This is supposedly the age of information overload. Yet, as foreign minister S Jaishankar recently remarked after his whirlwind tour of Washington, there is little knowledge about the Kashmir issue even on the Hill where one assumes that Senators and Congressmen are briefed adequately by their staffers and other officials. Apparently not. Over the last few months, ill-informed commentaries in the United States-based media, together with a high-decibel rant by Pakistani officials and their many acolytes flooding Washington have added to the spaghetti soup that is the “Kashmir issue”, with its threatened overlays of war, nuclear disaster, and a “bloodbath”. Everyone now knows about Kashmir, and no one knows about Kashmir. The cab driver in Washington has heard of atrocities by Indian forces, but neither he nor lawmakers are at all aware, for instance, that a “security lockdown” has been the norm rather than the exception in the “Other Kashmir” held by Pakistan. Or that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir is not agitating for a nebulous freedom.
The lack of information was most recently apparent in a report from the Committee on Foreign Relations that included, for the first time in many years, a reference to the humanitarian crisis in Kashmir. The report that presages the annual appropriations exercise is a voluminous one, and has a total of six lines on Kashmir among a spate of issues including the importance of India to US national security interests and a well-funded “Countering Chinese Influence” Fund. Notably that too is under the subheading of Indo-Pacific Strategy. In this overall policy direction, the Kashmir issue is a footnote, but it’s there.
Those six lines can be set as the benchmark in terms of the level of understanding of the issue in American policy circles. The Committee calls for a lifting of curfew, apparently unaware that there is no curfew declared in Kashmir. Instead, its Section 144 that is essentially aimed at preventing crowds from gathering, and the resultant heightening of tensions and stone-pelting. Even that was lifted nearly two months ago in Jammu, and in much of Kashmir thereafter. The language is the handiwork of Sen Chris Hollen, unsurprisingly, a Democrat who is strongly attacking the US President on Twitter. The Senator is from tiny Maryland, which has a sizeable Indian population. If he is making a noise about Kashmir it could be because it’s a shot across the bow on the Modi-Trump “bromance”, or that it is electorally popular among his voters. Both possibilities are bad news for Delhi.
Many Indians in the US, particularly in and around Washington and New York, are upset about the Kashmir imbroglio, for reasons that are sometimes entirely divorced from reality. There is talk of human rights violations by security forces, much of it based on fake news and videos, ignoring the fact that violence is at its lowest ebb in months. Then there are allegations of abuse of women by the armed forces without knowing or caring that the Army is not deployed in this action at all. In this indignant debate, there is no awareness of the corrosive terrorist operations of the last 20 years. The curfew is being imposed by the Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups.
One prominent think-tank insists on referring to Kashmir as India’s only Muslim majority state. That this aspect was never ever part of the narrative during the three wars against Pakistan, or even in the early years of terrorism, is entirely ignored. This section dislikes the gray areas of multiculturalism, much preferring the black and white lines of ethnic divisions. The two-nation theory that Pakistan has been espousing for decades has been swallowed in its entirety, in a deliberate side-stepping of the history of the subcontinent. For those who tend to dismiss think-tankers as bunch, it is as well to note that the Senate report includes substantial portions from a report by a prominent think-tank.
The foreign minister’s punishing schedule in Washington that sometimes included talks at two think-tanks a day, indicates his awareness of the importance of engagement with think-tanks and the media. But one man, however articulate, cannot conjure up a counter-information storm. Nor can an overworked embassy also entirely be expected to deliver. The dreaded “talking points” handed out routinely have little impact. Embassies and the ministry need to encourage expertise in public diplomacy that includes targeted funding for the right projects, and most of all eroding that thick red line between the bureaucrats, think-tanks and the press. The opening of the branch of a prominent think-tank in Washington is one step in this game that requires multiple players pulling the strings that play public opinion. The K word in the Senate report is not entirely a function of Indo-US ties or even an individual Senator’s politicking. This is a reflection of our inability to use networks to present our case as a narration of irrefutable facts.
Tara Kartha is former director, National Security Council Secretariat
The views expressed are personal
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