Kashmir in play

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Each year, the United States and Pakistan meet for the annual Strategic Dialogue in Washington, DC. It is a concerted effort by both sides to expand the bilateral relationship with more than just a deep focus on security vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

Last week, the talks concluded with one unforeseen outcome: Kashmir is now back on the agenda.

The United States has historically declared that Kashmir and the Line of Control (LoC) — often referred to as the most dangerous place on earth — is a matter for India and Pakistan to resolve through a meaningful dialogue within their respective bilateral framework.

Buried towards the end, the exact wording of the US-Pakistan joint statement regarding Kashmir reads: “The United States and Pakistan emphasised the importance of meaningful dialogue in support of a peaceful resolution of outstanding issues, including Kashmir. The delegations underscored that all parties in the region should continuously act with maximum restraint and work collaboratively toward reducing tensions.”

At this point, the entry of the United States into the issue of Kashmir is vague. Whether or not it pursues an active role as mediator or leverages its diplomatic muscle behind the scenes to facilitate talks remains to be seen. What is abundantly clear, however, is Indian anxiety over American maturity.

Talks between Pakistan and India have been in a state of stagnation, with New Delhi requiring any talks to be limited solely to terrorism while Islamabad refused to meet with any pre-conditions.

The government of Nawaz Sharif — which like all political parties campaigned on improving ties with India — has been pushing for a comprehensive dialogue since the dawn of its tenure. Officials have routinely expressed concern that leaving out Kashmir in any such dialogue would be akin to sealing its fate as a cold conflict.

The mood out of New Delhi is murky at best. Just days before the US-Pakistan joint statement, opposition leader and Vice-President of the Indian Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, took to the Lok Sabha and blasted Prime Minister Narendara Modi for “taking Pakistan out of the cage” his government had created after years of an aggressive diplomacy focused on isolating Pakistan. He went on to further criticise PM Modi for his surprise trip to Pakistan on December 25 to meet with PM Sharif.

Former Indian diplomat M K Bhardakumar, who has thrice served as the country’s representative in the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan Division in the Ministry of External Affairs, bluntly stated “Pakistan has brilliantly succeeded in inserting the Kashmir issue into the agenda of its annual Strategic Dialogue with the US.” He went on to call the US-Pak Strategic Dialogue “a watershed event in Pakistani diplomacy.”

Indian alarm is not surprising. As recently as last September, its leadership refused to recognise the role of a third party in the resolution of Kashmir.

While it has remained a flash point for conflict in South Asia, it is a burgeoning political controversy within India. The recent arrest and charges of sedition and criminal conspiracy against Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Student Union President Kanhaiya Kumar for raising allegedly “anti-national slogans”, have sparked a firestorm across Indian media.

JNU students had been protesting the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, whose confession is widely believed to have been made under duress and threats to his family.

Kashmir has been a central point of hostility between Pakistan and India since 1947, with Pakistan persisting in highlighting the issue, at times with a tragic policy of encouraging violent anti-Indian groups while India is content to pursue a flawed policy of containment that demeans the people of Kashmir daily. Cool-minded experts on both sides debate the possibility of an improvement due to a third party role, however small it may be.

There is no question the pot has been boiling in Kashmir for too long. The new shift in US policy only increases the heat on India.

 

 

 

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