Towards regional instability?

By Syeda Mamoona Rubab

The Pakistani government, which champions the cause of Kashmiris, could not prepare a counter-strategy to prevent India’s unilateral action, writes Syeda Mamoona Rubab

India’s troubling move to end the autonomous status for Occupied Kashmir marks the beginning of fresh chapter of trials and tribulations for the people of Kashmir. This move by India has also pushed the region towards further instability.

Indian presidential proclamation to scrap Article 370 and legislation for bifurcating the occupied territory along religious lines into Muslim dominated Jammu and Kashmir and Buddhist majority Ladakh were not surprising developments. These were very much expected given that ending autonomy for Kashmir was a central plank of Hindutva-centric and anti-Muslim politics of ruling the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) since its inception. The pledge to revoke Article 370 was most recently renewed in the BJP’s manifesto for 2019 elections.

Particularly troubling was that fact that despite the clear writing on the wall, the Pakistani government, which champions the cause of Kashmiris, could not prepare a counter-strategy aimed at mounting pressure on the Indian government through diplomatic means to stop it from changing the status quo on Kashmir pending the settlement of the dispute. The government appeared to be lack a properly scripted reaction and response strategy even after the inevitable had happened.

Reactions from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who addressed a joint sitting of the Parliament on this issue, the Foreign Office, and General Headquarters simply denounced the Indian action, but lacked what could have given hope to the people of the country, especially the Kashmiris. The country’s leadership could have been more articulate in showing the way forward on challenging the Indian action that was described as illegal. The only idea the prime minister and FO had was to draw world attention to the developing crisis.

PM Khan in his speech spoke of how he found out that India was not interested in talking to Pakistan and that latest Indian action, driven by the BJP’s extremist ideology, had heightened chances of violence. Foreign Office, which is the lead agency for responding to such situations, condemned it as a breach of international law and UN resolutions for consolidating Indian control on the occupied territory. Meanwhile, GHQ, after deliberations at the level of corps commanders, said that army fully backed the government’s rejection of Indian action and could go to any extent for the Kashmir issue.

China, which also has stakes in the Kashmir dispute, was more assertive. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, in a statement noted that changes in Indian legal framework related to Occupied Kashmir “undermined China’s territorial sovereignty.” She said Indian actions were “unacceptable and without any legal effect.”

The only concrete action that has been taken by the prime minister’s office so far, and that too after opposition parties accused the government of inaction, was to constitute a seven-member committee comprising Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan, Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood, Director General ISI Faiz Hameed, DG Military Operations Maj Gen Nauman Zakria, DG ISPR Maj Asif Ghafoor, and International Law Expert Ahmer Bilal Soofi to formulate legal, political, and diplomatic response to the latest developments on Kashmir. No time frame has been set for the committee.

Pakistan has not only struggled to come up with a response strategy, it has also failed to define the terms of the debate. This is one reason that there is vagueness and lack of clarity in various statements. This also led to the Opposition protesting over the language of the resolution tabled by the government in the joint sitting of the Parliament. Some very pertinent questions in this regard are: is Pakistan against revocation of Articles 35-A and 370? Did Pakistan support this legislation in the first place? Pakistan was never in favour of the two Kashmir-specific articles in the Indian constitution. Article 370 was a matter of fact formalisation of the so-called Maharaja’s accession to India. Then what is this uproar all about? It is because Pakistan does not want a change in status quo over Kashmir until the dispute is resolved. The Indian action, it is apprehended, may further complicate the issue that has been awaiting implementation of UN resolutions for over 70 years.

The disputed status of Kashmir, meanwhile, remains unaffected by the Indian move because of the UN resolutions. India may, however, like to project that with its forceful annexation the issue does not exist anymore.

However, when seen from the perspective of the Kashmiris, Article 35-A protected the Kashmiri identity and culture as it barred outsiders from settling or acquiring immovable assets in the valley. Article 370, meanwhile, gave them a semblance of autonomy, although that, too, had been watered down significantly over the decades through various amendments. Article 370, therefore, had huge symbolic value for Kashmiris, whereas Article 35-A, which had been promulgated through Article 370, actually safeguarded the Kashmiri demography, culture, and traditions. The Kashmiris now stand exposed to surging Hindutva and Hindu nationalism, which has little regard for other communities. This would be in addition to the inhuman oppression that they already face at the hands of Indian security forces almost on daily basis. It is, therefore, the worst nightmare coming true for the wretched Kashmiris.

There are judicial verdicts from the High Court of Srinagar and Indian Supreme Court in favour of these legislations as recent as 2015, restraining the government of India from revoking them. Clause 3 of Article 370 explicitly states that president of India can annul the law, but only after recommendation of the Constituent Assembly. Since Kashmir’s Constituent Assembly, before ceasing to exist in 1956, did not revoke Article 370 it was believed that it had assumed permanency. The matter is, therefore, certain to face legal challenges in India.

Cancellation of Kashmir’s autonomous status has been on the BJP’s agenda since its inception, but it could not implement it earlier despite being in power before. This was because the BJP then lacked required political power to implement it and during its earlier stints in office, it relied on the crutches of its allies. It nevertheless tried to achieve this through courts, but failed to do so. However, the massive mandate the party got in the 2019 elections refreshed its resolve to go for the annulment.

The timing of the move may have been influenced by other happenings in the region, especially the progress towards US–Taliban deal, which is being facilitated by Islamabad, and the initiation of the Afghan peace process. India might be nervous that success in political settlement of the Afghan dispute may strengthen Pakistan’s position in the region and simultaneously improve its ties with the West. Therefore, Delhi may have decided to push back by creating a situation that could destabilise the region. Delhi’s other concern could have been the two offers by President Trump to mediate on the Kashmir dispute. Many, however, think India does not attach much importance to President Trump’s assertions.

Domestic politics could have been another consideration. The BJP got another term in office with an overwhelming majority because of its anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Modi may have felt that the move on Kashmir could help him consolidate his hard line Hindu support base. The Indian prime minister, whose last tenure was marked by lacklustre performance on governance and economy, does not have much to offer to his voters this time either because nothing has been done to improve economy or address job crisis.

While there is lot of despondency around, there is also a silver lining in this situation. It is an opportunity to internationalise the Kashmir dispute. India, by acting unilaterally, has itself killed the Simla Agreement. It has all along relied on this agreement to refuse third-party intervention and insisted that Kashmri was a bilateral matter. Pakistan does not need to worry much about Article 370. It should focus on worsening humanitarian crisis in Kashmir to win sympathies for the cause.

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]

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