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Kashmir: A battleground for Middle Eastern rivals

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Thought that sectarianism was a pillar of the Saud Iranian rivalry? Think again, think Kashmir where the two countries’ geopolitical rivalry and Turkish ambitions cross sectarian lines.

With Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey competing for Indian Kashmiri hearts and minds, Iran and Turkey’s embrace of Kashmiri nationalism is winning them sympathy among both Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

The two countries’ perception of Kashmiri aspirations as nationalist rather than religious gives them a fighting chance to counter long-standing Saudi influence in the troubled South Asian region.

The Kashmiri competition, like Kazakhstan where a Saudi-inspired apolitical and loyalist strand of ultra-conservative Islam has gained popularity, suggests that crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has not given up on religion as a soft power too despite who seeking to root his legitimacy in newly found Saudi nationalism rather than the kingdom’s ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

Prince Mohammed, since coming to office in 2015, has significantly cut back on funding and converted the kingdom’s major funding vehicle, the World Muslim League, into a group that sings his praises and propagates tolerance and inter-faith dialogue.

Nevertheless, the crown prince  views the promotion of Madkhalism, a particular Saudi strand of ultra-conservatism that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler and sees the kingdom as the model of Islamic governance as a way of countering Iranian activism and the notion of an Islamic republic that recognizes a degree of popular sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia invested an estimated US$100 billion in funding of religious seminaries, cultural and higher educational institutions, media organizations and in a handful of countries militant groups as part of a more than 40-year religiously cloaked, globally waged covert war with Iran.

More recently, Turkey has sought to lay claim to leadership of the Muslim world by funding mosques and other institutions across the globe and seizing up Islamic causes like Jerusalem.

The funding, coupled with diplomatic pressure, also aims to counter the far-flung, embattled empire of Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher who lives in exile in Pennsylvania and whom Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses of having staged a 2016 failed military coup.

Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s identification of Kashmir as a battleground points to the increased importance they attribute to South and by extension Central Asia.

In a twist of irony, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to be embracing the Sufi Menzil sect, one of the largest and most powerful Sufi orders in Turkey, that is far more liberal than Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservatism but shares with Madkhalism a rejection of politics.

Menzil Sufis have filled vacancies in the government bureaucracy and security services created by Mr. Erdogan’s mass purge in the wake of the failed coup of alleged followers of Mr. Gulen, according to journalist Timur Soykan, who recently published a book on a more controversial Sufi order.

Like Madkhalis, Menzils, with a history of support for the Turkish state and its military, potentially could serve as anti-dotes to Iranian Shiites’ activism in places like Kashmir where Iran is targeting the Shiite minority who account for 15 percent of the region’s population.

Iran and Turkey’s emphasis on nationalism rather than religion compensates to some degree for Saudi Arabia’s first starter advantage, allowing Iran in particular to make significant inroads in Kashmir.

Portraits of Iran’s late spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, loom large on billboards in Shiite neighbourhoods whose streets are named after Shiite martyrs. Saudi Arabia’s execution in 2016 of a prominent Shiite cleric sparked anti-Saudi protests in Kashmir.

Unlike Iran, Turkey, eager to expand economic cooperation with India, has restricted its focus in Kashmir to verbal support in international fora rather than the funding of mosques and/or schools. That has not stopped separatist groups from embracing Mr. Erdogan even if that doesn’t challenge Saudi influence on the ground.

Indian journalist Asit Jolly estimated as far back as 2011 that 15 percent of Kashmir’s population was  affiliated with some 700 Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative mosques. A Sufi organization put the figure ten times higher.

Ahl-e-Hadith, South Asia’s oldest Saudi-backed religious group, is believed to have funded some 150 schools, colleges, orphanages, clinics and medical diagnostic centres in Kashmir.

“Practically every village along the picturesque, poplar-lined, 60-km stretch northwest of Srinagar towards Gulmarg has one or more Ahl-e-Hadith-funded mosques. The new mosques and their attendant madrassas make for a contrasting picture with the hundreds of dilapidated mosques built over centuries in the age-old Sufi tradition,” Mr Jolly reported.

“The Wahhabi influence is not new to Kashmir as followers of this Islamic practice have been there since the last 100 years. But the phenomenal growth in their influence and their far and wide reach now can be attributed only to the funding the local ‘Ahle Hadith’ have got from Saudi Arabia in the last 30 years,” said an Indian intelligence official more recently.

