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South Asian Geopolitics: Saudi Arabia: 1 Iran: 0?

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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It may be reading tea leaves but analysis of the walk-up to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s visit and his sojourn in Islamabad suggests that Pakistan may be about to fight battles on two fronts rather than just the Indian one in the wake of this month’s attacks in Kashmir.

Prince Mohammed’s expressions of unconditional support for Pakistan coupled with his promise of US$20 billion in investments in addition to US$6 billion in desperately needed financial aid raise the spectre of a shift in Pakistani efforts in recent years to walk a fine line in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

That fine line included a 2015 Pakistani refusal to send troops to the kingdom in support of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

Speaking to the Arab News this week, Major General Asif Ghafoor, head of the Pakistan army’s media wing, suggested that Pakistan’s commitment to Saudi Arabia was equally unconditional. “Pakistan is committed to standing by its Saudi brethren,” Maj. Gen. Ghafoor said.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi seemed to fine tune the officer’s statement by not mentioning Yemen in his remarks to the Saudi paper and limiting Pakistan’s commitment to the kingdom itself. “If anyone would create chaos in or attack the Kingdom, Pakistan would stand by its brethren Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Qureishi said.

The stakes for Pakistan that borders on Iran and is home to the world’s largest minority Shiite Muslim community could not be higher.

Concerned that Pakistan’s position may be shifting, Iran this week dialled up the rhetoric by warning that Pakistan would “pay a high price” for last week’s attack in the Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchistan that killed 27 Revolutionary Guards.

Like with India in the case of Kashmir, Iran asserted that the perpetrators, Jaish-al-Adl, were operating from Pakistani territory with at least the tacit knowledge of Pakistani authorities. In an unusual disclosure, Iran said three of the six perpetrators of last week’s attack, including the suicide bomber, were Pakistani nationals.

In the past, Iran has by and large said that militants who had launched attacks were Iranian nationals rather than Pakistanis.

The tone of Revolutionary Guards chief Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari’s statement holding Pakistan, alongside the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, responsible for the recent attack reflected Iranian concern with what may flow from Prince Mohammed’s visit.

Why do Pakistan’s army and security body … give refuge to these anti-revolutionary groups? Pakistan will no doubt pay a high price. Just in the past year, six or seven suicide attacks were neutralized but they were able to carry out this one,”,” Maj. Gen. Jafari said in remarks live on state television.

Initially, Iran had limited itself to blaming external powers rather than Pakistan for the attack.

Indications suggesting that Prince Mohammed’s visit to Pakistan may have been about more than economic cooperation were severalfold and involved gestures that despite Pakistani denials would not have come without a price tag.

Saudi Arabia and Pakistan expressed in a little noticed declaration in their joint statement at the end of the crown prince’s visit “the need to avoid politicization of the United Nations listing system.”

The statement  was implicitly referring to Indian efforts to get the UN Security Council to designate Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. Mr. Azhar is the head of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that has claimed responsibility for the Kashmir attack.

China, which at Pakistan’s behest has blocked Mr. Azhar’s designation in recent years, this week rejected an Indian request that it lift its veto. China asserts that Indian evidence fails to meet UN standards.

The reference to UN listing in the Saudi-Pakistani statement seemingly failed to resonate in New Delhi where Prince Mohammed stopped after visiting Islamabad.

In another tantalizing incident, Mr. Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, did nothing to distance his country from a statement in his presence by Saudi State Minister for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir accusing Iran of being the “world’s chief sponsor of terrorism

Similarly, in preparation of Prince Mohammed’s talks, retired General Raheel Sharif, the Pakistani commander of the Saudi-based, 40-nation Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC), flew from Riyadh to Islamabad for talks with prime minister Imran Khan and Pakistani chief of staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pakistan agreed to General Sharif’s appointment as commander despite its refusal to join the coalition in the belief that the 2017 Saudi request that he be seconded put the South Asian nation between a rock and hard place.

Pakistani military officials argued at the time that while the appointment would irritate Iran, refusal of the Saudi request would expose Pakistan to criticism from many more in the Islamic world.

Neither the Pakistani government nor the IMCTC gave details of General Sharif’s discussions. The IMCTC, however, said in a tweet that “salient contours of IMCTC’s domains and initiatives in the fight against #terrorism were discussed.”

The tone and gestures during Prince Mohammed’s visit contrasted starkly with positions adopted by Mr. Khan during his election campaign and immediately after he took office last year.

