The Kashmir Triangle: US President Donald Trump (L), Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (C) & Indian Prime Minister Modi (R)
The US President Donald Trump’s extraordinary remarks to the media at the Oval Office in the White House on August 20 regarding the Kashmir issue come just a day after his telephone conversations with the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, Narendra Modi and Imran Khan.
The remarks have added significance insofar as Trump is due to meet Modi at Biarritz, France, on the sidelines of the G7 summit in the weekend where he intends to raise Kashmir issue and India-Pakistan tensions.
Reproduced below are the extracts of Trump’s remarks:
QUESTION: The crisis between India and Pakistan —
PRESIDENT TRUMP: It’s a big deal.
QUESTION — and I know you’ve had some number of discussions — is that solvable?
PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, they’ve been having this — these talks for hundreds of years, even under different names. But this is — but it’s Kashmir. And Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have the Hindus and you have the Muslims, and I wouldn’t say they get along so great. And that’s what you have right now.
And you have millions of people that want to be ruled by others, and maybe on both sides. And you have two countries that haven’t gotten along well for a long time. And, frankly, it’s a very explosive situation.
I spoke to Prime Minister Khan. I spoke with, yesterday, also, Prime Minster Modi. They’re both friends of mine. They’re great people. They’re great people. And they love their countries. And they’re in a very tough situation.
Kashmir is a very tough situation. And, you know, we’re talking about — this has been going on for decades and decades. Shooting. I don’t mean shooting like shooting a rifle, I mean like major shooting of howitzers, of — you know, of heavy arms. And it’s been going on for a long period of time.
But I get along really well with both of them. As you know, Prime Minister Khan was here just recently. And I was with — I’m going to be with Prime Minister Modi. I’ll be with him over the weekend in France.
So, you know, I think we’re helping the situation. But there’s tremendous problems between those two countries, as you know. And I will do the best I can to mediate or do something. Great relationship with both of them, but they are not exactly friends at this moment. Complicated situation. A lot has to do with religion. Religion is a complicated subject.
These are the most extensive remarks on Kashmir to come from an American president in a very long while. Washington generally avoids Kashmir issue lest it appeared intrusive, and strategic ambiguity serves a purpose too.
In the recent times, Washington encourages India to focus on the Indo-Pacific strategy — containment of China — rather than on Pakistan. But lately, a need arises to insert the containment policy toward China into the geopolitics of the Central Asia — in fact, all countries surrounding China, be it Mongolia, Bhutan, Myanmar or Laos. In that backdrop, a robust partnership with Pakistan has become a key component of the US regional policies.
Washington is once again attentive to Pakistani interests and concerns, and Trump administration estimates that it can do business with the present leadership in Islamabad.
Trump’s remarks, therefore, have an Indian and Pakistani audience as well as a regional audience.
Of course, the stunning aspect of Trump’s remarks is his understanding of the Kashmir problem as such. He recalls that Kashmir is a historical legacy of the region’s shifting boundaries — Kashmir disappearing from maps for long periods of time and reappearing but only to vanish into thin air again, or to assume different names at different periods, with vacant spaces surrounding it to the north that were a delight to cartographers.
Two, Trump sees a Hindu-Muslim divide in Kashmir. How far he sees this as a reflection of the Hindutva phase of India’s current politics and sad history we do not know. But he thinks co-existence between Hindus and Muslims has become difficult, which makes J&K “a very complicated place.”
Three, Trump refers to the alienation of Kashmiri Muslims from their “rulers”. In sum, India-Pakistan tensions and Kashmir issue intersect in a way that “a very explosive situation” prevails today in the region.
Trump sees that both Indian and Pakistan leaderships have come under pressure and the tensions of the past several decades have escalated to a conflict situation.
Trump gets along “really well” with both Modi and Imran Khan and is “helping the situation.” And he is determined to do “the best I can to mediate or do something” — although, given the Hindu-Muslim divide, it is a “complicated situation,” as would happen when religion enters the political calculus whenever, wherever. “Religion is a complicated subject.”
Trump’s remarks are rational and largely cogent and difficult to refute — although, Modi government is getting here a bitter taste of the international community’s perception of how the mixing of religion and politics has polarised the subcontinent and can damage nationhood.
Evidently, the country’s image and standing on the world stage has been tarnished due to the erosion of the secularist foundations of the Indian state.
Now, some Indians are bound to call Trump “anti-national” when he draws attention to the painful Indian reality that Muslim alienation is reaching a point of no return. Trump stops short of mentioning the right of self-determination, considering its apocalyptic implications in a nuclear environment, but his reference to “rulers” must be carefully noted.
Modi probably hoped to divert Trump’s attention to the trade issues by making concessions in line with our “buy-one-get-one” philosophy. But Trump is a sharper Baniya than any in the Indian elite. He will have both trade concessions and market access from Modi, while also navigate the Kashmir issue and negotiate tradeoffs with Imran Khan.
Trump has a habit of “declassifying” sensitive briefs and using them in his tweets and free-wheeling remarks with the media. (He recently boasted that the accident at a Russian nuclear missile test site in Archangel enabled the US intelligence to gauge that the hypersonic weapons that President Putin famously keeps speaking about aren’t as advanced, after all, as what Pentagon already has in use!)
Make no mistake that due to the follies of the Modi government in J&K through the past 5 year period, Kashmir issue has been internationalised. Meanwhile, irresponsible rhetoric by senior ministers (both in and outside the parliament) can only fuel the global perception that South Asia is approaching a nuclear flashpoint.
The BJP leaders ought to know that “getting back” the territories of POK and Northern Areas is a pipe dream — and to threaten to switch to nuclear first-use to achieve such objectives is sheer lunacy.
The crux of the J&K situation is that India should not ape the Israeli methods to tackle mass alienation in J&K. We do not need the West Bank / Gaza-style repression and ghettoisation. A “Nagaland solution” is still possible — except that BJP may not be able to form the next government in Srinagar.
We should take Trump’s help to create diplomatic space to switch tack and head toward a “Nagaland solution” in J&K — something better than the moth-eaten Article 370. His mediation offers a rare opportunity to constructively engage Pakistan.