Added analyst Abhinav Pandya: “Kashmir is becoming the ground zero for a new geopolitical race for influence: Iran and Turkey have deep, sometimes overlapping interests, Saudi Arabia wants to ensure a return on its financial and ideological investment… The question is whether these states…will weaponize those supporters in a future proxy conflict between themselves, or between separatists and India itself.”

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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India’s Constitutional Revocation and Prevalent Security Environment of Kashmir

Haris Bilal Malik

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During Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first ever visit to the US on July 23, 2019, President Trump had offered to mediate the outstanding Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. This move was greatly appreciated by Pakistan with President Trump publicly stating that Prime Minster Modi had requested him to mediate between the two countries over Kashmir during the sidelines of 2019 G20 Summit held in Osaka in June this year. With President Trump’s offer to mediate at such a crucial time, the issue has once again achieved global significance. Moreover, President Trump’s mediation offers, and India’s recent move constitutionally revoke the special status offered to Kashmir would likely have serious implications within the prevalent security environment throughout the region. 

India has often rejected such offers claiming Kashmir as its internal matter. Taking a step forward, on August 5, 2019 the government of India revoked the special status of the Kashmir region that has been previously granted under Articles 370 and 35(A) of the Indian constitution through a presidential order. Referred to as the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Bill that was later approved by parliament despite the opposition’s criticism. Under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution the Kashmir region had been awarded special constitutional rights and a ‘so-called’ autonomous status of decision making. Following the abrogation of Article 370, the Kashmir region would be divided into two ‘Union Territories’ i.e. Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh governed by the Indian central government.

The timing of this constitutional abrogation might have been influenced by President Trump’s offer of mediation between India and Pakistan that was reiterated by the US President despite India’s rejection. This abrogation was also part of the Bhartiya Janata Party’s (BJP) election manifesto as promised by Prime Minister Modi during the 2019 general election. By fulfilling this electoral promise, Mr. Modi is trying to assert that Kashmir is entirely an internal matter for India and that it would not allow any third country to interfere in the Kashmir issue irrespective of its relations with India.

Based on this notion India is inclined to project this political and constitutional change as its internal matter. By revoking the special status of this disputed region, India also intends to change the demography of Kashmir as much of the current population is Muslim. India has been involved in various tactics to change the demographic structure of Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) which includes a steady stream of Hindu migrants relocating and settling in masse from other parts of India in this predominantly Muslim region.

This trend is also evident in the region’s population numbers. In 1947 for instance, the Muslim population of IOK was about 79 per cent. As of 2018 this figure has been reduced to 68 per cent. In this regard the abrogation of Article 35(A) would likely intensify this trend as in the future, non-residents of Kashmir would be able to purchase property in Kashmir and would become permanent residents with a right to vote. 

The security environment of Kashmir has been at stake in recent years due to India’s desire to oppress the freedom movement militarily. During Prime Minister Modi’s first term from 2014-2019 the Kashmiri freedom struggle has seen greater military suppression, especially since 2016 when a prominent freedom fighter Burhan Wani had been brutally assassinated. However, it seems that India has still not succeeded in achieving its desired objectives. After a landslide victory in the 2019 elections and with Mr. Modi once again in office as Prime Minster, the military suppression of the freedom movement in Kashmir has further intensified. Recently, India has deployed an additional 38,000 paramilitary troops in the region to join more than half a million troops and paramilitary forces already present. Along with this increased military presence in Kashmir, India has also been involved in continued aggression across the Line of Control (LoC) as evident by its use of prohibited ‘cluster bombs’ against the civilian population. These could have seriously provoked Pakistan to respond in an offensive way and might have resulted in another February 2019 episode.

At the present, Indian aggression along the LoC poses a major threat to peace in the region. India might believe that it could carry out a limited attack or ‘surgical strike’ against Pakistan which would stay below Pakistan’s nuclear threshold as evident from the February 2019 military engagement and the recent attacks along the LoC. India has repeatedly attempted to dominate the escalation ladder as was shown in the recent escalation instance the recent escalation following the Pulwama attack. Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned about the possibility of a ‘false-flag operation’ in Kashmir carried out by India for which Pakistan might be blamed. Based on such blame India could launch a limited attack or a low intensity conflict across the LoC. Consequently, Pakistan would be left with no choice but to respond in kind to any such aggression by India.

India’s abrogation of Kashmir’s special constitutional status and its military offensive in Kashmir could trigger another politico-military escalation between India and Pakistan within a year. India’s policy to forcefully make Kashmir an integral part of the Indian Union by annexing it through political and military means would serve a very dangerous precedent which would likely pose as a serious detriment towards the peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute. This change in the constitutional status of Kashmir would greatly limit the prospects for third-party mediation in the future especially for the United Nations, whose resolutions on Kashmir clearly provide a right of self-determination to decide Kashmir’s future. Unfortunately, the prevalent security environment in Kashmir is dominated by India’s aggressive behavior which ultimately would have long lasting implications for strategic stability throughout the South Asian region.