In his first post-election televised speech Mr. Khan made a point of discussing his country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“We want to improve ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia is a friend who has always stood by us in difficult times. Our aim will be that whatever we can do for conciliation in the Middle East, we want to play that role. Those tensions, that fight, between neighbours, we will try to bring them together,” Mr. Khan said.

The geopolitical fallout, if any, of what for now amounts to symbolism will likely only be evident in the weeks and months to come.

Beyond Iran’s toughening stance towards Pakistan in the wake of the attack on its Revolutionary Guards, tell-tale signs would be a closer Pakistani alignment with the Saud-led anti-terrorism coalition and the degree to which Pakistan-based militant launch attacks inside Iran.

Middle East scholar Michael Stephens, who heads the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) operation in Qatar suggested that reading the tea leaves may best be done with a grain of salt.

“Geography is what it is, and Pakistan will always have to maintain a relationship with Iran (economic and security) regardless of how much cash it gets from Riyadh… Pakistan will do what’s best for Pakistan, and not Riyadh, the US or Tehran. Telling everyone what they want to hear is kinda how this all works,” Mr. Stephens said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

Sri Lanka’s election results and their implications

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Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini & Mahitha Lingala*

The Sri Lankan election result, was closely observed, not just for its likely impact on domestic politics in Sri Lanka, but it’s impact on geopolitical dynamics in South Asia. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Former Defence Secretary, and brother of former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa,  won by a massive margin, defeating his opponent Sajith Premadasa (son of a former President who was assassinated in 1993). He was sworn in on Monday, November 18, 2019 as President.

While Rajapaksa, the candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Party) polled over52% of the vote, the runner up Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party (UNP)polled 42% of the votes. It is pertinent to note, that the UNP did much better in North Eastern districts of the South Asian country, which are dominated by Muslims and Tamils.

Analysts believe, that the triumph of the former Defense Secretary, is likely to result in Sri Lankamoving closer to China – as was the case during Mahindra Rajapaksa’s term (which ended in 2015, Rajapaksa lost to Maithripali Sirisena, the latter had served in Rajapaksa’s government but in  2014 he decided to part ways and was the Presidential candidate of the opposition).There is a belief however, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, may not veer as much towards China, as his brother given the changing ground realities.

Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China during Mahindra Rajapaksa’s tenure

During Mahindra Rajakapsa’s tenure, Sri Lanka took a turn towards China, much to the chagrin of India. While one of the reasons cited for the same, was China’s economic prowess, and ability to deliver fast on key infrastructure politics. It would be pertinent to point out, that there was an equally, if not more important reasons for the Former President warming upto China –Beijing turned a blind eye to the Human Rights violations (an estimated 40,000 Tamils – which included journalists and opponents) were killed in operations against Tamil separatists)

 New Delhi-Colombo ties also took a hit, during Rajapaksa’s tenure, due to the opposition of regional parties – AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) and DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) — from the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Political parties from Tamil Nadu  have been constantly alleging Sri Lankan govt failed to follow their 13th amendment (which sought to provide devolution to the Tamil Community and reduce the harmony with the community) and also allege, that many innocent civilians were killed during the war for which Mahinda Rajapaksa must be held accountable. The previous Congress led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government voted against Sri Lanka in 2009, 2012 and 2013, supporting a US passed resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN. In 2014, India made a slight change to it’s approach and rather than voting directly against Sri Lanka, New Delhi abstained from voting against Sri Lanka. In 2013, Indian PM Dr. Manmohan Singh due to pressure from Tamil Nadu’s regional parties did not attend the Common Wealth Head of Government Meeting (CHOGM) meeting in Colombo.

In 2015,  when Mahinda Rajapaksa lost elections, Tamilian parties including the BJP TN unit in India termed it as a victory of the Sri Lankan Tamils. Indian PM, Narendra Modi had invited Mahindra Rajapaksa for his swearing in as PM in 2014 and also congratulated Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Modi also invited the newly elected President to visit India. The new President is likely to visit India on November 29, 2019.

Economic tilt towards China under Mahindra Rajapaksa

Colombo’s economic tilt to Beijing, was strongly reiterated by the Hambantota Port project, which was handed over to China, and given on lease for 99 years. The port was built with 85% of the funds coming from Exim Bank in China. After money shortage in 2017 in regard to this loan, Sri Lankan government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of associated land to China Merchants Port Holdings for 99 years. This was cited, as one of the strong instances of China’s ‘Debt Trap’ Diplomacy. US drew attention to this, and so did a report by the Centre for Global Development (CGD)but Sri Lanka has rejected this fear while admitting that the debt pressure is huge.

