Any US president would take India’s side over Kashmir

Balancing act.
Balancing act.
Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz
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Kashmir, a remote part of the world with snow-capped mountains and lush apple orchards, lies between India, Pakistan, and China. International border tensions have defined the restive region, which has been heavily militarized, with civil protests and terror attacks over several decades. This small piece of land, often described as a paradise on earth but fought over by India and Pakistan since they were partitioned in 1947, has also been discussed by both US presidential candidates.

On the Indian side, the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, now bifurcated into two units directly under the central government’s control, has become a matter of international debate. In August last year, India revoked Articles 370 and 35A, laws that gave Jammu & Kashmir special status, and the ability to uphold its own constitution. A complete internet shutdown, which was only partially restored after the pandemic hit India in March, has dealt a severe blow to its fragile economy.

Since then, Pakistan, which already controls half of Kashmir and claims the rest with China’s backing, has raised this issue at the UN Security Council. US president Donald Trump has offered repeatedly to mediate between Pakistan and India, an offer that India has rebuffed every time.

Trump’s move was seen as a shift in US policy towards India and Pakistan, which has stuck to the path of de-hyphenating the two bordering nations since the end of the Cold War, says Kashish Parpiani, a research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank. “However, eventually, the Trump administration has come around to reinforcing the Indian line of argument here, ie, Kashmir is strictly ‘an internal matter,’” he said.

This position, though, could look different under a Democratic Joe Biden as president.

A more vocal stance on Kashmir

Biden’s presidential campaign has been outspoken about the Kashmir issue. In “Joe Biden’s Agenda for Muslim Americans,” the campaign lists atrocities against the Muslim community across the world, and clubs together what is happening in Kashmir with the persecution of Rohingyas in Bangladesh and the Uyghurs in western China. “In Kashmir, the Indian government should take all necessary steps to restore rights for all the people of Kashmir.  Restrictions on dissent, such as preventing peaceful protests or shutting or slowing down the Internet, weaken democracy,” it noted.

To make matters worse for India, the Biden campaign also criticizes the controversial National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship Amendment Act, laws which saw widespread nationwide protests and violence between December 2019 and March 2020.

But such vocal condemnation may not bode well for any US administration. “We may see more US criticism of India’s policies in Kashmir and its domestic policies under a president Biden, especially if a Biden White House brings in some liberal Democrats to serve in senior foreign policy roles,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Centre, an American think tank. “But I wouldn’t overstate this possibility. Given the importance that the US accords to partnership with India, we’d likely see a Biden administration want to be careful not to antagonize New Delhi,” he added.

Parpiani noted in an article for the ORF that soon after Muslim American comment, “News coverage in India turned to Biden’s announcement of strengthening the US’ partnership with ‘natural partner’ India as ‘a high priority’ if he’s elected president, and his opposition to Trump’s suspension of H-1B visas which are the ‘most sought-after by Indian IT professionals.’”

Eventually, a tightrope

Indian Americans have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates, and this year is likely to be no different. A new survey revealed that over 70% Indian Americans are likely to vote for Biden. The affluent and well-educated community has also raised a significant amount of money for the Democratic primaries.

For the Biden campaign, it is also a tightrope walk given that his running mate, Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, has been a vocal opponent of the Modi government’s Kashmir policies. Interestingly, another Democratic house representative, Pramila Jayapal, who tabled the resolution to end the communications restrictions in Kashmir, “has been accorded a prominent position in the campaign’s deliberation for a unified platform,” Parpiani noted.

This is in sharp contrast to the Biden campaign’s removal of Amit Jaani, its former Muslim outreach coordinator. “The long-term Indian American Democratic operative had come under fire after multiple online petitions called for his ouster on account of alleged “Islamophobia” reflected in his family’s closeness to Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party,” Parpiani wrote.

But none of this should not worry New Delhi too much. And for that, it has the China effect to thank.

“Given China’s close economic and security relationship with Pakistan,” says Reva Goujon, managing director at Martin+Crumpton, a global strategic advisory company based in Washington, “India can still take comfort that the US will prioritize its relationship with New Delhi over Islamabad in building up a stronger regional counterbalance to China.”