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China- Pakistan: Centaur of Friendship

Sabah Aslam

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China has been always quotes as an all-weather ally to Pakistan. This mark is not been achieved in a day. Pakistan and China have always been close companions to each other whether its diplomatic or economic fronts. The “deeper than oceans” bond was initiated in 1951 when Pakistan was on the list of first countries who had recognized People’s Republic of China after it officially ended its ties with Taiwan, officially known as Republic of China. Ever since the two countries have actually proven themselves to be iron brothers. Whether it is socio-economic sphere or any issue of national, regional or global importance, the two have stood by each other through thick and thin.

This bond was further strengthened after Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative with China Pakistan Economic Corridor as its flagship project. CPEC had been no less than a soothing drug to the maltreated economy of Pakistan. China provided Pakistan with the much needed co-operation specifically in the areas of power generation and infrastructural development. Whereas Pakistan provided China with an alternative route for its trade across the globe that was shorter and beneficial from all aspects.

However, this resolve to cooperate is not limited to bilateral level. China has always supported Pakistan on issues of regional and global importance. This was even acknowledged by the Prime Minister of Pakistan on BRF this year too. He said, “I want to thank China and its leadership for their unwavering support for Pakistan.”

During the recent scenario where India unilaterally scraped article 370 and had illegitimately taken Kashmir under Delhi’s control directly, it was China who rendered its full support to Pakistan’s stance. According to a report of China Daily, China strongly opposes the Indian act of inclusion of Kashmir. China has also urged India to act in accordance with the bilateral ties with Pakistan and with China on the issues of administrative jurisdiction. 

Nevertheless China had also assisted Pakistan in internationalizing the issue of Kashmir, rebuking India that it is not an “internal matter”. China had backed Pakistan’s request for holding a UN Security Council’s meeting to resolve the matter.  The South China Morning Post, called Kashmir “a flashpoint in ties between the two nuclear-armed neighbors”.

Considering the volatile situation, UN Security Council met behind closed doors on Friday, August 16, 2019 with Kashmir Issue as the only agenda point. The meeting was called specifically for Kashmir for the first time after 1965. Chinese Ambassador, Zhang Jun later spoke to media and once again urged the two-parties to refrain from taking any unilateral action that can aggravate the situation and take measures to solve the issue in lines with the UN resolutions.

In 2018, Donald Trump had tweeted threateningly where he accused Pakistan of “nothing but lies and deceit” and fooling US leaders. Trump also announced that he would not provide any further aid to Pakistan. China once again came out to stand for its strategic partner. China urged the global community that the world should acknowledge Pakistan’s “outstanding contribution” as it has made huge efforts and sacrifices to fight terrorism.

Previously, China had defended Pakistan despite the rage, which the decision had received. In March this year, India had requested UNSC to brand Masood Azhar, the leader of an organization already banned by Pakistan, as a global terrorist. The move was vetoed by China, China’s Foreign Minister said that they need more time and decided to put a technical hold. 

China had also stood by Pakistan when back in 2015 it supported Pakistan’s engagement with Nuclear Suppliers Group and expressed hopes for Pakistan’s attainment of membership. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying had replied to a reporter regarding Pakistan’s aspirations for NSG saying China wished to strengthen cooperation with Pakistan.

Despite the fact that in international relations there are not permanent friends but the bond which Beijing and Islamabad shares has turned the caps. This bond without any doubt is based primarily on mutual benefit and respect but there is more to it too. China supports Pakistan and had supported Pakistan even in times of despair. It took decades long cultural, diplomatic and economic understanding to carve this centaur of friendship between both nations. Islamabad needs to enhance its diplomatic understanding with Beijing as recent diplomatic bustle over Kashmir clearly showed the allies.

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Kashmir Once Again Playing out as Diplomatic Theatre at the United Nations

M Waqas Jan

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Friday’s closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council on Jammu and Kashmir marked the first time in over 50 years since the issue was discussed at the world’s foremost diplomatic forum. This issue which has long remained at the center of India Pakistan tensions recently received fresh impetus following India’s unilateral decision to withdraw the special status awarded to the region. This was followed by a widespread clampdown in the form of an indefinite curfew as well as a media and communications blackout that is currently in its second week.

