Twenty-two years ago, an Indian newsweekly fired a shot across the bow of the US State Department. “Casting aspersions on the Instrument of Accession is tantamount … to questioning the foundation of India’s secular nationhood, and at the ground level, could be interpreted as a signal to Kashmiri separatists to increase terrorist violence against the Indian state”. The provocation was, of course, Robin Raphel’s infamous remark during the Hazratbal standoff of the previous year, in which the US assistant secretary of state had declared that her country did not see Kashmir as “for ever more an integral part of India”, emphasised the “strong indigenous element to the insurgency”, and urged India to “clean up their act”.
A front-page story in this very newspaper damned Raphel as the “goddess of Indian terrorists, secessionists and other outlaws”. “Considering the animosity she arouses in every patriotic heart, politicians are expected to treat her as an untouchable,” said the Hindustan Times, warning that Raphel would “use this country’s soil to reaffirm the Clinton administration’s commitment to destabilise India”.
How times change. Kashmir faces its third and most serious bout of unrest since the insurgency petered out in the early 2000s. Following spikes of protest and violence in 2008 and 2010, the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani last month has catalysed a broad and sustained challenge to Indian rule across the valley. And yet the State Department, bête noire of the Ministry of External Affairs for so much of the 1990s, was content to pronounce “Kashmir is an internal matter of India” -- a line that might have been crafted in South Block. The Americans were, of course, “gravely concerned”, and urged the proverbial “restraint on all sides”. But when their spokesman was asked whether the US considered Kashmir to be disputed, or whether it still supported UN resolutions on the state, he dodged with all the agility of an Olympic gymnast.
What explains this shift? Samir Saran and Ashok Malik, both of the Observer Research Foundation, last week put forward two arguments in this newspaper. One, the international community is tired of “experiments with self-determination”, after violent challenges to established regimes in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Two, Kashmiri nationalism has been discredited by religion. “In a post-9/11, post-Islamic State world,” they write, “the proposition that Islamists are fighting for freedom is neither sellable nor credible”. Saran and Malik surely have a point. That Wani was eulogised in death both by thousands of Kashmiris and by Al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) will not have gone unrecognised by those countries assessing the uprising from afar. The irony, of course, is that the number of militants active in Kashmir has steadily fallen, while unarmed protesters have come to the forefront.
But the diplomatic quietism on Kashmir has deeper roots than this. Labour-led Britain, in the 1990s, played up what then foreign secretary Robin Cook called its “responsibility as the former imperial power”. “UN resolutions are UN resolutions until altered by the UN,” said a minister in 1997, and India could not pick “as you do from a menu card”. But as Britain courts a growing Indian economy, and with the Conservative Party — less reliant on Pakistani-origin constituencies — firmly in charge, that narrative is confined to the margins of British politics. More broadly, Kashmir no longer looks like the humanitarian priority or global flashpoint it once did. Aleppo or Crimea has far greater claims to Europe’s attention, and both the press and national governments have limited foreign policy bandwidth.
What matters most, of course, is the American position. Washington’s posture has evolved in response to Pakistan’s catastrophic decision to invade Kargil in 1999, India’s successful linkage between Kashmir and international terrorism after 2001, the relative calm that developed in Kashmir in the decade after the 2003 ceasefire and, above all, the remarkable growth of US-India relations in the past 10 years. It is an enduring diplomatic truth that US criticism of allies’ domestic crackdowns is muted. Recent examples include Saudi Arabia in the Eastern Province, Bahrain in its Shia villages, Israel in the occupied territories, and Pakistan in Balochistan.
The US had spent the 1980s working with the ISI to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. Today, it has spent 15 years losing US troops at the hands of Pakistan-sponsored insurgents in the same country. Washington has little reason to support Pakistan’s diplomacy on Kashmir, and no shortage of reasons to avoid drawing India’s ire. The sea change in the shape of the India-US-Pakistan triangle is ultimately responsible for India’s diplomatic freedom of manoeuvre on Kashmir — the freedom to pursue the policy of “no compromise” that Ram Madhav signalled on Sunday, and the diplomatic counter-attack on Balochistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir evident in PM Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech on Monday.
Shashank Joshi is Senior Research Fellow, Royal United Services Institute in London.
The views expressed are personal.