On Monday, Donald Trump casually set off an international row while taking questions in the White House. “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject, and he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’” said Trump. “I said, ‘Where?’ And he said, ‘Kashmir.’” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, sitting next to Trump, looked as if he had won the toss on a lush green pitch, immediately welcoming Trump’s offer to play umpire. The US President was, of course, making stuff up, as he loves to do. Narendra Modi would wear a skull cap and observe a month of rozas before making such a request, for few things frighten India’s establishment more than the idea of international mediation in the Kashmir dispute.

Nothing in agreements between the two nations prevents the appointment of go-betweens. The Simla Agreement, signed in 1972 by India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan, contains the clause, “The two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations…”. Indian commentators argue this precludes international intervention, ignoring the end of the clause which states, “… or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them”.

The Lahore Declaration of 1999, signed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif directly addresses the Kashmir issue, stating, “An environment of peace and security is in the supreme national interest of both sides and … the resolution of all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, is essential for this purpose”. Further, both nations promise to “intensify their efforts to resolve all issues, including the issue of Jammu and Kashmir”. If the most efficient path to resolve the conflict is through mediation, that would be in consonance with both the Simla and Lahore texts.

The stakes

India shies away from arbitration simply because it has no interest in a solution. No Indian leader has much to gain by attempting to sort Kashmir out once and for all. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, both envisioning a tranquil subcontinent, initiated serious discussions, but didn’t get very far, because any negotiation, has to be about give and take. As I mentioned in a column five years ago, in the case of Kashmir, Pakistan wants something that India possesses, but has nothing of anywhere near equal worth to offer in return. India does lay claim to areas now controlled by Pakistan and China, but there’s no public demand to press that claim, nor any movement within those regions to secede and join India.

Any arbitrated solution, therefore, can only result in an immediate net loss for India, set off against a potential peace dividend whose benefits could never be tied precisely to the Kashmir deal. The only way India can be brought to the Kashmir table, then, is through sustained international pressure. Such pressure existed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but three changes lifted the burden and permitted India’s leaders and public to neglect the root problem.

First, Pakistan’s generals made an idiotic move immediately after the Lahore Declaration by trying to gain territory by force. Given India’s military might, there was never the slightest hope this approach would succeed, but the deluded Pakistanis convinced themselves otherwise. Nasim Zehra, in a compelling account of the Kargil misadventure, describes a crucial meeting in which Nawaz Sharif was made aware of the army’s plan. The Director General Military Operations Lt Gen Tauqir Zia outlined phases of the operation, claiming that at the end of the fifth phase, “Indians would be on their knees begging for talks and Pakistan could dictate its own terms.”

Indian defence minister George Fernandes in 1999 takes aim through a shoulder-held grenade launcher that was confiscated from a post held by Pakistan. Credit: Arko Datta/ AFP

The Kargil incursion spurred no general uprising against India, and nearly sparked a nuclear conflict, before an incandescent Bill Clinton bullied Nawaz Sharif into backing down. The war altered the balance between India and Pakistan in the eyes of the United States.

Focus on terror

The second change occurred after September 11, 2001, when the US and Europe began to focus on terrorism as the central geopolitical threat. This suited India very well, because the discourse on Kashmir could now be shifted from human rights violations by security forces and from the Kashmiri right to self-determination, to Islamist militancy and violence. Terrorism is a stick India has used effectively for the past two decades to beat Pakistan with, and Pakistan has thoroughly deserved that beating, having brazenly encouraged terrorism as state policy for decades.

The Indian government has no problems requesting international intervention when it comes to Kashmir-related terror, just as it raised no objection to Bill Clinton’s mediation during the Kargil war. When it comes to a comprehensive solution, however, the government insists everything be resolved bilaterally, before refusing any bilateral talks.

Ending terror havens

When Modi and Trump met at the White House, they spoke of their common goal of “destroying radical Islamic terrorism and ending terror safe havens”. At the recent G20 summit in Osaka, Modi called terrorism the biggest threat to humanity. It is nothing of the sort, and we well know what Modi’s position is when the terrorists happen to be Hindu. But harping on terrorism serves India’s narrow goal of steering the Kashmir debate in a convenient direction.

It is worth recalling that, until the 1990s, there was a fairly robust discussion in the Indian media about the idea of self-determination. Mainstream media everywhere broadly follow the government line on foreign policy, and India was never an exception, but the debate on Kashmir had not narrowed then, as it has now, to a point where the media is either in lockstep with or to the right of the official government position.

UN report

This fact was underlined earlier this month, after the United Nations Human Rights Commission released a report concerning human rights violations on both sides of the Line of Control. Instead of treating the document with the seriousness it deserved given the body that put it out, Indian newspapers ignored the specific charges entirely, while highlighting the government’s predictable response that the text was “false and motivated”.

The third shift that has altered the Kashmir discourse is India’s economic success. Affluent democracies have few weapons left with which to threaten the country, and an ever-greater interest in keeping relations friendly.

As things stand, there is neither an internal nor external push for the Modi government to do anything substantial in Kashmir. Its own favoured solution is obviously a demographic makeover of the kind China has conducted in Tibet, but there are high constitutional obstacles to that ambition.

It is clear, then, that once the kerfuffle over Donald Trump’s fabrication is over, and whatever political points that can be squeezed from it have been scored, we will be left again with a status quo that pleases nobody but will not change.