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Backchannel Engagement: Resolve or Compromise?

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The bitter relations between the arch-rivals are not a shocker to either side of the border. The duo has rarely witnessed a prolonged episode of alliance since the British departure following the split of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. While the escalation back in 2019 severed the remains of the already wavering relations, the contention over the Kashmir violation has since gradually picked pace: from a regional tension point to a large-scale global agenda peddled by Prime Minister Imran Khan to win the basic human rights for the illegal detainees of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) territory. While the contentious region remains under brutal scrutiny of the Indian army, the stagnant bilateral relations between the rival states have seen prospects of normalization after over 2-years of a hard impasse.

A backchannel engagement and a subsequent reconfigured ceasefire at the Line of Control (LoC) seems all good to be true, especially in retrospect of all the violations that wiped the relations in the first place. However, a truce is an apparent reality today for India and Pakistan. With a conceptual plenary attended by the respective Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs), a hotline contact between the two militaries sounded berserk. However, the establishment of a mutual understanding seems only the tip of the iceberg scrapped by the spokesmen of either military. While a tread to peace is welcomed on either side of the LoC, with the fate of IIOJK still under haze and the occasional skirmishes miring the nascent stability in the diplomatic relations, the future seems vague at best as it unravels behind the bureaucratic drapes under equally mysterious terms and conditions.

The point of dispute between India and Pakistan somehow always spirals back to the position of the IIOJK territory. The present state of deadlock was reached when the Indian government revoked the special status of the IIOJK region through a series of ordinances. The special status of the IIOJK region was protected under Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India. Article 370 of the Indian constitution came into effect in 1949, exempting Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) from the jurisdiction enforced by the Indian Constitution. Simply put, the clause allowed the region to stand liberal from the rest of the Indian states and legalized the region to formulate its very own code of law and policy framework except the matters befalling in the perimeters of foreign affairs, defense, finance, and communication. Moreover, Article 370 allowed the native Kashmiris to formulate their own constitution, design their own flag and establish their separate parliament.

Expanding onto Article 370, Article 35A was introduced by a Presidential Ordinance in 1954 to cement the property rights in the region to safeguard the historical demography of the territory. The appendage allowed exclusive property rights to the natives of the IIOJK region, barring any and all citizens foreign to the region from acquiring property, gaining education, or settling in the territory. Both Article 370 and Article 35A ensured a separate and liberal identity of the regional Kashmiris within the peripheries of India, preventing the demographic dilution over decades. Snapping away the clauses in the name of a ‘Monolithic India’ came about as a devious agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to erode away the guarded status of the Kashmiris by allowing all the citizens of India, primarily the extremist Hindus, to settle in the region thereby dissipating the historical lineage attached to the region for over a century. The attempt was hailed as a step towards a unified and secular India, free of religious discrimination. However, the underlying intent was criticized as a rightest attempt to wipe away the symbolic Muslim majority in the region through war crimes against the Tehreek e Hurriyat, also known as All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), and ultimately evening out the resistance over time.

While the atrocities inflicted by the Indian army were domestically and globally criticized, Pakistan turned out to be the flag bearer of the campaign that resonated around the world in the form of anti-India protests pouring throughout the streets of London, New York, and Dhaka. Whilst the lockdown persisted in the IIOJK region with perpetual reports of genocide and gang rapes, Pakistan stood as a ray of hope for the innocent Kashmiris. Known to be a retaliation by the regional militants, a suicide attack in Pulwama, a heavily guarded Srinagar-Jammu highway, withered the Indian echelons to the core. The convoy of an estimated 78 busses carrying battalions of the Indian troops was allegedly targeted by the Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad in one of the most brutal attacks against the Indian army in recent years. The attack claimed the lives of 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers in the name of Jihad against the Indian army: a revenge strike to answer the inflicted atrocities over innocent Kashmiris in IIOJK.

The following retribution came as a wave of surprise as India infiltrated the Northern Balakot region of Pakistan. This came as a direct face-off between the two nuclear powers in over 2 decades and shook the world as global powers raced to dormant the seething nations at the brink of a standoff. What was claimed by the Indian army as a successful surgical strike against the ‘Terror camps’ of the Jaish-e-Mohammad militants masterminding the Pulwama attack, Pakistan claimed the strike as a futile bombing of the natural habitat and a violation of the LoC ceasefire. The Pakistani retaliation and the subsequent capture of an Indian soldier simmered the tensions for days before ultimately culminating in an absolute detachment of all diplomatic, economic, and militaristic affairs. Prime Minister Imran Khan went on to release the Indian soldier to situate his advocacy of the rights of Kashmiris on the grounds of Humanity in the forums of the United Nations (UN). Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pivoted his successful election campaign on the facade of a true patriot and an avenger of the blood of the Indian soldiers.

