In Srinagar, the gates to the offices of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan are always closed. Though it is said to have a skeletal staff, few outsiders are allowed inside and few statements are issued from it. Every now and then, Kashmiri protestors will march towards it with the rallying cry of “UN chalo”. These demonstrations are foiled by barricades and detentions long before they can reach the building.

The old-fashioned building is the relic of a consensus on Kashmir which has long disappeared – that the dispute belongs in the international arena, that it can be settled by a plebiscite held under the auspices of the United Nations, that it is a dispute in the first place. It was India that took Kashmir to the United Nations in the first place, in the thick of the first border war with Pakistan, which started in 1947. The United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan or UNMOGIP was set up soon after the war to monitor the ceasefire line between the two countries. Its mandate was to report on ceasefire violations as well as developments that could lead to violations.

After the 1972 Simla Agreement between New Delhi and Islamabad, when the ceasefire line was converted into the Line of Control, the consensus broke. India held that the United Nations body had lost relevance and the dispute could only be solved bilaterally. Pakistan continued to submit complaints about ceasefire violations. In 2014, India asked the United Nations mission to leave.

Right next to the UNMOGIP office is the Sarovar Portico Hotel, the new face of the administration in Kashmir. It has been humming with activity since August 5, when the Centre announced it was scrapping Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and dividing the state into two Union Territories. It was from the “media facilitation centre” set up at this hotel that the local administration made daily claims of normalcy in the Kashmir Valley.

The “internal matter” of changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir was being handled well, the government assured the world. Kashmir was now “fully integrated” with India, it claimed, and Pakistan had no locus standi to carp about it. But just when New Delhi claims to have internalised Kashmir, the conflict may have been internationalised again.

A lack of consensus

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan Prime Minister Imraan Khan address the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, the same old positions are likely to be reiterated. Pakistan has tried to galvanise the international community into taking action against India for its August 5 decision. India has maintained that Kashmir is not up for discussion, only cross-border terrorism sponsored by Pakistan is.

It is quite likely that India will emerge unscathed in this United Nations session. For all its bluster, even Pakistan is not sponsoring a resolution on Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly. Despite several resolutions since 1948, the international body has always been constrained when it came to acting on Kashmir. Through the 1950s, it tried in vain to demilitarise the two sides of the ceasefire line and hold a plebiscite. Several representatives were sent to work out the details of a plebiscite failed.

By 1965, these efforts had petered out. An article published in the Economic and Political Weekly that year concludes, “the UN can hope to play a useful role in settling the dispute only if the US and the Soviet Union do not act at cross-purposes”. Half a century later, the permanent members of the UN Security Council are still divided on Kashmir.

In August this year, members of the Security Council, huddled in a closed-door meeting, discussed Kashmir for the first time since 1971. The meeting had been requested by Pakistan, backed by its powerful ally, China. Of the other permanent members, Britain, France and the United States were of the opinion that the dispute should be settled bilaterally between India and Pakistan. Russia also backed a bilateral solution but also invoked the old United Nations resolutions, declared irrelevant by India since 1972. Given the lack of consensus, the council did not even release an official press statement after the meeting.

China, which has its own economic and territorial interests in Jammu and Kashmir, later issued a joint statement with Pakistan, opposing “unilateral actions” in the region and calling for a peaceful resolution. Despite the lack of collective action, Kashmir has gained a new international visibility for the first time in decades.

‘Everything is fine’

This is ironic since India’s way of tackling a potential backlash to the August 5 decisions has been to invisibilise Kashmir. As the Centre scratched out the territory’s special status, almost all Kashmiri leaders were placed under arrest, stamping out political voices of protests from the Valley. Opposition leaders trying to visit Srinagar were usually detained. For over 50 days now, the Kashmir Valley has been under a near-total communications blackout. “Everything is fine in India,” Modi assured participants at the “Howdy, Modi!” gala in Houston in eight different languages. Also speaking at the rally on September 22 was US President Donald Trump.

Yet it is this very veil of secrecy that has drawn international attention to Kashmir. Almost all major international media have reported critically on the clampdown, the harrowing effects of the communications blackout and allegations of human rights abuses by security forces.

Not surprisingly, it has spurred a range of voices to urge dialogue on Kashmir and raise concerns about human rights violations, beginning with United Nations chief Anotnio Guterres. He was echoed by Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who brought up Kashmir as he addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

In the West, the European Parliament had similar sentiments as it discussed Kashmir after 12 years. And even if Western governments remained reticent, opposition leaders did not hold back.

While Modi and Trump held their joint rally in Houston, Democrat senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders wrote an opinion piece mentioning the “deafening silence” on the “human rights crisis” in Kashmir. He added his voice to several other United States lawmakers, including Ilhand Omar, a rising star of the Democratic Party. This week, Britain’s Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, passed a resolution calling for the United Kingdom’s government to recognise Kashmir’s right to self-determination and urged for international observers to be sent there.

The concerns have not been limited to opposition voices alone. A bipartisan group of United States senators wrote to Trump to urge India to lift the communications blackout and release those detained.

Protests against Narendra Modi in Houston on September 22. Credit: Alliance for Justice and Accountability

Despite the show of bonhomie, Trump himself has been ambivalent on Kashmir, repeating a keen desire to mediate between India and Pakistan. Soon after the joint rally in Houston, he joined Khan for a press conference where he took note of an unexpected and “aggressive statement” made by Modi on Kashmir.

Protests against India’s decision on Kashmir have spilled beyond political circles, taken up by activists and artistes.

Not so soft power

Few of these statements have any coercive power over the Indian government. International opinion is still more bothered by terror than by the Indian state’s actions in Kashmir. Besides, given the size of the Indian economy and market, few countries would risk any real pressure tactics, such as sanctions.

The loss for India is more intangible. At stake is its reputation as the world’s largest democracy, a thriving, secular, modern republic with a healthy respect for rights, freedoms and international law. If India is to salvage this reputation, it must lift punitive restrictions in Kashmir and address concerns about human rights abuses rather than dismissing them as Pakistani propaganda.

Failing to do so will damage India’s much-touted “soft power”, the currency it has used for so long in international diplomacy. India has often prided itself on its skills in “getting others to get the outcomes” that it wants. This currency is a delicate blend of cultural and political values.

In the Nerhuvian era, it consisted primarily of taking the high moral ground, positioning India as a responsible player in global politics, willing to follow international laws and processes. The early idealism was soon overtaken by pragmatism. But in recent years, it seems to have been replaced by something else entirely – a new aggression, a desire to project material heft rather than moral weight. In the long run, this could turn out to be brittle, rather than soft, power.