War clouds hovered again when the leaders of India and Pakistan, the South Asian adversaries that have failed over decades to end their perilous standoff over Kashmir, spoke on the same day at the United Nations, Sept. 27.
India has been holding its Kashmiri Muslim population in a near-total communications lockdown since Aug. 5, when the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi stripped them of political rights embedded in the Indian Constitution and summarily detained several thousand citizens without charges.
The UN speeches, however, began on visionary notes. Modi spoke of the millennia of “great culture” and future promise of “working for the world” as the model of development. He quoted a Tamil writer who said that India “belonged to all places” and suggested that its reach goes beyond borders.
Trump-like, Modi touted all his achievements in welfare programs in India and global projects, such as a solar alliance and an Indian-led coalition to develop disaster-resistant structures. No fire in that talk. And he avoided the word “Kashmir.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan also described a vision for Pakistan based on the history of the Saudi Arabian city of Medina in the age of the Prophet Mohammed, where Jews and Christians could live in peace. As to current dangers, he turned to climate change and corruption among elites in the developing world who park their money abroad illegally. He spoke bitterly of how Islamophobia was harming Muslim countries and minorities, holding back development and good will.
Then he veered into Kashmir and his assessment of its plight now and a prognosis of how much worse relations with India could sink because of Modi’s policies — warped, he said, by “an ideology of hate.”
In a long diatribe — amid eruptions of applause and shouts — against Hindu-nationalist India, Khan said that Modi’s suffocation of Kashmiri culture and Hinduizing of its protected territory with settlers from Hindu India contravene the 1949 Geneva Conventions. That particularly includes the fourth convention, which makes transfers of people to change the demography of a place a violation of international law.
Khan accused Modi of not thinking through the consequences of the Kashmir lockdown. He says in every speech he makes now that when the curfew is finally over, Kashmiris will pour into the streets to protest and that many will be shot. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of Indian security forces on the streets and outlying towns, villages and rural encampments.
“There will be bloodshed,” Khan said, “and Pakistan will be blamed.” India has charged in the past, with justification, that militants were being trained in Pakistan and entered Kashmir, supported by Pakistan.
In a week of nonstop lobbying in New York — at the UN among diplomats, in think tanks, with media and at a news conference — he delivered the message passionately that nothing good will come from Modi’s siege of Kashmir and the remaking of the map of northern India.
In the remaking, Jammu (predominantly Hindu) and Kashmir will no longer exist as an Indian state — a state never recognized as Indian by the UN and many countries. Instead there will be two new “union territories,” one with a truncated Jammu and Kashmir and a separate one for largely Buddhist Ladakh. As union territories, the entities will be governed directly by the Hindu nationalist national government in New Delhi.
Modi has said this setup will bring fresh development and prosperity to Kashmir, which had already been a relatively efficient part of the subcontinent, rich in orchards and workshops of artisans producing lacquerware, carpets, wood carvings and embroidery, all sold widely. Its tourist industry was thriving until the last outbreaks of fighting between Kashmiris and Indian security forces began in 1989.
The Lancet medical journal published a recent article saying that Kashmiri health care has produced better results than Indian medicine. Its rate of female feticide in sex-selective abortions is lower than in some large Indian states.
Khan, with a party he created in 1996, Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Movement for Justice”) has been in power for little more than a year. He is not a new face in South Asia, having been an international celebrity cricket star as well known in India as in Pakistan. He is different from the recent run of South Asian politicians. Educated in politics at Oxford University, with a reputation as a philanthropist who built Pakistan’s first cancer hospital, he was a strong critic of Pakistan’s involvement in the “American” war in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era, which, he says, cost 70,000 Pakistani lives and depleted its treasury.
His cosmopolitan background and articulate, relaxed public presence have attracted young voters. As the new face of South Asian politics, he sharply contrasts with Modi and his inward-looking Hindu nationalist past.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.