The following year proved tough for either nations as the vices of the pandemic gripped the world alike. The bilateral trade between India and Pakistan amounted to a modest sum of $2 billion back in 2019 before the relations were severed. With such a minuscule part of trade being hampered, the economic repercussions were hardly hurting either of the countries. The blockage of routes, however, made it difficult for India to trade with Afghanistan as the traditional land routes were jammed shut for the Indian commodities. That being the case, however, the flip-side wasn’t all that great either. The sluggish Pakistani economy isn’t a mystery to anyone, certainly not to India. In the tenure of Imran Khan, Pakistan’s GDP growth has staggered from a respectable 5.6% to a dismal -0.4% year on year. Coupled with reinforced lockdowns and mounding foreign debt, India now stands as a cheaper option to evade the rankles of inflation in the aftermath of a devalued rupee.

“Even limited trade with India will certainly help Pakistan’s sluggish economy”. These were the words of an Indian economic expert in hindsight as Pakistan’s political circles thoroughly denounced the move of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) of Pakistan to import sugar from across the border to avoid extreme inter-provincial shortage. The decision was later overturned amidst high political pressure. The expert went on to further add: “By resuming the economic ties, for instance in specific commodities like food items, Pakistan can help control food inflation pressures”. The claims follow through as an estimate puts the bilateral trade to bloom to a touted $35 billion/annum mark given all the restrictions are lifted off the trade suspension that has lasted for more than 20 months now: a bliss for both an economically distressed Pakistan and a paralyzed Indian economy.

The position of the Indian side isn’t exactly a sight to marvel. The BJP regime struggles to get ahold of the transitioning Indian democracy. While India grapples with the strongest surge of the coronavirus in the world: battling over 350000 daily cases, the BJP stronghold is losing grip in both the wider strata of the Indian society and the global arenas of diplomacy. With the recent criticism by the House of Commons regarding the Indian atrocities in IIOJK, the death-graze demonstrations in Bangladesh in the backdrop of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka and even the poster-long tirades of opposition in multiple cities around the globe, the surge of unpopularity has gone beyond the secular boundaries of India. When the jolts of the protests launched by the Indian farmers throughout the streets of Delhi weren’t enough, the recent turmoil in the guise of a loss in West Bengal elections would’ve waned the aspirations of a majoritarian BJP regime. The Kolkata-upset, though not the strongest of blows, does fortify the fraying opposition in the democratic echelons of India and sure weakens the broader agenda of Prime Minister Modi to cinch the 2024 elections. Combined with a vice grip of acrimony in the form of a resounding China-Pakistan alliance and an inflating Indian notoriety in the world, the bastions of enmity against the BJP-regime continue to threaten the arching vision of the Hindu rightists to turn India into a powerhouse of Hindu-extremist stronghold.

While it is clear that both countries would offer an open-arm welcome to a resumption of bilateral relations than opting otherwise, the road to harmony is the question of a sage mind. The normalized relations have been encouraged by the United States; going as far as offering mediation between the duo. The incentives for either side are not concealed nor too intricate to identify. As India wants to avoid China establishing reinforcements along the LoC, Pakistan seeks to avoid a similar reality of India setting camp in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal. The resultant seems to be a re-establishment of the military hotline, going up and beyond the complexities of bureaucracy, to reach an agreement to reinstate the LoC ceasefire and end the violations that have killed roughly 28 people in 2020 alone.

The violations peaked since the BJP-regime gripped the reigns of power: committing over 3000 violations to the Working Boundary Accord in a gruesome show of aggression. While the agreement assures absolute compliance on either side of the LoC, the chinks in the armor could already be seen mere days later. Earlier in March, roughly 15 BSF troops crossed the Working Boundary and showed artillery over the Pakistani side despite being bounded by the replenished ceasefire agreement. With this fragile state of understanding, the only material success of the backchannel talks being the already failing peace accord along the LoC, further dialogue grows more and more weak as the engagement moves along whilst lacking strategic clarity. The position of Kashmir remains a paradox, India continues to invade Pakistan through Afghanistan, and militants like Kulbhushan Jadhav continue to monger terrorism in the dissident strata of Pakistan.

The diplomats and ex-military officers are in tandem to cite the recent turn in relations as nothing but a surge of whelming optimism of Pakistan in the face of a fascist and opportunist BJP-led India. If the regional elections and protests allude to anything, it stands brutally clear that the BJP agenda has been widely rejected by the secular mentality within India. That being said, India now stands desperate to dilute the tensions both within its own peripheries as well as the growing dissent in the world. The tactical move to normalize relations with Pakistan could, however, be salvaged given Pakistan manoeuvres the talks instead of beckoning to the plans of India.  A Pakistani Ambassador, Mr. Abdul Basit, deftly encapsulated the whole scenario, stating: “If we [Pakistan] get invested into a situation where we agree to another round of formal talks, structural talks, that will take us nowhere. The emphasis at this stage should be on ascertaining as to what would be the roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir [IIOJK]”.

The author is an active current affairs writer primarily analyzing the global affairs and their political, economic and social consequences. He also holds a Bachelor’s degree from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) Karachi, Pakistan.

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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South Asia

India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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