The internal re-organization of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) came about with the abrogation of an extra-ordinary law weaved into the Indian Constitution that gave a special status to the province. What could have been purely a domestic matter, however, has set off a whirlwind of speculations about what this act was “really” meant to achieve.
Within India, the evident disregard of the sentiments of the people of J&K has raised questions about the country’s democratic content. While the Union Government was well within its (formal) right to re-organize the province, the lead-up to it had been rather murky. According to some commentators, the scrapping of Article 370 had been in offing for long. Leaving the plausibility of such speculations to others, it will be sufficient to say here that the re-organization of J&K had the domestic audience in mind. The rising majoritarianism, communalism and misogyny across the country was clearly evident in the reactions that the revocation of Article 370 generated in the Indian mainland. If social media trends are anything to go by, what we have seen is the misuse of the narrative on integration as a veneer to tolerate unbecoming behavior.
But while there exists a trail of examples that prove the politically expedient use of national agendas for meeting short-term electoral objectives, the internal re-organization of J&K was more than a mere attempt at setting the house straight. It is said that India had the geo-political space to play to tinker with the political make-up of what is essentially a disputed territory, knowing fully well the bilateral, and even international, ripples it might create. What could have possibly been on India’s mind? My guess is Afghanistan.
“Side-lined” will be a mild expression to describe the treatment meted out to India in the ongoing rounds of negotiations between the US Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban. Despite its economic, social and political contributions to this conflict-weary country, India has hardly been made a part of any consequential peace process. Be it the (failed) Quadrilateral Coordination Group or the Moscow Peace Process or the current talks, India’s entry has often been through the side-door and more-so-often as additive in nature. However, the tide seems to be taking a different turn these days.
As I had cautioned in the past, it did not make strategic sense to put all eggs in one basket especially when the other regional powers, particularly Russia and Iran, have been diversifying their points-of-contact in Afghanistan. Moreover, the diminishing credibility of the political mainstream, on the one hand, and the increasing legitimacy accorded to the Taliban, on the other, demanded that India makes a timely shift in its approach. The former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai too, as I had observed previously, “provided a discursive escape” for India to reach out to the other “brothers” in Afghanistan, i.e. Taliban.
Although a little late in the day, India appears to have finally made it to the proverbial party. If I am permitted some back calculations of my own (see here), the change in India’s stance vis-à-vis the conflict in Afghanistan can be traced back to the speech delivered by the late ex-External Affairs Minister of India, Sushma Swaraj, at the Foreign Minister’s Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in May 2019. Reiterating India’s desire to see a stable Afghanistan, she stated “India stands committed to any process” that can assist in the re-development of this country into a “united, peaceful, secure, stable, inclusive and economically vibrant nation. This was a significant discursive shift in India’s stance on the peace processes in Afghanistan, which, hitherto, were expected to be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled”.
In the backdrop of an Afghan peace deal that looks more likely than ever, the feting of Pakistani Prime Minister in the US made the American U-turn pretty evident. India, being no stranger to the American volte-face, had reasons to be apprehensive about the “optics of rehabilitation, re-engagement on a strategic level” between the US and Pakistan. On top of that, Trump’s mention to offer his good offices for the mediation of conflict over Kashmir publicly, and that too twice, set the alarm bells ringing in India. Although a stray media report suggested that India had kept the US in the know of the impending change in the political structure of J&K, it was refuted by the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs of the US State Department.
The Indian move in J&K most likely came as a reaction to Trump’s seemingly unsolicited offer of mediation. Nevertheless, it was equally an attempt by India to take back the reins of Kashmir into its own hands. The internal re-organization of J&K was, thus, as much for the internal audience as much as it was meant to convey an international message. The drummed-up narrative on national security, which became the pretext for positioning as many as 38,000 extra troops in the region, was meant for something more than just maintaining uneasy calm in the Kashmir Valley. Cross-border infiltration, after all, has been an unfortunate reality in this part of India. Also, the presence of so many troops in what is already the most-militarized place on earth was far too much to ensure the “safe and successful unfurling of India’s national flag” at the gram panchayats (village-level elected body).
Seen in this light, the most immediate assessment suggests that the arrival of these troops was likely a move meant to relieve the Indian armed forces, which is present in J&K in thronging numbers, to focus on the international theater jutting Pakistan. Possibly, a just-in-case measure. More broadly, however, the intention was to decouple Kashmir from Afghanistan; a bait that Pakistan has had the penchant of using to keep India at bay in the regional great game.
