Obama’s Kashmir comments hit a raw nerve in India

November 3, 2008

Barack Obama has hit a raw nerve in India by suggesting the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute so that Pakistan can focus on hunting down Islamist militants on its north-western frontier — who in turn threaten stability in Afghanistan — rather than worrying about tensions with India on its eastern border. India is extremely sensitive to any suggestion of outside interference in Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral dispute, though Pakistan itself has long chafed against this position.

“The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan,” Obama said in an interview last week with MSNBC. “And we’ve got work with the newly elected government there in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

On the face of it, the comments are not particularly dramatic. For months now, U.S. analysts have been saying the solution to Afghanistan lies in Pakistan, not just because al Qaeda and the Taliban are based there, but also because they believe Pakistan will never fully turn its back on Islamist militants as long as it thinks it can use them against India.

Nor are they particularly new. Back in July, Obama said the situation in Afghanistan might be made easier if the United States worked to improve trust between India and Pakistan. He has also accused Pakistan of misusing U.S. military aid meant to help it fight al Qaeda and the Taliban to prepare for war against India.

The sensitivity, however, lies in the fact that the comments were made at all by a man who opinion polls show as well ahead of John McCain before Tuesday’s presidential election.

“As Obamamania grips much of the world, including India, the man who might become the next President of the United States has ideas on Jammu and Kashmir that should cause some concern to New Delhi,” wrote Indian analyst C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express. “Given its vastly improved relations with the United States and Pakistan, India has no reason to press the panic button. Yet it should be quickly flagging its concerns with the foreign policy team of Senator Barack Obama, should he be declared the Forty-fourth President of the United States on Tuesday night.”

While India would agree that a Pakistan secure within its own borders would be good for the region, “India’s problem with the Obama thesis is in the simplistic trade-off it sets up between Kashmir and Afghanistan,” he said.  American activism could backfire by undermining the current bilateral peace process, convince the Pakistan Army to harden its stance on Kashmir, and give a fresh boost to militancy there.

In contrast, Obama’s comments were welcomed by Kashmiris, both inside the Kashmir Valley and among the Kashmiri expatriate community in the United States. “I welcome the growing interest of Barrack Obama in resolving the Kashmir dispute,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the separatist Hurriyat alliance, told the Greater Kashmir newspaper in Srinagar. ”The US and international community is gradually recognizing that resolution of Kashmir dispute was imperative for peace in South Asia.”

So who is right? Arguably some of the greatest gains in the peace process were made behind-the-scenes in bilateral talks hidden from the glare of international attention.  The agreement to call a ceasefire on the Line of Control, the heavily militarised frontline dividing Kashmir, for example, was made in November 2003, before the formal peace process was even launched in January 2004. But were these gains enough?

And how will Obama’s election rhetoric translate into policy if he becomes the next president of the United States?





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