Explained: Why President Trump possibly offered to mediate on Kashmir issue

Nirupama Subramanian
It is unclear why President Trump decided to throw his hat in the ring now, but several reasons are possible. (PTI/File photo)

US President Donald Trump threw a bombshell at India on Monday during a meeting with visiting Prime Minister Imran Khan when he said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate on Kashmir. India’s expected rebuttal came quickly via a tweet from the MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar. Denying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi said any such thing to Trump, the tweet laid out the position that has been sacrosanct for New Delhi in all matters with Pakistan for nearly 50 years now.

It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally , @MEAIndia said in the late-night two-part tweet.

With that, India has all but called President Trump a liar. How this will impact the present uneven relations between US-India remains to be seen. It will be for diplomats to manage the fallout if any. The most likely assessment on both sides may be that the episode should be buried quietly, and both countries should move ahead.

The framework for bilateral resolution of problems between India and Pakistan was written into the 1972 Simla Agreement, reiterated 27 years later in the Lahore Declaration.

India’s insistence on bilateralism has historically stemmed from the distrust of outsiders meddling in its internal affairs, the conviction that the world was out to demonstrate that India’s secular nationhood project was doomed, and that outside mediators viewed the Kashmir view through Pakistani eyes.

Soon after Nehru took Pakistan’s invasion in 1947 to the UN, he had had second thoughts about it. Subsequent UN missions, including the Dixon Mission which led to the Dixon Plan of 1950 for partition of some areas of Jammu & Kashmir between India and Pakistan, plus a plebiscite in the Valley, strengthened India’s determination to shut the door to international mediation.

Since then, India has resisted attempts at internationalising the Kashmir problem and mostly succeeded in making it clear to the world that there is no place for a third party in the room when it comes to its problem-riddled, difficult relations with its western neighbour.

However, after 1991, as New Delhi’s economic clout grew, and Pakistan’s hand in the 90’s uprising in Kashmir became apparent, India has sought outside help from the world, not for mediation, but to rein in Pakistan’s meddling in Kashmir.

In 1999, one year after India and Pakistan went nuclear, it was US intervention that brought the Kargil crisis to an end. The Vajpayee government had been in touch with the Clinton administration to get the Sharif government to call off the intrusion in Kargil even as it fought Pakistani forces. Nawaz Sharif arrived on July 3 in Washington seeking President Bill Clinton s help for a face-saving ceasefire with India that would include a settlement on Kashmir. Sharif had to agree to an unconditional withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kargil back to the Line of Control. Clinton denied him a face-saver of mediation over Kashmir, and reaffirmed US commitment to the bilateral Lahore Declaration signed earlier that year as the best way forward for India and Pakistan to resolve Kashmir and other issues.

After 9/11, which ushered in a UNSC-backed international architecture against terrorism, India has looked increasingly to the global community for help with Pakistan, again on one issue only: an end to the terrorist groups that flourish on Pakistani territory, to put pressure on the Pakistan Army and political leadership to desist from permitting anti-India terrorist activity on its territory, and to censure it when such attacks take place. In this, India has counted on its own growing economic and strategic clout.

Asking international players for help on Pakistan on one issue and expecting them to respect India’s red lines on other kinds of involvement has worked more or less, but it is chancey.

For the same reasons that India has been able to get its way mostly on this nuclearisation of South Asia, growing global interest in India’s economy members of the global community have also evinced interest from time to time in mediation in Kashmir, most notably the British, which has a large diaspora from PoK. Such interest is usually expressed at times of a vacuum in India-Pakistan engagement, when nothing seems to be happening, especially if the Kashmir issue is on the boil, as it has been for the last few years. When Barack Obama was a candidate for the presidency, he suggested in an interview that if Kashmir could be resolved, Pakistan would feel more secure and would co-operate better with the US in Afghanistan, provoking a furious reaction from India.

The UN Human Rights Council has been especially vocal on the Kashmir issue over the last two years.

Also last year, former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik visited Srinagar, met with the separatist leadership there and, after returning, went on to visit Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. On the Indian side, he told The Indian Express, he had been invited by Art of Living founder Sri Sri Ravishankar. The Indian government, which had evidently facilitated the visit, made no comment; the Norwegian Ambassador to India clarified that it was a personal visit.

It is unclear why President Trump decided to throw his hat in the ring now, but several reasons are possible.

1) He thinks its easy: In February this year, the US president claimed to have defused the India-Pakistan stand off that arose from the Pulwama attack, which led to Indian Air Force jets bombing a Jaish e Mohammed madrassa in Balakot, in Pakistani territory, which in turn led to a retaliation from the Pakistani Air Force and eventually to the capture of an Indian pilot who crash landed in PoK. The US is said to have played a part in his release.

The US also played a role in forcing China to agree to the designation of Jaish chief Masood Azhar. And most recently, he took credit for the arrest of Hafiz Saeed. Perhaps, the President of the United States thinks he has already resolved much of the problem.

2) Failure in the Middle-East: He may think there is a better chance of resolving a knotty international issue all US presidents like this on their CVs and an isolationist Trump may not be above this in Kashmir, than in the Middle East where his son-in-law and Jared Kushner’s efforts at peacemaking have run into the desert sand.

3) He may also believe that if his administration has succeeded in dragging the Taliban to the table in Afghanistan, so can it do the same with India and Pakistan.

But all of this could well be over-analysis. President Trump may have just said what he said for no reason at all, just like that.