Consequently, the above mentioned UNSC meeting on Kashmir forms a key component of Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive following India’s actions. As such, it represents a highly interesting case of diplomatic theatre where the anticipation of possibly resolving or bringing about at least some semblance of positivity to a long-festering conflict has generated considerable interest the world over. This includes interest from both the international media as well as several observers and diplomats as a possible precedent for a consensus driven approach to conflict resolution in general.

However, the lack of any meaningful outcome or even a joint statement directly arising out of this meeting has led to an almost perverse battle of sorts over optics and narrative between key stakeholders, which aims to leverage the UN’s significance as a platform for international consensus. Especially with a view towards placating an international audience’s expectations of what is just or right, the absence of a joint statement following this meeting has led to a vacuum that has resulted in even greater discord regarding this issue. Thus, instead of a collective decision or stance taken on the issue by the UNSCC, what was instead witnessed was China and Pakistan presenting their cases for international mediation at one end, and India insisting on the issue remaining an internal matter at the other.  This for instance was clear in the press statements given by each of these countries’ representatives following the end of the UNSC meeting.

Against a backdrop of the UN Security Council and speaking in a microphone carrying the white on blue letters of the ‘UN’, Chinese ambassador Zhang Jun was the first to state that all the UNSC members were gravely concerned at the human rights situation in Kashmir and that there was general agreement that all parties concerned should refrain from taking any unilateral action that might aggravate the situation further. He went on to state that as per China’s stance on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, the status of Kashmir was still undecided and that it should be resolved via peaceful means in accordance with the UN charter, the relevant UN Security Council Resolutions as well as the bilateral resolutions pertaining to it.

Pakistan’s representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi whose remarks closely followed the Chinese Ambassador thanked China for lending assistance in her country’s request for calling the UNSC meeting. She pointed out that the fact that the meeting was held was itself a major diplomatic victory and that the voice of the Kashmiri people, despite all attempts to silence it was heard at the world’s highest diplomatic forum. She stated that this meeting was the first step taken as part of a protracted and drawn out struggle for justice for the Kashmiri people which Pakistan remained fully and vociferously committed to.

Considering how both the Chinese and Pakistani ambassadors while speaking in quick succession nearly echoed each other’s policy stances on this issue, it was as if they might as well have written each other’s statements themselves. Many observers in the media had later pointed out that the statement given by the Chinese ambassador was in fact a version of a potential joint statement that was to be ideally given by the president of the UNSC. However, since other P5 members had raised reservations regarding its wording and assumptions of the UN’s role in mediating the conflict, it was presented instead by Ambassador Jung as China’s position on the matter, to which Ambassador Lodhi had voiced her approval. 

Both their stances however stood poles apart from the statement given by India’s permanent representative to the UN, Mr. Syed Akbaruddin. Given after a brief interlude to the previous two statements, Mr. Akbaruddin explained how following China and Pakistan’s statements he was self-admittedly compelled to present his own country’s stance on the matter. The gist of it was that India’s move to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s Special Status was wholly an internal matter. That it remained committed to resolving its issues with other countries bilaterally and that it was saddened by Pakistan’s approach of using violent jihad and terrorism as a precursor to any potential negotiations. In a characteristic show of one-upmanship that has remained a hallmark of India and Pakistan’s interactions at the UN, Mr. Akbaruddin also made a flamboyant point of taking questions from Pakistani journalists with whom he at one point even came forward and shook hands with as a gesture of his country’s willingness to engage with Pakistan. All while repeating India’s decade old stance that Pakistan stop terror in order to initiate talks.

Yet, considering the stage, setting and timing of the situation at hand, what the audience of journalists was in the end left with was a shrewd and knowing diplomat presenting a clear denial of the spirit of the UN. While employing his best smoke and mirrors it was evident that the press conference was being used by Mr. Akbaruddin as an opportunity to distract, disguise and deflect international opinion from the issue at hand. In essence, it presented another example of one of the many slick PR driven spectacles that are passed on for diplomacy at the UN these days. Yet, considering the lack of unity from the UNSC, and China and Pakistan having already attempted to leverage the stage and setting, can one really blame him?

For an organization that once embodied upholding the ideals of peace, justice and equality as its very raison d’être, it is extremely disappointing to see the UN’s own inaction and passivity reducing it to being nothing more than mere spectacle. Especially during a time where the world is increasingly plagued by strife and discord, seeing Kashmir being reduced to just another metaphor for such issues speaks volumes of the lack of direction and principles guiding global leadership in our world today.

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