China remains one of Sri Lanka’s largest creditors accounting for an estimated 10% of its total foreign debt. China is investing in large infrastructural projects through its flagship programme  the Belt and Road Initiative(BRI) in Sri Lanka, some of the major ones include; Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium, and the Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port in southern Sri Lanka. Another project which has proven to be controversial is the Lotus Tower. The 17 story structure – South Asia’s tallest self supporting structure – has been criticised not just for the fact that it represented a wrong utilisation of resources, but the company which had the contract for building the tower was accused of misappropriating funds (a whopping 11 Million USD) by former President Maithrapali Sirisena.

Mahindra Rajapaksa’s close ties to China were also evident in the strategic sphere (two Chinese submarines docked in the South Asian Island nation in 2014)

Balancing of relationships

Rajapaksa’s successor, Maithripali Sirisena did try to balance out relationships, and reduce the South Asian country’s dependence upon China, but was unable to do so. President Sirisena said that he would treat major Asian countries equally. India and Sri Lanka in February 2015 signed a nuclear pact to improve relationships and agreed to improve defence ties.

A number of important projects were taken over by Japan, and there have also been some strong instances of India-Japan working together in Sri Lanka. India, Japan and Sri Lanka have signed an agreement to develop the East Container Terminal (ECT) of Colombo Port. While India and Japan will retain 49% stake in this project, while Sri Lanka will have 51% (work on the project will begin in March 2020). 

This investment has been seen as a joint effort by India- Japan to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the Indian Ocean region. Apart from this project, both India and Japan have also been working on an LNG project terminal near Colombo.  India’s Petronet LNG (one of the country’s energy giants) will have a 47.5% stake in the project, while Japan’s Mitsubishi and Sojitzcorp will have a 37.5% stake)

US has also been trying to make Sri Lanka part of the Indo-Pacific narrative.

The US has also begun to pay more attention to Sri Lanka, especially in the context of being an important stakeholder in the US vision for a ‘Free and Open Indo Pacific’.

US Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale, and Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana held the third US-Sri Lanka Partnership Dialogue in Washington DC in May 2019. Both sides, according to a joint statement issued after the dialogue, resolved to work together for a“a safe maritime domain in the Indian and Pacific oceans through a rules-based order that ensures respect for international laws and norms” . Furthermore, after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka also became a Logistics hub for the US Navy in the Indian Ocean

Domestic Politics

It is not just geo-politics, even in the context of Sri Lankan politics, it remains to be seen what approach he takes towards Muslims and Tamils. The electoral verdict is polarized. On his part, the newly elected President, did state that

“I am conscious that I am also the president of those who used the vote against me…. “It is my duty to serve all Sri Lankans without race or religious discrimination. I promise to discharge my duties in a fair manner’

Conclusion

In conclusion, it remains to be seen whether there will be a drastic change in both domestic policies, as well as Sri Lanka’s foreign policy orientation. While, Sri Lanka is dependent upon China, in the economic sphere, it is important to acknowledge the fact, that there have been a number of economic and geo-political changes in recent years. First, China’s economy has witnessed a slowdown, and Beijing will be unable to assist Sri Lanka to the degree it did earlier – though it’s overall economic influence could grow. Second, US has been paying attention to Sri Lanka, due to it’s strategic importance especially in the context of Indo-Pacific, as was mentioned earlier. In this context, it is likely that US, Japan and India could work jointly in Sri Lanka  (Japan and India have already initiated some projects) .The new Sri Lankan President would do well to pay attention to the fact, that South Asian countries like Bangladesh have been able to balance ties and not remained solely dependent upon China.

 Finally, the US reaction to the election, and the warning with regard to Human Rights is significant. The outside world, is likely to keep a close watch on Sri Lanka, and it is likely, that the new President while upgrading economic ties with China will do a balancing act, so that Colombo is not totally dependent upon China.

*Mahitha Lingala is a student at the OP Jindal Global University

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The era emerged from “RuwanWeliSaya”: Aftermath of Presidential Election in Sri Lanka

Punsara Amarasinghe

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Authors: Punsara Amarasinghe & Eshan Jayawardane

Civilizational influence in shaping national political consciousness is an indispensable factor   that one cannot deny or completely abandon albeit how rationalized or tries to be radical he is. The Oath ceremony of the president of the US is traditionally culminated by pledging alliance to the US constitution and God and the people in Britain chant “God save the Queen “as their aged long belief in Christianity is imbued with Anglo Saxon political consciousness. This given examples are the ideal instances proving the gravity of nationalism still prevailing in nation states system and this examples pave the path to ascertain the civilizational message symbolized by the newly elected president of Sri Lanka by choosing the ancient Buddhist stupa Ruwan Weli Saya in its ancient monastic city Anuradhapaura as the location to take oaths.