As a peace deal looks more real than it had ever in the past, it is advisable for India to not be as diffident as it had once been. The situation in Afghanistan has often been described as "line in sand", one which changes too often. India needs to be agile in “playing the game”.
While the offers for mediation were most likely a result of Trump being himself, his gab was received with much fanfare by the Pakistani establishment. However, this sense of achievement did not last long. On the one hand, where Trump went back on his offer (later), on the other, India did not spare much time to reiterate its stance on the bilateral resolution of the conflict over Kashmir. What followed next completely marred the jubilation amongst the Pakistani establishment as the re-organization of J&K is said to have caught them totally off-guard. Although the civilian government in Pakistan led the charge to condemn the Indian move as “racist”, the fact that countries like the US and the UAE issued statements seconding the Indian claims about the domestic nature of the re-organization left the Pakistani establishment to take face-saving actions. In response, Pakistani severed trade, cultural exchanges with India and downgraded its diplomatic ties with its neighbor. It has also reached out to China, which has expressed its own reservations about the “reckless” Indian move, stopping short of condemning it.
With Pakistan stopped in its tracks, India appeared to be ready for another move — an (indirect) outreach to the Taliban. In the past two weeks, an evident shift has been witnessed in the Indian stance towards this militant organization, which seems to have been responded in kind. Coming at a time when India is not visibly a part of the peace process, the recalibration of the narrative to foster engagement with the Taliban has recently been seen. Two prominent experts on Afghanistan have in their own ways suggested the need for greater engagement with “all Afghans” and not just those in the government. Although not entirely independent of the Pakistani influence, Shakti Sinha conceded that the Taliban ought to be recognized for what they are worth — a group that has been granted legitimacy not only by international stakeholders but by Afghans themselves. He further added that the mainstreaming of the Taliban could potentially make them to mend their ways since they will be constrained by formal regulations and commitments – a view I had put across long before. The Taliban, which so far had existed only in bad syntax in the Indian foreign policy discourse, is today being feted as a potential partner that should be given “space to act independently of Pakistan”. After all, they are said to have “the capacity to buck Pakistan’s deep state”.
Drawing a fine line of difference between engagement and endorsement, the discourse that seems to be shaping up is one in which India is projecting itself as a partner that no Afghan actor should do without. Sinha, in fact, went on to say that one should not be seen on the wrong side of India, demonstrating a more robust and confident line of thought vis-à-vis the situation in Afghanistan. However, Vivek Katju also observed that there continues to be “some diffidence on party of India to play an active role” in the Afghan peace process. That India should be a part of the talks, if invited, is unquestionable. What should be questioned is why India’s self-imposed reluctance to be a part of the ongoing talks.
In another change of stance, both the commentators, who have held vital portfolios in Afghanistan, seem to have reconciled with the plausibility of an interim government being put in place. One can recall that the Indian government had previously been staunchly opposed to any such arrangement as India saw it as unconstitutional.
The Taliban, on its part, issued an intriguing, first of a kind statement in response to what it described as an “ongoing Kashmir crisis”. On August 9, 2019, the spokesperson of the Taliban officially stated: “Linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related nor should Afghanistan be turned into the theater of competition between other countries”. This observation has been interpreted differently, depending on who you ask. On the one hand, it is said to be directed at India, which in exerting its dominance over Kashmir appears to have leveraged its move to outwit Pakistan in Afghanistan, thereby connecting Kashmir and Afghanistan unwittingly. On the other, it can be read as a prelude to the change in the Indian narratives as mentioned above, signalling that the process of engagement with the Taliban has, perhaps, already been underway.
A statement made by the Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Asad Majeed Khan, about the possible “re-deployment of troops” to the country’s eastern borders, linked the conflict in Afghanistan with the dispute over Kashmir all over again. Running opposite to the Taliban’s statement, could the evolving Pakistani reaction be a conscious attempt to show who the boss is? Or, was it Taliban that showed Pakistan that it can, indeed, buck the deep state?
As a peace deal looks more real than it had ever in the past, it is advisable for India to not be as diffident as it had once been. The situation in Afghanistan has often been described as "line in sand", one which changes too often. India needs to be agile in “playing the game” as Sinha pointed out, knowing fully well that it will have to walk on eggshells as it changes its course. However, basking in the goodwill it has generated in Afghanistan, it can be assured that a change in approach will be received kindly by the larger Afghan populace, which is both embracing and resigning to the changes it is seeing.