Understanding the president’s Kashmir bombshell—and why it matters.
By FP Editors | July 23, 2019
On Monday, early in the afternoon in Washington, D.C., and around the time most people in New Delhi were going to bed, U.S. President Donald Trump livened up a press conference with a revelation that would shake relations between the United States and India, the world’s two biggest democracies: “I was with Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi two weeks ago. He actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir.’”
Trump was seated beside a smiling Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is in Washington this week.Trending Articles
Trump then added: “I’d love to be a mediator.”
Nearly 8,000 miles away, in New Delhi, government officials brushed off their disbelief and sprang into action. “No such request has been made,” tweeted Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But it didn’t end there. On Tuesday, as Indians woke up to the news, opposition leaders angrily demanded that Modi clarify what actually transpired between him and Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Tokyo last month. While Modi has yet to respond, the country’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, read out a statement in the upper house of parliament, diplomatically mirroring what his spokesman said: “I repeat, no such request was made by the prime minister to the U.S. president.”
Why is India angry? And why is it adamant about not involving a mediator in Kashmir?
It all goes back to 1971, when East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. India played a pivotal role in that war, fighting West Pakistan and enabling East Pakistan to break away and form a new country. Months later, in July 1972, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—now presiding over a sharply reduced territory—met in the Indian town of Shimla, or Simla, to construct a blueprint for relations between their countries. Troops were pulled back beyond border lines; prisoners of war were returned. But more consequentially, the two sides signed what became known as the Simla Agreement—a document that created the so-called Line of Control in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
One line in the Simla Agreement has come to be defining: “[T]he two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations.”
While India and Pakistan have since been involved in several hostilities, New Delhi has steadfastly referred to the Simla Agreement’s resolution to stick to bilateral negotiations as reason not to involve external mediators.
“It is absolutely unthinkable that an Indian leader—let alone the prime minister—would ask a foreign leader to mediate in Kashmir,” said Navtej Sarna, who recently retired after serving as India’s ambassador to the United States between 2016 and 2018. Sarna spoke to Foreign Policy on the phone from New Delhi. “We have a strong position on this issue, which has been in place for years. It is a well-understood dynamic.”
Indian diplomats have long made clear to their counterparts that they don’t want international interference in Kashmir. (While both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir’s territory, India controls only about 45 percent of its land; Pakistan administers around a third; and China controls Aksai Chin, which represents about 20 percent of Kashmiri territory.) Part of the reason why New Delhi prefers to contain Kashmir as a local issue is that international mediation could lead to adverse outcomes for India, including a potential Kashmiri plebiscite, which could in turn set a precedent in other parts of the country.
And why would Pakistan want mediation in Kashmir?
Put simply, since Kashmir has a majority Muslim population, Pakistanis have long seen it as a more natural part of their country than of India.
As Khan put it Tuesday on Twitter, he was “[s]urprised” by India’s reaction to Trump’s offer of mediation. “Generations of Kashmiris … are suffering daily and need conflict resolution,” he wrote.
In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, the president of Pakistani Kashmir explained why Pakistan is in favor of a plebiscite across Kashmir, citing Indian “coercion or state terrorism to subjugate the Kashmiri people.” But, he said, “Brussels, London, Washington—they are silent. Sometimes there will be some bland statements just to artificially balance their relationship with India. Otherwise they won’t open their lips.”
And in that sense, Khan’s visit to Washington and the unexpected comments from Trump would be seen by Pakistanis as a resounding victory.
So did Trump lie about Modi asking for his assistance?
While the world may never really know what Modi and Trump discussed at the G-20 last month, it is quite likely that Khan brought up the issue of Kashmir in talks this week in Washington—as leaders from Pakistan often do. And the issue likely appealed to his American counterpart—who is trying win Pakistan’s assistance in forging peace in Afghanistan. “Trump has this idea of being the ultimate deal-maker,” Sarna said. A charitable perception of Trump’s comments, Sarna suggested, could be that he misunderstood Modi. Or perhaps he was improperly briefed. “But I have a feeling it’s more of a Trump thing—the idea of winging it without deep knowledge of the problems.”
What happens to relations between India and the United States now?
“The worst is behind us,” Sarna said.
And it may have helped that several U.S. lawmakers worked to smooth things over with New Delhi.
Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted on Monday that he apologized to India’s ambassador “for Trump’s amateurish and embarrassing mistake.”
And Alice Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, gently walked back Trump’s comments in a tweet acknowledging “Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss.”
Relations between the world’s two biggest democracies have gotten closer in the last two decades—irrespective of the governments in power on either side. Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy and New Delhi’s Act East initiative are interlinked in terms of their larger goals; top leaders from the two countries meet regularly on defense and counterterrorism issues; and a growing trade partnership has led to the United States becoming India’s largest trade partner.
“The United States and India have a very important strategic relationship,” said Nisha Biswal, the president of the U.S.-India Business Council and a former assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs between 2013 and 2017. The two countries “have a worldview that is largely convergent in terms of the future we see and the desire for a rules-based world.”
But aren’t India and the United States locked in a trade war?
Yes. The two countries have several long-running trade disagreements, including for example about Indian price controls on medical devices and its rules requiring foreign companies to store their electronic data locally. But the simmering issues boiled over this spring when Trump canceled India’s preferential trade status with the United States, impacting several Indian goods that were being exported without a tax duty. New Delhi retaliated with tariff hikes on products such as almonds and apples.
“These are issues that should have been resolved with dialogue rather than a trade war,” Biswal said. “We have some fragility on the trade side. If you add into the mix uncertainty on the strategic and security side, then you take us back a step or two,” Biswal said, referring to Trump’s Kashmir claims. “That’s why it’s important for this administration to be very clear about where it stands on issues that have been long-standing ones between the United States and India.”