The diplomatic battleground

25 Sep 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE scene of a diplomatic battle between Pakistan and India has now shifted to New York with the commencement of the UN General Assembly session. Although the leaders of the two countries have yet to address the UNGA, their activities on the sidelines have already set the tone. While Narendra Modi has been there before, it is the first time for Imran Khan on the big stage.

For the Pakistani prime minister, the main task is to draw the attention of the world leaders towards the Indian action and violation of human rights in India-held Kashmir. Given the apathy of the international community, it will be a tough diplomatic challenge for the Pakistani leader to make any significant impact on world leaders and get them to break their deafening silence.

While it may be true that the plight of the Kashmiri people under Indian subjugation has been widely reported, thus evoking a strong reaction from human rights organisations, the international community continues to remain indifferent. And this attitude is not likely to change, however forcefully the prime minister presents Kashmir’s case. It has nothing to do with our diplomatic effort or the lack of it; it has more to do with global power politics.

The Houston ‘Howdy Modi’ rally demonstrated the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in the US.

And that’s what Modi has been focusing on, despite being in an indefensible position with regard to his ruthless action in the occupied territory. India being a global economic power along with its geopolitical position has given Modi an enormous diplomatic advantage. He has shrewdly tried to cast off human rights concerns as a transient problem, though not very successfully.

The Houston rally ‘Howdy Modi’ demonstrated the growing influence of the Indian diaspora in the US. The main objective of that show of force was to deflect the attention from anti-Modi protests organised by various diaspora groups.

Addressing the rally where US President Donald Trump was also present, Modi declared, amidst thunderous applause, that the annexation of occupied Kashmir was his government’s biggest achievement. The protest outside the arena didn’t matter to him. The bogey of ‘Islamist terrorism’ worked well with Trump. The bonhomie between the two leaders was evident. Unsurprisingly, the Indians saw the event and participation of the US president as a diplomatic coup on the eve of the UNGA session.

Imran Khan’s meeting with President Trump in New York this week was indeed significant. It is certainly rare for an American president to have one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders on the sidelines of the UNGA. That may have involved some backchannel diplomatic efforts, but personal chemistry between the two leaders could also be a factor. The joint press conference before the talks reflected as much. It is still the Afghan issue that remains the key factor in the transformation of Trump’s tenor regarding Pakistan. But given Trump’s volatility it could change any time.

What transpired in the 45-minute-long meeting is not clear. But excitement on yet another offer of mediation on Kashmir from Trump is highly misplaced. Such an offer has invariably come on Pakistan’s prodding or in reply to a question by a Pakistani journalist as happened in New York.

Carried away by such off-the-cuff remarks, our foreign minister takes no time at all to declare it a diplomatic victory. He ignores the fact that such an offer comes with the condition of India accepting arbitration. “If I can help I will certainly do that,” said Trump. “If both (Pakistan and India) want, I am ready, willing to do it,” he added. India’s position not to accept third-party arbitration on Kashmir is very clear, and there is no pressure on it to change its stance.

Moreover, how can we presume that American mediation would help Pakistan given the increasing US tilt towards India? It is true that the Trump administration has not endorsed Modi’s actions in occupied Kashmir, but it is not willing to express concern over the human rights violation by the Indian forces there either. Trump’s comment at the New York presser that every one must be treated well in Kashmir is too vague to be interpreted as US concern over the plight of the Kashmiri people.

Of course, better relations with the United States is very important for us, and we must try to put forward our case more effectively in order to win diplomatic support of other world powers for recognition of the human and political rights of the Kashmiri people. But one should also recognise that it is going to be a long-drawn diplomatic battle. Surely, the UNGA provides a very effective forum for Pakistan to fight its case. Yet one must not have any hope that the international community can be persuaded to censure India’s denial of human rights to millions of people. Our choices are limited.

Pakistan’s diplomatic clout has eroded over the years because of political instability and economic insecurity. The government has failed even to build a national narrative on this critical issue. Imran Khan has been warning the world of catastrophe if the Kashmir issue is not resolved. But the internal political strife in Pakistan and its economic dependency on other countries have raised questions about our ability to defend ourselves. While the prime minister is fighting a diplomatic battle, the political situation at home does not give us much confidence.

It is evident that India will not be able to control the situation in held Kashmir, and the use of brutal military tactics is bound to worsen the situation. It is a battle the Kashmiri people have to fight on various fronts. Indeed, Pakistan’s diplomatic and political support is critical but it depends on how the Kashmiri people wage their struggle. Diplomatic efforts can only be effective if the international community feels that the situation demands its attention.

Both the Pakistani and Indian prime ministers will be addressing the UNGA on Sept 27. The leaders gathered there will be interested in hearing them. Not that they are unaware of what has been happening in the occupied territory and the danger of the conflict turning into a wider conflagration. Yet it is important for Prime Minister Imran Khan to make a convincing case for the world to heed.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2019