Donald Trump may have to mediate in Kashmir after all.
When the U.S. president suggested last month that he had been asked by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to act as middleman between India and Pakistan over the disputed Himalayan region, it looked like a gauche diplomatic gaffe, and New Delhi promptly shot him down.
Over the past weekend, however, South Asia’s most dangerous faultline has flared up to such an extent that it is no longer unthinkable that the world’s global policeman could have to step in to cool tensions between two military heavyweights, both armed with nuclear weapons.
On Monday, the Indian government announced it would revoke its part of Kashmir’s special status as an autonomous region, going back on the agreement that allowed Muslim-majority Kashmir to become part of India in the first place. It’s a highly assertive step from the Hindu nationalist government that effectively tears up a seven-decade-long compromise. In the build-up to the announcement, the government cut internet access, placed regional leaders under house arrest, told tourists, students and pilgrims to quit the region, announced a curfew and added even more troops to the 500,000 already stationed there.
Trump landed himself squarely in the middle of this intractable quagmire on July 22. Seated next to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the White House, he unwittingly dropped a bombshell by claiming Modi had asked him to mediate in Kashmir.
The last U.S. president to have made a notable intervention was Bill Clinton, who helped bring to an end the brief Kargil War between India and Pakistan in Kashmir in 1999.
Trump may just have been bragging, but it was a jaw-dropping moment in the subcontinent. India went into firefighting mode. If Modi really had made such a request for outside intervention, it would have broken an agreement with Pakistan that Kashmir could only be handled as a bilateral issue. Within the hour, the Indian foreign ministry said “no such request” had been made and its media fulminated at the suggestion. Indian Congress Party lawmaker Shashi Tharoor said: “I honestly don’t think Trump has the slightest idea of what he’s talking about.”
Two weeks on, though, the diplomatic stakes look way higher. India is now under pressure from groups as diverse as the Chinese government and Amnesty International.
Pakistan itself welcomed Trump’s suggested mediation with a larger neighbor. Khan nodded with approval as Trump made his remarks in the White House, and said: “I can tell you that, right now, you would have the prayers of over a billion people if you can mediate and resolve this issue.” His Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the offer was “more than Pakistan’s expectations.”
Undaunted by India’s pushback, Trump reaffirmed on August 2 that he was happy to intervene.
Shekhar Gupta, a veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of The Print, and far from a dove on Pakistan, argued that India’s bilateral approach to Kashmir has failed, and it should try mediation. “Indian adherence to bilateralism is now outdated. It has lived its use-by date. It is time to move on,” he said in an online editorial.
“In the blood of every Pakistani”
On Monday, India said it would revoke constitutional articles that devolve most governmental responsibilities to the regional authority, and even allowed Kashmir its own flag. The full integration into India now also stands to affect property rights, which could prove incendiary. Up until now, only residents of Kashmir can buy and own property, which is an important provision for India’s only Muslim-majority state worried about changing demographics that could shift the balance more to Hindus.
Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist BJP party made revoking Kashmir’s special status part of its election campaign this year, and opposition lawmakers protested vociferously when Home Minister Amit Shah announced the measure in parliament on Monday. Former Kashmir Chief Minister and President of the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party Mehbooba Mufti said the government was “dismembering the state [of Kashmir] and fraudulently taking away what is rightfully and legally ours.” The opposition Congress Party called the decision “catastrophic.”
Similar complaints emanated from Pakistan, which sees itself as protector of Muslim Kashmiris while India says it supports armed insurgency there. The Pakistani military, the ultimate arbiter of the country’s foreign policy (and its nuclear arsenal), didn’t mince words: “Kashmir runs in blood of every Pakistani. Indigenous freedom struggle of Kashmiris shall succeed [God willing],” said Major General Asif Ghafoor, a military spokesman.
Khan said the move “has the potential to blow up into a regional crisis” and repeated his call for Trump to mediate. “This is the time to do so as situation deteriorates there and along the Line of Control” — the unofficial border separating the chunks of Kashmir that India and Pakistan administer — “with new aggressive actions being taken by Indian occupation forces.”
China, a close ally of Pakistan and traditional strategic foe of India, has piled on the pressure by throwing its weight behind an international dialogue over Kashmir with “the U.S. included.”
America is also sticking to its line, and pushing back against Indian suggestions that Trump misspoke. Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow, for example, pushed back against the idea that Trump lied about Modi asking for help. “The president doesn’t make things up,” he said.
Time to re-engage
The last U.S. president to have made a notable intervention was Bill Clinton, who helped bring to an end the brief Kargil War between India and Pakistan in Kashmir in 1999. Since then, India’s insistence on a bilateral solution, the U.S.’s fractious relations with Pakistan and its greater focus on Afghanistan has meant the U.S. generally eschewed Kashmir.
But it would seem a perfect time for the U.S. to re-engage. Violence returned earlier this year when India launched an airstrike in Pakistani territory in retaliation for a terror attack, for which it blamed Pakistan. A dogfight between Pakistani and Indian fighter jets led to a diplomatic stand-off, when Pakistan captured an Indian pilot. Still, the two nations pulled back from the brink. The airstrikes didn’t kill anyone and Pakistan handed back the captured pilot.
With India revoking Kashmir’s autonomous status, however, the region could easily slide back on to a war-footing. The Pakistani government said ominously that it will “exercise all possible options to counter the illegal steps” taken by India. “The decision [to revoke Kashmir’s status] will never be acceptable to the people of IoK [Indian-occupied Kashmir] and Pakistan,” the Pakistani foreign office said.
The stand-off certainly presents Trump with a prime opportunity to try to overcome his non-interventionist instincts. Parading good relations with both sides, Trump says he has “good chemistry” with Khan and is a “true friend” to India.