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(First published on August 15th, 2020)

This piece reaches you on August 15 — India’s Independence Day, and a day after Pakistan celebrates its freedom. This piece addresses neither. Not directly at least. It is about Kashmir and how far it is from freedom. It is also about Pakistan’s response to India’s reckless policies since August last year.

Months before the Indian elections and Pulwama-Balakot chapter, I was asked to host a two-hour show on Kashmir. I further narrowed the scope. It was mainly to be about the BJP government’s plan to dismantle articles 370 and 35(A). While the participants in the show were very accomplished, I particularly felt frustrated by the constant refrain that since Pakistan did not recognise New Delhi’s claims on Kashmir’s accession to India, the said articles were not our headache. Sanu kee?

You will notice that technically they were right. Before August 5, 2019, the Indian Occupied Kashmir was still one of the most militarised regions. Pakistan thoroughly regarded it as an occupied territory. After what India was about to do the Line of Control (LoC) would have the same status. The international nature of the dispute would have remained the same and the status would stay unchanged. If I did not want Modi to win again, it was primarily because I was concerned about the pain and suffering a Modi 2 administration would cause the people of India. An admirable sentiment but pointless in view of the high stakes political poker being played in these parts. Statecraft required a bolder strategy. That India be encouraged to re-elect Modi and that Modi be given enough rope to hang himself and with him India’s entire ruling elite.

And then it happened. India swallowed the bait hook, line, and some. It elected Modi again. Perturbed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the COAS and the DG ISI’s successful visit to Washington, and President Trump’s gracious offer to mediate, Modi hurriedly moved to recolonise Kashmir and scrap articles 370, 35(A). While many of us saw an assault on India’s special arrangement with its controlled Kashmir coming, we never dreamed Modi would go to this extent. First, the moronic way in which the Indian government amended these laws, making a mockery of the legislative and constitutional procedures. Also absorbing Kashmir as a state into the union was one thing, stripping it of statehood, bifurcating it, and declaring the resulting two parts union territories was a new level of crazy. When you start tripping you usually do not know when to stop. We know BJP is greedy but to put Kashmir’s entire political elite behind bars to try to have the whole thing to yourself is dumber than what you could ever expect.

Now the question was would anyone in Islamabad respond to the new situation? A copout was easy. All you had to do was to say that Pakistan never recognised India’s Article 370 and that was it. For a heart-stopping second, I thought that that was the policy we were about to adopt. But then the PM took a position and thus began a momentous struggle.

Let me come clean here. For the past two decades since I made the personal acquaintance with PM Imran Khan, there have been many moments when I sharply disagreed with his politics. I was opposed to his sit-in in Islamabad and I was openly critical of many other policies. But I do not think I can find fault with his Kashmir policy. In fact, it is one of the reasons I find my decision to endorse him in this space during the 2018 elections vindicated. I will explain it if you let me.

When critics of the current policy speak or write they forget where Pakistan was at, only half a year before Modi’s annexation of Kashmir. The US President had begun 2019 with tweets disparaging Pakistan. Modi had already vowed to isolate Pakistan and because of our own divided house, it seemed to be working. The PM’s above-mentioned July visit did a lot in bringing down temperature in Washington but a long journey to full-scale normalisation lay ahead. As the country found out during the Pulwama-Balakot crisis, the global retreat of the liberal world order meant that even the threat of a nuclear escalation could not jolt the world out of complacency. It was in such a situation that a rich, diplomatically influential India attacked the fundamental rights of the Kashmiri people. India must have thought that its diplomatic voodoo would lead nations to openly endorse the policy. Thanks to Islamabad’s aggressive advocacy they did not. It wasn’t an easy case to make. How could you complain about the cancellation of something that you did not believe in and which did not change the status quo or your position on your side of the LoC? But this government did that. This advocacy laid the foundation of the democratic world’s skepticism towards Modi’s other policies. When the Citizenship Amendment Act was rushed through the parliament India’s diplomatic spin masters left no stone unturned to present it as God’s gift to humanity. A nationwide national register for citizens seemed on the card. But the local and international pushback has stopped all that from happening.

Meanwhile, in Modi’s world, one mistake has led to another. His government’s demand for blind obedience has exposed the sham the Indian parliament, judiciary and media have become. It also exposed the lack of professionalism and moral courage among the leadership of Indian armed forces. One by one India has alienated all SAARC partners. The recent military skirmish with China has sealed the fate of a relationship with great potential and further internationalised the Kashmir dispute. Now there are three state actors directly involved. With the abolition of Article 35(A), the new domicile law and dangerous rhetoric India has permanently alienated all Kashmiris. And Modi’s whimsical if authoritarian economic policies and habit of throwing money at every problem including buying diplomatic favours through expensive defence deals has badly hurt the Indian exchequer. The country’s relationship with the West, despite the rhetoric otherwise, is rapidly becoming transactional in nature. If these are not the fruits of an effective Kashmir and India policy I don’t know what is.

Each ruler has his/her own way of dealing with India. I try not to find fault with any one of them. But our weak position in the comity of nations is not a product of a few years. In a heartbeat, you cannot undo the damage done to your diplomatic standing in the past 73 years. Because of its wealth and diplomatic clout, India has a lot of holding power. It will take a lot of time to expose what is rotten in India. But if you think renaming a highway and forming human chains are no alternative to direct action, Modi’s unannounced private visit to participate in the wedding of a former premier’s granddaughter is not a substitute to this well thought out strategy. Formally sponsoring militancy in Kashmir is the only direct course of action short of war. But there is a broader consensus among almost all shades of life that it is a lose-lose proposition. Let’s not cut the nose to spite the face.

(Note: A typo in the last paragraph which replaced the word ‘broader’ with ‘hoarder’ has been fixed).

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2020.

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