Kashmir worry in India amid Obama renewal promise

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi : As US President Barack Obama moves into the White House on the high note of renewing America’s promise to the world, there are renewed anxieties in India over likely US activism on the Kashmir issue and linking it up with terror flowing from Pakistan.

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New Delhi’s concern springs from some recent statements made by influential figures in the Obama team that sought to club Jammu and Kashmir with other conflict-torn regions of the world and indicated the need for international mediation between India and Pakistan.

“Make no mistake about it. Increasing pressure will be brought on India over Kashmir,” Satish Chandra, former deputy national security adviser, told IANS.

In a sense, the confusion started with Obama himself who said in a pre-election interview last year that he was open to the idea of a special envoy on Kashmir to resolve an issue that will free up Pakistan’s armed forces to concentrate on combating Islamist extremists in its tribal areas and in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Officials in the external affairs ministry, who declined to be named, said it would be premature to make any comment. But they admitted there were all-too-real concerns that the Obama administration may bring the Kashmir issue to the fore on the “flawed assumption” that the resolution of the issue could be an incentive to Islamabad to fight wholeheartedly in the US campaign to liberate Afghanistan from the clutches of the Taliban.

They also point out that Obama has yet to appoint key functionaries dealing with the region. Both US ambassador to India David C. Mulford and US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia Richard Boucher have been asked to stay on for some more time till the new administration finds suitable replacements.

K.C. Singh, former secretary in the external affairs ministry, advises a wait and watch policy. “We should not jump to conclusions. Obama’s position on Pakistan is a work in progress,” Singh told IANS. “It will be a diplomatic challenge, but we should be more assertive about projecting our position on Kashmir.”

However, experts point out that there are enough indications for New Delhi to up its diplomatic defences and make it clear to Washington and London that any intrusive diplomacy over the Kashmir issue will not succeed.

The first concrete sign of potential activism on Kashmir came when British Foreign Secretary David Miliband tried to link Jammu and Kashmir and the Mumbai terrorism during his visit to India last week. Barely a week before Obama takes charge as president of the US, Miliband also denounced the Bush war on terror as “misleading and misplaced” – remarks that were seen as an echo of some of the pronouncements coming from the Obama team. “Miliband was not just speaking for himself. He has been touch with Obama people,” said Chandra.

He also talked of “incentivising” Pakistan for its cooperation in the battle against terrorism on its western flank that was a strategic priority for the West.

But if Miliband’s was a freak viewpoint, there was not much to worry.

Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador designate to the UN and an adviser to Obama on foreign policy during his election campaign, articulated this problematic position the next day when she clubbed together the Balkans, Cyprus, Golan Heights and Kashmir as conflict hotspots that required the UN to play “a critical role in forestalling renewed fighting”.

India is also upset at the way the US has been pressuring it to be more “restrained” in the wake of the Mumbai attacks while it goes around giving a clean chit to the alleged involvement of Pakistani official agencies in the Mumbai carnage.

Incoming US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already announced a tripling of economic aid to Pakistan, which many in New Delhi fear will go the way of over $10 billion given by the Bush administration to the Pervez Musharraf administration in Islamabad.

In fact, it was Obama who said that the US funds were being diverted to fund militancy against India. It is not clear what gives the US hope this time round that the US aid will not meet the same fate, said government sources.

The US has defended the tripling of aid saying it will act as a leverage to get firmer commitments on combating terror from the Pakistan government and bolster the civilian government.

However, there are some elements in the evolving position of the Obama team on Pakistan that gives New Delhi some hope. Senator John Kerry, chair of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has spoken about the US’ new thrust on bringing Pakistani spy agency ISI under civilian control.

Whichever way Obama’s position on Pakistan and Kashmir shapes up over the next few months, New Delhi is ready to take on the diplomatic challenge. “Kashmir is a bilateral issue. “That’s our position and we will make that clear again and again,” said an offical source. “We should draw ‘red lines’ and make it clear to Americans what those red lines are,” advises Chandra.