First and foremost, the recently concluded presidential election in Sri Lanka became a battle between emotions and many appealing dazzled in Sri Lankan society due number of reasons. Mainly majority of Sri Lankans felt anxious about the rule of former president Maithripala Sirisena who came into power in 2015 as a leader committed to restore the good governance and the international image of Sri Lanka. Even though his emphasis on good governance and reconciliation seemed to be appealing at outset, his inefficiency in implanting the promises jeopardized his rule gradually. In particular, people were heavily gutted after an Islamic militant group supported by ISIS carried out a deadly attack on Easter Day this year in Sri Lanka. All this circumstances set the cause in Sri Lanka to revive its aged long romanticism on Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism as it has always played the last resort for the majority of the Sinhalese community in island throughout its history.

The arrival of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a one of main presidential candidates for this year election marked a new revival in Sinhalese Buddhist community and which was further bolstered by the echoing voice of Buddhist monks and so many other social factors. On the other hand, his dynamism as former defense secretary during his brother president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s era in defeating 30 year long civil war in Sri Lanka against Tamil separatist movement and the contribution he made in urban development kept lingering in the minds of the people when they suffered from inefficient bunch of rulers for past five years. However, in comparing the decisive factors that intensified the victory of Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it becomes evident his main opponent Mr. Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto and his political stances became less appealing for the majority of Sinhalese in Sri Lanka as his political campaign was consisted of many dubious characters hated by common people.

In analyzing the election results, it is evident that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory in Sri Lankan presidential elections was manly attributed to the votes of Sinhalese Buddhists and this simply reminds of the victory of Modi in India from Hindu majority votes and Orban’s victory in Hungary from the votes of the Catholic Magyars. The recent growth of nationalism around the globe has again created a serious concern on returning the Hobbesian idea of strong sovereignties with strong nationalist sentiments. The outcome in Sri Lankan presidential election denotes the continuation of strong global tendency towards nationalism, yet, in the case in Sri Lanka the election results has given a clear sign that Tamil and Muslim minorities are displeased with Gotabaya to be their president as many Tamil and Muslim electorates were mainly won by Sajith Premadasa.  The situation arising from this ethic division should be healed by newly elected president as it appears to be the most important task he needs to accomplish.

Perhaps, it may be an interesting analysis to look at his choice for taking oaths as the 7th executive president of Sri Lanka, because the place he chose for this ceremony RuwanWaliSaya in ancient city of Anuradha Pura is a powerful icon for Sinhalese Buddhists as how Varanasi becomes important for Hindus and Jerusalem inspires Jews. The ancient pagoda called “RuwanWaliSaya” was built by King DutuGamunu after defeating Tamil Chola ruler Ellalan who ruled Anuradhapura for 40 years. The saga of king Dutugamunu was glorified in the Sinhalese psyche as a civilizational hero who appeared in the most awaited hour in their history to defeat the enemy and restore Buddhism. Also, the Buddhist pagoda he built called “ RuwanWaliSaya” has always been an inspirational point for the idea of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism. The pictured depicted in Sinhalese Buddhist society in Sri Lanka regarding Anuradhapura and RuwanWaliSaya is a such a venerated one mixed with nostalgia and a yearning to restore its glory.In modern history of Sri Lanka after independence, no leader chose this ancient symbolic place as the venue to take oaths till Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa did so. The given idea simply proves that Sinhalese Buddhist majority finally reached their awaited moment of choosing a leader who understands their national aspirations. Moreover, it shows the unbreakable role of religion, race and cultural identities in South Asian politics. We do not criticize the emotional symbolism erupted from Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s choice of Buddhist pagoda as a place for taking oath, because history has proven sometimes nationalist leaders have been great leaders who protected every community in the society and in his inaugural speech president Gotabaya mentioned the importance for leading Sri Lanka from its political and economic chaos to a greater future with the support of all the communities. In that context, the man who appeared from the strong communal based nationalist background might be the best leader Sri Lankans have been waiting so far if he addresses the ethnic minorities Tamils and Muslims in the island without isolating them. Furthermore, neutralizing the foreign policy in Sri Lanka would be another crucial factor newly elected president needs to envisage.

