urgent need of ministration, leading Donald Trump to offer to mediate between the two South Asian nuclear neighbours—manna for Pakistan, as it had always been keen in internationalising the ‘dispute’.
But India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 and the bifurcation of the state into two Union territories put Pakistan in a spot. There was mounting pressure, too, from the Opposition on Imran for his inability to anticipate the Indian move.
Pakistan PM Imran Khan is under huge pressure to respond to India
“Was the offer to mediate a trap that you walked into and gloated over, or did you, as usual, had no clue about what was being planned by the enemy?” Pakistan Muslim League leader and former PM Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Sharif, asked in a terse tweet. “You have wreaked irreversible damage not only to the country but to Kashmiris who needed a strong Pakistan to support them,” she added, setting the tone for other criticism. Maryam used her August 6 rally in Sargodha to highlight the plight of Kashmiris and to keep up pressure on Imran, prompting other opposition leaders like Pakistan People’s Party’s Bilawal Bhutto to demand immediate action. Clearly, the harried opposition leaders in Pakistan, cowering thus far under the government’s charges of corruption, eagerly latched on to the Kashmir issue to put Imran on the back foot. Islamabad’s decision to expel the Indian envoy and stop trade was an attempt to stanch the flow of attacks on Imran’s PTI government.
It is not so much the dilution of Article 370 that is anathema to Pakistan, as that of its subset, Article 35A, that no longer prevents non-Kashmiris from buying land in the Valley. The decision to bifurcate the state into two separate Union territories—Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh—also rankles. The fact that cross-border terrorism was cited as a key reason for the bifurcation so that the government can now deal more effectively with the menace also puts the blame on Pakistan, although without naming it. Pressure has since been mounting on Imran from his detractors to come clean on whether he had been caught totally unawares by India or had struck a secret deal with Trump on Kashmir.
For his part, the PM first responded by aiming for maximum wattage—calling the Indian decision “racist” and warning that the situation is likely to worsen further, including more “Pulwama-like incidents”, as Kashmiris were going to retaliate to Delhi’s “illegal” measures. He told the National Assembly: “Jinnah knew that RSS wants India only for Hindus and any Muslim there would be treated as second-class citizens. He was the first to see through their agenda.”
Most diplomats feel that so far India has managed to outflank Pakistan. The decision on Kashmir has been smoothly slotted away by the Indian establishment as an “internal matter”.
To ensure that its decision on Article 370 does not spark a major misunderstanding among key international players, India has begun a diplomatic contact programme. On August 6, Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale and other senior MEA officials briefed envoys of the ‘permanent five’ of the UN Security Council countries and others on the logic behind the Indian decision. The decision to scrap the article that gave special status to J&K, they argued, would lead to good governance, social justice and economic development in the state.
China has been the only country to strongly criticise the Indian move; it also repeated the old homily of asking India and Pakistan to resolve their disputes through dialogue. But China’s reaction can be linked to two issues—one, its close friendship with Pakistan, which had gifted it a portion of Kashmir territory under its control and two, to ensure that Aksai Chin, a territory in the Ladakh sector of the unresolved Sino-India boundary that is under Chinese control but claimed by India, is not jeopardised. While India wouldn’t want to precipitate a crisis with China, it did tell Beijing that India does not comment on internal matters of its neighbours and expected China to follow the principle.
Barring China, all other countries seemed to have accepted the Indian argument, showing reluctance to open a front with India on Kashmir. Inasmuch as the centrality of Kashmir in its policy towards India, Pakistan’s other responses in the coming weeks will be keenly watched by all.
Pakistan will certainly try and internationalise the current situation in Kashmir and try to make the UN Security Council take it up for discussion. Any mention of the Kashmir issue by the UNSC—Pakistan would argue that Delhi’s decision was a clear violation of the existing UN resolution on Kashmir—will be regarded by Islamabad as a victory.
But it could also look at other options. One is to ensure that Pakistan-based terrorist groups which it had nurtured, financed and trained are used in fomenting trouble in the Kashmir Valley with greater intensity. Though in the past this has been Islamabad’s most effective policy, it could now prove to be problematic, since Pakistan is already in the ‘grey’ list of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which could blacklist it if it’s found to have been using terrorist groups to further its interests.
The other option for Pakistan is, of course, for its army to increase tension along the LoC, forcing India to retaliate. That could arouse the UN into action—a move which it is likely to try during the UNGA session next month, when both Imran and Modi will be present. Pakistan already plans to campaign among the diplomatic corps to apprise them of the ‘deteriorating situation in Kashmir’.
But Imran’s best bet is to use the Afghanistan card to convince Trump that his preoccupation with the eastern front in the wake of India’s unilateral decision on Kashmir has tied him down. He can argue that to convince the Taliban to join the political mainstream in Kabul and pave the way for the smooth passage for US troops withdrawal, he needs to be ensured of a calm LoC. This, he may stress, can only happen if Trump uses his good office to mediate and bring India to the talks table to find a resolution on Kashmir with Pakistan.
Though this may figure at the top of Imran’s wishlist, it can only be realised if Narendra Modi concedes enough space for it to materialise. India-Pakistan ties have hit one of its periodic nadirs—it’s only likely to run its course with another spell of hostility.