Kashmir card in the West’s domestic politics

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Last month, Joe Biden, the presumptive democratic rival to Donald Trump for the Presidential elections, released his manifesto for American Muslims titled “Agenda for Muslim American Communities”. However, the manifesto made more headlines in India than the United States after a separate paragraph was dedicated to Kashmir and Indian Muslims.

It read: “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir. Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the internet, weaken democracy.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the newly appointed Labour Party leader in United Kingdom Sir Keir Starmer also reiterated his party’s official position on Kashmir: “Our position on Kashmir has not changed; we support and recognize previous United Nations’ resolutions on the rights of Kashmiri people”.

Earlier this year, the European Union was also mooting a resolution against Indian actions in Kashmir. However, the suspension on all activities in Brussels due to the outbreak of the pandemic put the resolution on the back burner.

Seen in totality, these developments underscore a wider discourse. After decades of hiatus from the international canvass, Kashmir has resurfaced on the world scene. Particularly, after the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status last year, calls for more scrutiny into government actions in Kashmir have proliferated.

While support for Kashmir has been commonplace among the Gulf countries, partly due to Pakistan’s influence, India’s decision to upend the status quo in J-K triggered reactions from Western capitals as well.

As early as August last year, veteran Democrat Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren criticized India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 with Mr. Sanders going as far as demanding a U.N. backed resolution.

Around the same time, the Labour Party in the U.K. passed a resolution that supported “international intervention in Kashmir and a call for U.N. led-referendum”. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel also called the situation in Kashmir as simply “unsustainable” after the government enforced a severe lockdown and a communications blockade in the valley.

For India, which has for years tried to de-internationalize Kashmir, these developments are particularly unnerving. To each of these statements or resolutions, the Indian government has reacted sharply, harping on the traditional choice of words that Jammu and Kashmir is India’s internal matter.

Occasionally, this defense has poured into tit-for-tat reactions as well.

One of the General Secretaries of ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) responded to Mr. Sanders’ criticism by tweeting that India was being “compelled” to play a role in the U.S. presidential elections despite its efforts to be “neutral”.

In October 2019, the Foreign Relations Committee of U.S. Congress also chaired a hearing on Kashmir with several members of the Congress including Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar, while the subcommittee’s chair, Brad Sherman lead the charge against India.

This renewed interest in Kashmir in the West politics is not without a context. Over the years, the domestic politics in the U.K. and the U.S. has itself gone through colossal transformations which explain the many changes including the one on the question of Kashmir.

Rise of South Asian diaspora

Over the decades, thousands of Indians and Pakistanis settled in the West. This is particularly the case in the U.K.—in 1951, there were 30,000 Indians and 10,000 Pakistanis, representing a minuscule percentage among Britons. Fast forward to 2011, when the last census in the U.K. was conducted, that number has risen to 1.5 million and 1.2 million, a major vote bank.

It is estimated that 70 percent of the Pakistani expatriate population in the U.K. trace their roots to the undivided state of Jammu Kashmir; approximately a million people, who settled in Bradford after the construction of the Mangla Dam in 1960’s submerged large parts of Mirpur in Pakistan administered J-K.

So far seen as a politically inconsequential community, Pakistani Britons have started to assert themselves more strongly in Britain’s foreign affairs. In a recurrent pattern, the community tends to vote en masse for Labour.

Unsurprisingly, the resolution passed by the Labour Party supporting the UN-led referendum on Kashmir in its yearly conference at Brighton in 2019 was initiated by British Pakistani leader Uzma Rasool and seconded by the Labour MP Naz Shah.

While the Pakistani diaspora might have tasted the first political fruits of its assertion in Brighton, it led to a counter mobilization by the Indian diaspora in favor of the Conservative party which has been less vocal on Kashmir during the 2020 British elections.

Whether or not the Indian diaspora made an impact on the overall electoral outcome in favor of Boris Johnson, there is no doubt that Kashmir is increasingly emerging as a fault line in UK’s electoral politics.

Democrats’ irk for Prime Minister Modi

In the U.S., the recent focus on Kashmir has not been an outcome of electoral compulsions but the growing influence of the left in the Democratic Party.

Traditionally, among the two dominant parties, the Democrats have held a more favorable view of India. In a 2017 report by Chicago Council, Democrats were more pro-India than Republicans by 14-16 percentage points. This appreciation for India among Democrats had largely sprung from Indian political traditions of democracy and secularism which mirrored the political ideals of American democrats.

However, the rise of BJP as India’s dominant party is not something that most Democrats view with great enthusiasm. Even the bullish Democratic President Barack Obama warned India against religious discrimination during his final Presidential visit to India in 2015.  

For Paul Staniland, professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, the BJP’s radical agenda under Narendra Modi was a cause of concern. “There is great skepticism about the domestic policies of the Modi government among the Democrats, especially brought to the fore in 2019 and early 2020,” Mr. Staniland told The Kashmir Walla.

In turn, an ascendant wing among the Democrats led by Pramila Jayapal and Ilhan Omar has led a vocal charge against the Modi government, likening him to Mr. Trump—who has also professed an anti-Muslim agenda.

Shortly after the revocation of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, Mr. Modi appeared in a rally alongside Mr. Trump in Houston, where the Indian Prime Minister hinted at leveraging his popularity among American Hindus to help Mr. Trump politically.

During the rally, Mr. Modi also said “Ab ki baar Trump Sarkaar” – akin to his own campaign slogan in the general elections that saw him rise to power – that roughly translates into “This time, a Trump government”. The gesture did not go down well with the Democrats and prompted a clarification from the Indian foreign ministry that Mr. Modi did not intend to influence American elections.

Partly, the excessive emphasis on human rights abroad has also become even more urgent for the Democrats owing to Mr. Trump and identifying illiberalism in foreign countries as a failure of American global project. Thus, we see growing voices on Capitol Hill even on issues which hitherto were conveniently ignored by the American legislators.

The reappearance of Kashmir in Western discourse is thus not only a reaction to Indian illiberalism and revocation of Article 370 last year. Rather, it has its origins in the political dynamics of Western countries that range from an increasingly assertive diaspora in the U.K. to the rise of a more vocal Democratic camp at the Hill as a reaction to Mr. Trump’s Presidency.

It was just that the removal of Article 370 coincided with these political developments in Western countries and the revocation provided these tendencies a perfect conduit to flow through to it.

Consequently, the issue of Kashmir is unlikely to die down any time soon. In the U.K., it may emerge as a fault line in future elections as the South Asian diaspora grows even bigger. However, in the U.S., the November elections will define the trajectory of Kashmir as an agenda in the country.

If Joe Biden manages to win the elections, the anti-India voices in the U.S. administration are likely to swell with more Democratic appointments. If not, the Democrats like any other opposition party will continue to press Mr. Trump to act against India so as to assert America’s responsibility to defend human rights abroad.

Either way, Kashmir will continue to remain an agenda in the political developments of some countries.

The analysis originally appeared in our 13-19 July 2020 print edition.

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