Six months after the Pulwama terrorist attack in India’s part of Kashmir and the exchange of airstrikes between India and Pakistan, the attention of the international community, including diplomats, the media and observers, is once again riveted on this region.
Out of the blue, the Indian government decided to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir, and expediently fulfilled this objective. The move was presented to the public in and beyond India as being driven by domestic politics. On the one hand, the measure was said to enhance security in the union territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, to ensure better oversight and governance by New Delhi, which is expected to bring about socioeconomic development. On the other hand, the way this decision was adopted has definitely left Kashmir’s Muslim population alarmed, if not appalled, something that could further boost separatist sentiment.
In the first weeks after the decision to revoke special status, calm in the region was largely attributable to the security lockdown with the enhanced presence of Indian armed forces, arrests of local opposition politicians, accompanied by a communications lockdown, with restrictions on the use of the internet, television and mobile networks. But Kashmir cannot live in the state of a de facto siege forever. In order to demonstrate that Kashmir has become just like any other Indian state and union territory, the government will have to lift these restrictions which will immediately lay bare all the conflicts that have been building up in the region.
As far as geopolitics is concerned, the situation in Kashmir remains explosive. It has been a historically unstable region where territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, and India and China have been ongoing over the past several decades. It is in Kashmir that the interests of regional as well as global powers such as the United States, Great Britain, Russia, France and Japan, intersect. Terrorist groups are also active there with their subversive activity. Against this backdrop, the decision by the Modi government cannot fail to resonate in South Asia, as well as globally.
Regional developments in Kashmir are determined by a number of specific geopolitical factors. First, the crisis in Afghanistan has entered a new stage with what seems to be the imminent withdrawal of US troops from the country and the strengthening of the Taliban. The Taliban’s statements on the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s status was quite amicable, containing carefully worded sentences that would make foreign ministry press services jealous in some countries. At the same time, India still views the Taliban’s growing influence in Afghanistan and the region as a security threat to Kashmir. In addition, Pakistan is playing an increasingly important role in the region as an essential mediator between Washington and the Taliban amid progress in the direct talks between the two. As long as the risk of a breakdown in the negotiating process persists, the United States will depend on Islamabad, which means that the US is likely to take a neutral position on the developments in Kashmir.
Pakistan and China responded to India’s decision in a predictably negative way. Each of these countries has claims to Indian territories. Pakistan made a failed attempt to raise the Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council, in order to give it an international dimension. Islamabad also took a number of bilateral steps by expelling India’s ambassador, limiting bilateral trade and suspending rail and bus service between the two countries. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi even made an urgent visit to China to discuss developments in Kashmir.
Beijing supported Pakistan’s position by expressing serious concern over the “unilateral change in the status” of Kashmir, promising its assistance in the UN Security Council. However, the position adopted by China is more of a formality, since it is not interested in worsening its relations with India at present. First, Beijing is focused on the protests in Hong Kong, and second, it has yet to resolve its difference with the US on trade. Finally, after many years of estrangement India and China have seen some positive momentum in their relations lately. Two days after Qureshi’s visit, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar arrived in China to reassure Beijing that India does not have any further territorial claims. Neither New Delhi nor Beijing want to sacrifice the summit between Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping that is scheduled for October, since both parties have high hopes for this meeting.
Russia was the first and so far only member of the UN Security Council to support India’s decision by saying that the initiative was consistent with the country’s constitution. By doing so, Russia expressed solidarity with New Delhi’s official position whereby the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir is its internal affair. The shared commitment by Moscow and New Delhi to non-interference in the domestic affairs of others is a major factor in their bilateral ties that will further strengthen their political cooperation.
By taking a firm stand on this matter, Russia has won an edge over other countries like the United States, Great Britain and other European countries with their ambiguous statements combining calls for India and Pakistan to show restraint and calm with concerns about a number of matters, including allegations that New Delhi’s decision was adopted in an undemocratic manner, and the human rights situation in the region. This is not the first time high-ranking politicians in the US and Europe have made critical remarks of this kind. Chances are high that this position will become an irritant in India’s dialogue with these countries.
As usual, countries in the Middle East are paying close attention to developments in Kashmir. Following Pakistan, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation expressed concern over the “critical situation” along the line of control between India and Pakistan, as well as “gross human rights violations” in Jammu and Kashmir. However, a number of Muslim countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not condemned India, making general statements via diplomatic channels on the need to maintain peace in the region. Turkey is the only country in the Middle East that has expressed solidarity with Islamabad and has offered permanent support to it.
Pakistan and China have immediate interests in Kashmir. But apart from them, not a single country in the world issued an official condemnation of New Delhi’s decision. The high loyalty demonstrated by India’s partners who accepted its decision despite certain reservations, demonstrates the success of India’s efforts to enhance its international standing, investment appeal and geopolitical weight in Asia. All these achievements are largely attributable to an active foreign policy in the past five years that enables the Modi government to adopt bold and resonating decisions with confidence in India’s international standing.
At this point, the Indian government has succeeded in preventing the status of Kashmir from becoming an international issue, despite the heightened attention to the region. However, this does not make this region a safer place. Further developments in Kashmir will be determined by two factors: the agenda the Indian government offers to the Muslim population of the new union territories, and how Islamabad responds to these moves. Having engaged a number of diplomatic mechanisms, Pakistan can still influence regional developments in a number of ways. While there is no pretext for an armed standoff, the conflict could instantly escalate with any provocative steps by either government or terrorist groups in the part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control, once again placing the military variable center stage.