Pakistan recently hosted the 9th Defence and Security Expert Working Group (EWG) meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (hereinafter, SCO) on 19th and 20th of February under the ambit of defence and security mechanism of the SCO. Given the strained relationship between India and Pakistan in recent past, India’s participation in the summit came as surprise to many. This is primarily because since over a year following the Pulwama attacks in February 2019, the bilateral talks between the two nations have remained suspended. The relations between the two South Asian neighbours have deteriorated to such an extent that India withdrew MFN status granted to Pakistan under WTO laws and Pakistan did not attend a military medicine conference of the SCO, organized under the aegis of the same defence and security mechanism, in Delhi last year. It is also important to note that both these countries have refrained from inviting each other in any events or exercises hosted on their soil.
Despite differences, the two neighbours have participated in joint exercises held in Russia since they became members of the SCO in 2017. This was the first exercise in which both these countries participated together since their partition in 1947. Being part of international organization, it is a common practice of members to extend of invitations to other state for any event organized under the organization. As a result, India extended invitation to Pakistan for the SCO’s Heads of Government meet (hereinafter, the Meet) scheduled to be hosted in India in 2020. However, even before any official announcement was made on behalf of the Govt. of Pakistan, the media houses in both the nations have started anticipating the absence of Pakistani PM Imran Khan from the Meet because of the strained relations between the two neighbouring nations. In these tensed times, when it is important for both the countries to continue their mutual dialogues, they have been cutting down all the ties which might help in restoring normalcy in the region.
Internationalization of Kashmir and Re-hyphenation of India-Pakistan
The gap in understanding between the countries further widened when India passed two controversial legislations last year, one relating to the special status of the disputed territory of Kashmir in August 2019 and another related to the citizenship for refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan in December 2019. Pakistan, as usual, tried its best to corner India in most of the international forums over the Kashmir issue. With its all-weather ally China’s support, Pakistan tried to raise the Kashmir issue in the UNSC, which was rejected by all the other members of the UNSC. Pakistan’s attempts to bring international attention to the Kashmir question coupled with periodic statements by the two heads in their respective rallies, has given media in both these countries enough fodder to run weeks of useless debates and discussions over the constrained relations between the two. In a shocker, a report suggested that “bashing Pakistan” occupied most part of the prime-time debates on Indian news channels while the country continues to suffer from high unemployment rates and serious economic slowdown.
Apart from above, through media and social media, the obsession of India and Indians with Pakistan has been continuously growing. Even elected representatives of the ruling party have been bashing Pakistan in their election rallies in provincial elections rather than focusing on the pertinent questions of economy, unemployment, women safety and inequality. As a matter of fact, “bashing Pakistan” has become a key factor in electoral gains for the ruling party. One of the BJP leaders, Yogi Adityanath, often portrayed as a successor to Narendra Modi by many, as per reports, took the name of Pakistan, mostly in negative sense, 9 times in just 48 seconds, during his speech in a rally organized just before the Delhi elections. Even the leaders in opposition like Dr. Shashi Tharoor, during their speeches have referred to India’s current Hindutva political discourse as the founding stone of “Hindu Pakistan”. The strategy employed by the right wing majoritarian party which came back with a bigger mandate in 2019 general elections is simply to portray the neighbour as the root cause of various problems, similar to what Pakistan has been doing since its inception. Most of the exit polls in India suggested that electorate during the 2019 general elections voted for the BJP because of the national security reasons often invoked by the ruling party and lack of alternatives at the national level. However, it must be kept in mind that Pakistan by following same ‘demonizing thy neighbour’ principle, ultimately became a “failed” state at worst and “nuisance” state at best. Bluffing on the politics of “national security” might render some short-term electoral gains, but in the long run often backfires as the state ends up focusing on trivial issues rather than more pertinent issues such as economy, unemployment, inflation, women security, etc. It is also worth noting that the same country where in early 2010s, Pakistan nearly vanished from public discourse, is now witnessing the most senseless and careless mentions of Pakistan not merely by media but by elected political representatives. As a result of its robust economic growth in early 2010s the country which was often hyphenated with China has been re-hyphenated with Pakistan in most of the international media.
Kashmir and Shanghai Cooperation Organization
Given the track record of Pakistan’s use of international forums to play the victim card and its relentless efforts to internationalize the Kashmir issue, it should come as no surprise if it decides to raise it in the Meet.In the EWG Meet, Pakistan refrained from raising the Kashmir issue but it would clearly have made sense to raise the issue as the meet was essentially based on defence and security concerns. What is yet to be seen is what course Pakistan will be taking later this year during the Meet scheduled to be hosted in India, later in 2020. While in most of the west-led international forums, Pakistan failed to corner India on the Kashmir issue, but when it comes to the SCO there exists a certain degree of institutionalized exceptionalism resulting from the inherent Chinese influence which has, since its inception, used the forum to perpetrate its own interests masquerading as the interests of central Asia. While the forum has been previously successful in resolving border disputes between Russia and China, it is yet to be seen how far the “three evils” categorization of the SCO anti-terrorist mechanism is going to aid the two south Asian democracies to resolve their disputes.
At the outset, the forum has already clarified in the past that it considers the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral dispute and it will not be the appropriate forum to raise the issue. The SCO Secretary General, Vladimir Norov, has already stated in a press conference that, “One of the fundamental obligations for the member states is not to bring bilateral contradictions and disagreements to the SCO family, as the SCO is not engaged in the settlement of disputable bilateral issues, whether border, water or other topics in relations between individual member states”
Further it is also worth noting that SCO has a more flexible model of decision making. While it is true that the organization deals with areas such as security and border disputes, yet the consensus-based mechanism of decision making is problematic to ensure robust legally binding agreements like it happens in case of other multilateral institutions. While consensus mechanism is mostly seen with great optimism, but at times it might not be able to render useful solutions to problems. As in this case, it will be impossible for the multilateral forum to persuade India to accept mediation in the Kashmir issue. Just like the WTO’s Appellate Body crisis because of US’ dissent, India’s powerful voice of dissent in the SCO will make it impossible for the forum to establish any kind of deterrence. While, it might prove to be useful in opening dialogue between India and Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, yet these dialogues might end up being mere formalities.
But India should not take the situation lightly as despite PM Modi’s strong international presence, countries like China, Canada, Malaysia and Turkey and international organizations like Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have already stated their concern about India’s actions. In a globalized world, where international relations have become significantly more important compared to what they were in early 20th century, international pressure on any majoritarian government to take into consideration the well being of its minorities while framing any policy is a kind of push back. In contemporary times, when most of the leaders in opposition have become useless, when media mostly works as a mouth piece of the government and the judiciary crumbles in front of an all-powerful executive, international forums might become important to seek actions against such unilateral measures often represented as “sovereign functions” and “internal matter”. While over the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has already moved to Supreme Court against the Indian government, no such international pressure has come from multilateral organizations in case of India’s revocation of special status of Kashmir till now. In this case, the Meet assumes great importance for both India and Pakistan to justify their respective stands on the issue if it is, at all, raised by Pakistan.