India’s Kashmir problem is probably the worst it has been in more than two decades. Pakistan-backed militancy and a spate of terrorist attacks have been matched with unrelenting civilian protests. The latest unrest escalated after Indian forces killed Burhan Wani, a commander of the terrorist group Hizb ul-Mujahideen, last year. Protesters have pelted Indian security agents with bricks and stones; schoolgirls in headscarves have joined male agitators on the street. In this new phase of militancy, educated young men are now picking up guns. The situation has caught the eye of the international media — the Economist recently urged India to start talks in Kashmir.
But Kashmiris who think other countries might step in to help are wrong. The world has never cared as little about Kashmir as it does today.
The Kashmir dispute has been at the center of conflict between India and Pakistan, who have fought three wars over it. There was a time when the 28-year-old insurgency attracted the world’s gaze to a region Bill Clinton once called a “nuclear flashpoint.” India’s human rights record in the landlocked valley was subjected to constant international scrutiny; Indian diplomats had to contend with uncomfortable questions on Kashmir. But today, there has been little to no noise in the global community about the turmoil in India’s only majority-Muslim state, including from Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia or United Arab Emirates.
This is despite recent controversies such as the Indian Army’s use of a local civilian, Farooq Ahmad Dar, as a human shield on a military jeep. The Army says it was a response that helped save lives without resorting to firing and has given an award to the major who made the decision. Dar says he was an innocent bystander who was out to vote in a local election. Within India, popular opinion endorses a tougher approach to dealing with the Kashmir unrest. And the world has pretty much looked away.
So what has changed?
The absence of global criticism of the situation in Kashmir is partly a success of effective Indian diplomacy, as well as India’s growing international financial influence. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on personal outreach to countries in the Gulf; he has also leveraged the commercial interests of Western nations. Modi is aware of the need for the West to use India as a countervailing force to China. And, of course, one can’t forget the domestic distractions in the West, with Trump’s antics in the United States and a Brexit-preoccupied European Union.
The bottom line: Kashmir is no longer an issue that Pakistan can get the world to take notice of. In the pre-9/11 era, Pakistan was able to garner some sympathy for its Kashmir agenda. But in today’s world, where terrorism is viewed through the lens of the 9/11 strikes in the past and the Islamic State in the present, there is no patience for armed uprisings associated with Islamist terror. The links between Kashmir’s militant secessionism and Pakistani terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba have taken away the moral compass of what may have otherwise been seen as genuine political demands. Pakistan’s patronage in the form of cash and guerrilla training may have spurred Kashmiri separatism in the early stages; but today it’s exactly that link that diminishes the legitimacy of Kashmir as an issue in the world’s eyes.
Washington is locked into a dysfunctional relationship with Pakistan because of U.S. interests in Afghanistan. But there is rising U.S anger with Pakistan’s doublespeak on terrorism. In 2012, the United States announced a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed, the head of the Lashkar, after the Mumbai terrorist strikes in which several Americans were killed. The Trump administration’s proposed budget includes cuts in military aid to Pakistan. Indeed, last week Afghanistan blamed Pakistani intelligence agencies and their fostering of the Haqqani network for a deadly truck bomb that killed 90 in Kabul.
The creeping radicalization of many young men agitating on Kashmir’s streets has also kept the world at bay. In a September 2016 speech to the United Nations, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif spoke of the slain militant Wani as if he were a Che Guevara-like folk hero. But Wani’s online videos show him calling for jihad and a caliphate in Kashmir. His successor, Zakir Musa, went further, warning anti-India separatists that they would be “beheaded” for calling Kashmir a political issue; the fight, he said, was for Islam. Musa’s statements were publicly disowned, but these videos marked a shift from an ethno-nationalist emphasis in Kashmir to an overtly religious one. Again, none of this will find takers in a world suspicious of political Islam and terrified of the next jihadist attack. The more the next generation of Kashmir’s protesters become part of a global Internet “ummah,” invoking religion ahead of rights, the less the world is likely to engage with them.
Of course, none of this lightens India’s moral burden to be accountable to our own standards of democracy and human rights in Kashmir. India must wade into the troubled waters that Pakistan has been fishing in with a lifeboat of its own. There is no military solution, and India will have to develop a dialogue mechanism to talk to rage-filled, disenchanted Kashmiris. But unless India and Pakistan go right to the brink of war over Kashmir, the world will just watch, from a safe and detached distance. And refuse to get involved.