*Eshan Jayawardane is an independent researcher currently lives in New Zealand and he holds a master’s degree in international relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India. He can be reached at Eshan.Jayawardane[at]gmail.com

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India’s Continuing Arrogance in Kashmir

Haris Bilal Malik

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On October 31, 2019, India formally split up the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir into two federal (union) territories. By doing so India violated the UNSC resolutions on the matter and officially issued a new political map indicating Ladakh and Jammu as Indian Union Territories. According to this formal split,both the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh union territories will be administered by two lieutenant governors, Girish Chandra Murmu and Radha Krishna Mathur respectively. They are supposed to report to the Indian home secretary based in New Delhi. This clearly defines the motives of the Hindu nationalist government of BJP led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which revoked Article 370 on August 5.Unfortunately, the prevalent security environment in Kashmir is dominated by the BJP, which has led India’s arrogance to determine the fate of the disputed region.

In the same vein, right before the formal enforcement of the constitutional split, a local body electoral exercise was carried out in the region. The maiden Block Development Council (BDC) Election was held on October 24 under much hype due to the evolved dynamics of the region. However, the region’s main parties such as the National Conference, Peoples Democratic Party, and Peoples Conference and other small parties had boycotted the local elections terming them as an ‘undemocratic’ exercise. These parties which have remained the major stakeholders in the politics of the region had turned out against the abrogation of Article 370 that granted the region special rights. It was also observed that the political parties had perceived this election as instead a “forced election” primarily because the region was still then under severe restrictions. Contrary to this general perception, the Indian government still carried out the post-revocation electoral exercise. This arrogant policy adopted by the Indian government seems to forcefully instill this notion of ‘our plan our vision’ by the BJP to decide the fate of the Kashmir region.

In addition to this notion, the Hindu-supremacist government of India, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been shamelessly flaunting the narrative that Kashmir has been ‘put in its place’. This means that contrary to the previous position of the Kashmir region as an autonomous entity under the Indian Union, it has been demoted to now being a ‘union territory’ like other union territories under the federal (Union) government of India. By doing so it seems that India is following a dangerous trajectory of dealing with Kashmir vis-à-vis Pakistan and the international community. In pursuit of its fascist vision inspired by its RSS ideology, the BJP led Indian state has blatantly ignored the global implications which its moves could have regarding the disputed region. Moreover, the ongoing crisis also provides an insight into Kashmir being a victim of the so-called rules based international order that has repeatedly failed to shield the Kashmiri people from the human rights violations of the Indian forces and protect their sovereign will.

It is worth mentioning here that Kashmir is one of the oldest issues pending at the UNSC table. The international community acknowledges Pakistan’s significance as the most important stakeholder vis-à-vis any development on the Kashmir issue. Contrary to Indian moves and suppression of Kashmiris, Pakistan has always insisted on the peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute under the UN mandate. Moreover, Pakistan has always encouraged international mediation offers from influential countries especially by the U.S. This was evident during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first-ever visit to the US on July 23, 2019, when President Trump had offered to mediate  between India and Pakistan. The offer was greatly appreciated by Pakistan as it was aimed at some prospect of seeking a settlement given the evolved security dynamics of the South Asian region for the last few months. Whereas, India has often rejected such offers claiming Kashmir as its internal matter.

As evident from the above-mentioned developments, it seems that India aspires to increasingly project itself as a regional hegemon and as a potential superpower that can do whatever it pleases with a complete disregard for basic human rights. Under this notion, the BJP government led by Prime Minister Modi and inspired by Hindutva ideology is taking offensive measures to forcefully make Kashmir an integral part of India via its brutal political and military actions. The most considerable aspect of such belligerence is that India wrongfully perceives that Pakistan is unlikely to or perhaps unwilling respond to any Indian move based on certain political, economic and strategic restraints vis-à-vis India. This however is once again a grave underestimation of Pakistan’s resolve and the sensitivity with which such moves are being taken by the Pakistani leadership.

Hence at the present, the rash and irresponsible actions of the BJP led Indian government has once again put at stake the peace and stability of the entire South Asian region, bringing it once again to the brink of conflict. Despite all the criticism worldwide, with its politico-military offensive in Kashmir, it seems that India has already decided to determine the fate of the disputed region through sheer arrogance and brutality. India is mistakenly perceiving that such moves would likely tighten its grip over the restive region that is at the heart of more than 70 years of hostility with Pakistan. India’s policy to forcefully make Kashmir a part of the Indian Union by annexing it through political and military means would serve as a dangerous precedent. This poses a serious detriment towards the long-desired peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute and even with more disastrous consequences for the whole region.

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