The Pulse

An India-Pakistan Showdown at the United Nations 73rd General Assembly?

Is the new Pakistani government’s eagerness on Kashmir likely to backfire?

An India-Pakistan Showdown at the United Nations 73rd General Assembly?
Credit: United Nations image

Pakistan and India are set to clash at this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), with both countries’ foreign ministers expected to present at this year’s general debate. India will be represented by Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan by Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

For Pakistan, this meeting is all the more significant as it represents the debut of nascent Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government on the international stage. Khan’s party – the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) – emerged victorious in the controversial July 25 elections, sweeping up 116 National Assembly seats out of 270 contested. Their victory was followed by Pakistan’s second-ever successful democratic transition between two civilian governments.

Improving ties with India has been at the helm of the new government’s agenda and has been a major PTI foreign policy objective. On July 26, Khan – in his televised speech after winning the election – expressed his desire to mitigate Pakistan’s ongoing conflict with India. “If they [India] take one step towards us, we will take two [towards them],” he said.

This was reiterated by Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi after he assumed office on August 24. He added, however, that “one can’t clap with one hand,” and that India should press for dialogue over Kashmir. “We need continued uninterrupted dialogue. It is the only wise path for us,” Qureshi said at a press conference held at the Foreign Ministry.

The PTI government’s keenness to resolve the Kashmir dispute comes after a spike in cross-border firings and ceasefire violations in the first four months of 2018. The Pakistani foreign office set the number at 1,000 and the Indian side claimed 747. Violence ended only after a conditional ceasefire was declared by the Indian government in May on account of the holy month of Ramadan.

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Historically, Pakistan has taken every opportunity possible in order to highlight its stance against Indian atrocities in occupied Jammu and Kashmir. In the 2017 UNGA session, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi rehashed the Kashmir narrative and stated that the people of Jammu and Kashmir were being suppressed by “India’s occupation forces.” “India has deployed nearly 700,000 troops in occupied Kashmir to suppress the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiris to exercise their right to self-determination,” he claimed.

His statement also brought up UN Security Council Resolution 47 calling for a free and impartial plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir, but imposing conditions on both involved countries – including troop withdrawals. These conditions have not been fulfilled since, with India resolute in terming the issue bilateral and refusing to accept UN mediation. India also continues to maintain that the UN Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) has outlived its relevance post the 1972 Simla Agreement and has adopted a non-recognition policy towards third parties in their bilateral exchanges with Pakistan over Kashmir. Activities of the UN observers on the Indian-administered side of the Line of Control have also been limited.

But with a new government in place, Pakistan may not be so confrontational at this year’s UNGA. “Qureshi is likely to mention the Kashmir dispute, but we may also see him balance out such a statement with a call for the revival of SAARC as a vehicle for regional cooperation,” anticipates Arif Rafiq, foreign affairs commentator and Middle East Institute fellow. Qureshi and Swaraj are also expected to meet on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York, although this meeting has not yet been confirmed.

It is clear that Pakistan’s new government wants to move forward and use the UNGA platform to reflect this desire. “Imran Khan has made some conciliatory pitches to India in recent days, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has extended an olive branch as well. Qureshi will want to draw on that momentum in his UN speech,” claims Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center.

For Pakistan, good relations with India also have to do with bringing regional stability into South Asia, and showing the world that the new government in Islamabad is making an effort towards engagement and cooperation. “Better relations with India and expressing a desire to resolve the Kashmir dispute may be seen as linked,” Kugelman adds. “Better relations with India can inject more goodwill and trust into the relationship and allow for forward movement on Kashmir.”

Kugelman also believes that the army, which, historically, has held influence over Pakistan’s foreign policy, is on board with the goal of rapprochement with India over Kashmir. Keeping these factors in mind, Qureshi is expected to highlight the Kashmir issue in detail in his speech, with a focus on building peace by bringing both parties – India and Pakistan – to the table for talks and negotiations.

But while the PTI government is inclined towards dialogue over Kashmir, Rafiq believes that India is not on the same page. “New Delhi wants a conversation focused on terrorism. Islamabad wants a comprehensive dialogue, including on the future of Kashmir.”

The past has shown that for the government in New Delhi, Kashmir is non-negotiable. In a General Assembly debate on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the prevention of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity earlier this year, Maleeha Lodhi – Pakistan’s Permanent Ambassador to the UN – claimed that the people of Kashmir were victims of egregious war crimes including sporadic killing and mass-blinding. Her allegations were met by a quashing retort from her Indian counterpart, Sandeep Kumar Bayyapu: “I would like to place on record and reiterate that the state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral and inalienable part of India. No amount of empty rhetoric from Pakistan will change this reality.”

Differences surfaced again just last week at a Security Council debate on mediation in conflict zones. Once more, Lodhi broached Kashmir and claimed that UN mediation in peace disputes was doomed to fail “if the Security Council’s own resolutions are held in abeyance, by some,” gesturing towards India. In his response, the Indian Ambassador to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, said that the UN was “ill-suited to perform mediation [over Kashmir]…in every circumstance.”  

“India believes Kashmir has already been resolved and will be reflexively suspicious of any Pakistani pitch for more engagement,” says Kugelman. “For New Delhi, any Pakistani olive branch will be perceived as a possible ploy to reopen the Kashmir issue, which India believes is closed.”

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While India may react warmly to Qureshi’s speech in the short-term, India will also need time to address the civil-military balance in Pakistan. “[They need to] work out how much authority the army is likely to give the government on the issue of Kashmir,” says Shashank Joshi, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies. “But I doubt any concrete follow-up in advance of the Indian elections next year,” he adds.

The upcoming Indian general elections make it all the more unlikely for a substantive process to come out of Qureshi’s speech at the UNGA. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017 predicted that a clear majority of Indians – 60 percent – approve of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the Kashmir dispute and support the government’s use of military force in the region. Tilting towards Pakistan’s offer of dialogue and resolution of the Kashmir dispute is likely to cause Modi’s ratings to plummet – a scenario unforeseeable for the BJP-led Indian government given that elections are scheduled to take place next year.

Already, talks between New Delhi and the new government in Islamabad have begun – although not over Kashmir. Just last week, the two countries held bilateral talks in Islamabad over the Indus Water Treaty. While these meetings signal more engagement between New Delhi and the new government in Islamabad, India’s stance on Kashmir is firm. And with Indian general elections right around the corner, Qureshi’s speech at the UNGA may not have the outcome that the PTI government has been hoping.

Zuha Siddiqui is a freelance journalist based in New York City.