- The USA could do more
In early August this year, the Indian government announced that it would make major changes to the legal status of its Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, specifically by repealing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which provided the state special autonomous status, and by bifurcating the state into two successor “Union Territories” with more limited indigenous administrative powers. New Delhi’s action has raised serious constitutional questions and—given the heavy-handed security measures in Kashmir—elicited more intense criticisms of India on human rights grounds. These blatant steps have sparked international controversy as the unilateral changes of Kashmir’s status that could harm regional stability, eliciting US and international concerns about further escalation between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed powers, which nearly came to war after the February 2019, Pulwama crisis.
The United Nations and independent watchdog groups fault New Delhi for excessive use of force and other abuses in Kashmir. They consider it to be a disputed territory, but New Delhi, the status quo party, calls the recent legal changes an internal matter, and it generally opposes third-party involvement in the Kashmir issue. Their tyrannical rule has jeopardised India’s secular face and traditions, and may rather depict India as under a Hindu nationalist government— which returned to power in May with a strong mandate— and which appears to pursue Hindu majoritarian policies at some cost to the country’s religious minorities. Additionally, New Delhi’s recent actions appear to have been broadly popular with the Indian public and were supported by most major Indian political parties. Yet the government’s process came under severe criticism from many quarters for a lack of pre-consultation or debate, and many legal scholars opined that the government had overstepped its constitutional authority, predicting that the Indian Supreme Court will become involved. New Delhi’s perceived circumvention of the Kashmir administration (by taking action with only the assent of the centrally appointed Governor) is at the heart of questions about the constitutionality of the government’s moves which, in the words of one former government interlocutor to the state, represent the total undermining of our democracy that was “done by stealth.”
With key US diplomatic posts vacant, some observers worry that US capacity is thin, and the US President’s July offer to mediate on Kashmir may have contributed to the timing of New Delhi’s moves
The Modi government’s argument appears to be that since the Kashmir assembly was dissolved and the state had been under Central rule since 2018, the national Parliament could exercise the prerogative of the assembly, a position rejected as specious by observers who see the government’s actions as a constitutional coup. Many Indian (and international) critics of the government’s moves see them not only as undemocratic in process, but also as direct attacks on India’s secular identity. From this perspective, the BJP’s motive is about advancing the party’s “deeply rooted ideals of Hindu majoritarianism” and Modi’s assumed project “to reinvent India as an India that is Hindu.” One month before the government’s August 5 bill submission, a senior BJP official said his party is committed to bringing back the estimated 200,000-300,000 Hindus who fled the Kashmir Valley after 1989 (known as “Pandits”). This reportedly could include reviving a plan for construction of segregated enclaves with their schools, shopping malls, and hospitals, an approach with little or no support from local figures or groups representing the Pandits. Beyond the Pandit return issue, worries that non-Kashmiris will soon be “flooding” the Kashmir Valley lead some analysts to see “colonialist” parallels with Israel’s activities in the West Bank. Perceived human rights abuses on both sides of the Kashmir LoC, some of them serious, have long been of concern to international governments and organisations. A major and unprecedented June 2018 Report on the Situation on Human Rights in Kashmir from the UN Human Rights Commission harshly criticised the New Delhi government for alleged excessive use of force and other human rights abuses in the state. With New Delhi’s sweeping August security crackdown in Kashmir continuing to date, the Modi government faces renewed criticisms for widely alleged abuses. Indian officials also come under fire for the use of torture in Kashmir and for acting under broad and vaguely-worded laws that facilitate abuses. The Indian government reportedly is in contravention of several of its UN commitments, including a 2011 agreement to allow all special rapporteurs to visit India. In spring 2019, after a UN Human Rights Council’s letter to New Delhi asking about steps taken to address abuses alleged in the 2018 report, Indian officials announced they would no longer engage UN mandate holders.
But a longstanding goal of US policy in South Asia has been to prevent an India-Pakistan conflict from escalating to an interstate war. This meant the USA has sought to avoid actions that overtly favour either party. Over the past decade, however, the USA has grown closer to India while relations with Pakistan continue to be viewed as clouded by mistrust. The Trump Administration suspended security assistance to Pakistan in 2018 and has significantly reduced non-military aid while simultaneously deepening ties with New Delhi. Washington views India as a key “anchor” of its free and open “Indo-Pacific” strategy, which some argue is aimed at China. Yet any US impulse to tilt toward India is to some extent offset by Islamabad’s current, and by most accounts vital, role in facilitating Afghan reconciliation negotiations. President Trump’s apparent bonhomie with Pakistani’s prime minister and offer to mediate on Kashmir in July was taken by some as a new and potentially unwise strategic shift. The US government has maintained a focus on the potential for conflict over Kashmir to destabilise South Asia. At present, the USA has no Assistant Secretary of State leading the Bureau of South and Central Asia, and an Acting Ambassador to the United Nations is leading some experts to worry that the Trump Administration’s preparedness for India-Pakistan crises remains thin. Developments in August 2019 also have renewed concerns among analysts that the Trump Administration’s hands-off” posture toward this and other international crises erode US power and increases the risk of regional turbulence.
As of now the US position on Kashmir is that the territory’s status should be settled through negotiations between India and Pakistan while taking into consideration the wishes of the Kashmiri people. The Trump Administration has called for peace and respect for human rights in the region. With key US diplomatic posts vacant, some observers worry that US capacity is thin, and the US President’s July offer to mediate on Kashmir may have contributed to the timing of New Delhi’s moves. The USA seeks to balance the pursuit of a broad US-India partnership while upholding human rights protections, as well as maintaining cooperative relations with Pakistan.