Updated: January 19, 2010 11:28 IST

America’s role in Kashmir

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Like relics tossed from speeding trains, Indian discourses have a way of rejecting the preposterous idea of an American role in Kashmir. Yet the United States has always been a “party” to the Kashmir problem. If ever Indian archives become available for public scrutiny, it might seem New Delhi never really shied away from the U.S. attempts at mediation. This new book by the former American diplomat, Ambassador Howard B. Schaffer does tear off the veil of secrecy regarding the 60-year U.S. mediation efforts in resolving the India-Pakistan differences over Kashmir.

Phases of involvement

Schaffer sees three distinct phases in the U.S. involvement — a 15-year period of “deep engagement” from 1948 to 1963; another 15-year period of “diplomatic quiescence”; and, a third phase since 1990 during which the focus was on cooling down India-Pakistan tensions. The thoughtful title — limits of influence — says it all: America’s capacity to implement its policy on Kashmir has been limited and unsuccessful. Whereas the Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy administrations sought to develop a framework for a Kashmir settlement, the Kargil war proved a turning point, veering diplomacy towards “crisis-management.” Schaffer’s finding is that whereas from the late 1940s to the ‘70s, and even the ‘80s India would have viewed the prospect of American intervention with considerable reserve, the alchemy changed phenomenally over the past 10 years when New Delhi began wondering how American intervention could be put to use for the realisation of Indian objectives regarding Pakistan.

Indeed, it is difficult to quarrel with his finding, although it does not do historical justice to the tenacity of Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom Kashmir was a “bone-deep issue,” in keeping Uncle Sam at bay through an extremely difficult corridor of time in independent India’s history, while consolidating the Indian grip on J&K. Surely, at the present moment, the exhaustive chapter in the book concerning President John Kennedy’s active interest on the Kashmir front assumes contemporaneity.

It happened against the backdrop of “New Delhi’s confrontation with Beijing over their disputed Himalayan border.” Kennedy’s concern, like President Barack Oabma’s, was also “how to develop better relations with New Delhi while retaining reasonably strong ties with Karachi” at a time when the U.S. was worried about the spectre of “Chinese expansion” and Pakistan was the U.S.’s key ally. That was when the “non-territorial approach” to a Kashmir settlement — put differently today as the “soft-borders solution” — first sailed into view. Kennedy let Indians know he was sympathetic to their plight vis-À-vis China but his decision to arm India “which the Pakistanis bitterly resented, brought into sharp focus the fundamental flaws in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance…[and] further strengthened the widespread Pakistani belief that the Kennedy administration preferred India to Pakistan and found little value in the U.S.-Pakistan alliance.”

U.S.’s zeal to resolve

Sounds familiar? Schaffer analyses why the Swaran Singh-Bhutto talks failed. The “most important [reason] was the revival of Indian self-confidence as it became increasingly evident that another Chinese military attack was unlikely…This sharply reduced the value to India of a compromise settlement.” Secondly, Washington failed to persuade Indians that “concessions [on Kashmir] on their part would lead to a new, much improved relationship with Pakistan that would justify their making them.” Thirdly, domestic political circumstances in India were “unpromising.” Finally, the U.S. diplomacy was caught on a cleft stick. As the then Secretary of State Dean Rusk summed up, “If we back India against the Chinese, we may drive the Pakistanis off the deep end. If we abandon Indians, they might move toward the USSR and China again.”

A great flaw in Schaffer’s book is that it is only when peeping through such tiny keyholes that the reader could conjecture the interplay of geopolitics in the U.S.’s near-obsessive zeal to “resolve” the Kashmir dispute.

Schaffer strongly advocates that the time is opportune for the Obama administration to pick up the threads where the Kennedy administration left. He is optimistic that the basic outline of a Kashmir settlement is in view. He assumes Pakistan is in a far-too-weak position to assert its claim on Kashmir and India could show flexibility by granting a much greater degree of autonomy to J&K, an open border, across which there could be free movement of people and goods, and some sort of “all-Kashmir institutions.” Unfortunately, Schaffer overlooks the role of the “non-state actors” — the terrorist networks and their allies in the Pakistani government. Nor would he factor in that a very substantial body of opinion in Pakistan might view the “soft-borders solution” as a mere transit halt on the road to full acquisition of Kashmir. Finally, the salutary lesson of the current impasse over Telangana is that a broad national consensus is still needed in India for taking a major political step that impacts the country’s federalism.

What would be the U.S. role in all this? This was how the Kennedy administration instructed the American embassies in Delhi and Karachi in 1962: “It [Washington] instructed the resident ambassadors and their staffs to focus on helping to build a positive negotiating environment…American diplomats were to refrain from making specific proposals but were not precluded from exploring and discussing types of settlements…Washington admonished them to take special care that settlement formulas were perceived as spontaneous India-Pakistan concepts; they should not be identified as American proposals…Public comment was to be kept to a minimum at all times.”

THE LIMITS OF INFLUENCE — America’s Role in Kashmir: Howard B. Schaffer; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.


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