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An Indian police cordon in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. August 5, 2019

The tweet that shook two nuclear adversaries Amid heightened tensions and repressions in Kashmir, a Russian diplomat's social media post casts doubt on Indo-Russian relations

Source: Meduza
An Indian police cordon in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. August 5, 2019
An Indian police cordon in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. August 5, 2019
Channi Anand / AP / Scanpix / LETA

In late July and early August, India began taking extraordinary steps to integrate the predominantly Muslim state of Jammu and Kashmir into the country’s central government. In a move that instantly escalated tensions with Pakistan, which has historically aligned itself with the region’s Muslims, India repealed an article of its constitution that gives Kashmir broad political autonomy. It also revoked the region’s status as a state, brought the area under its direct control, arrested thousands of people, and practically cut Kashmir off from the outside world by turning off all of the region’s remote connections.

The Pakistani government’s reaction to those developments was predictably harsh: It cut off all transport across the Indian-Pakistani border, barred all trade with India, and recalled its ambassador to the country. However, Indian media sources have also reported that Russia, typically a reliable Indian ally, met the government’s actions in Kashmir with unexpected opposition.

In the spring of 2019, India put 8 million Kashmiri residents under “virtual house arrest”

Tensions in the state of Jammu and Kashmir nearly led to a new war between India and Pakistan after a February 14 terrorist attack killed 40 paramilitary troops from India’s Central Reserve Police Force. Two weeks after the attack, the Indian air force executed a “warning strike against terrorist camps” in Azad Kashmir, a legally independent territory that, in practice, is under Pakistan’s control.

For the first time since 1971, Indian military planes crossed the demarcation line between the Indian and Pakistani sections of Kashmir. That led to a brief aerial conflict with Pakistan. In the course of the conflict, one Indian airplane was shot down, and its pilot was taken captive by Pakistani forces. However, he was returned to India almost immediately, and full-fledged battles between the two countries gave way to occasional shootouts on the border. There were casualties among civilians and military servicemembers on both sides.

In March, Indian police reported that Mudasir Ahmed Khan, one of the February attack’s organizers, was killed in a shootout with police. That wasn’t enough for the Indian government, however: In early August, the entirety of the Kashmir Valley and its 8 million residents were “put on virtual house arrest,” in The New York Times’s words. Indian soldiers blocked the valley’s roads, closed its schools, took up surveillance positions on rooftops throughout the region, cut off Internet access, blocked cellular signals, and even turned off landline telephones. The Indian government argued that those measures were necessary to maintain social order. A number of high-ranking Kashmiri politicians, including former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, were jailed.

By August 18, at least 4,000 people had been arrested in the region, according to AFP sources within the Indian government. Among the arrestees were more than 100 local politicians, activists, and university professors. AFP noted that the arrests were made according to a public safety law that allows Indian law enforcement agents to hold individuals in jail for up to two years without a trial. Many of those jailed in the crackdown even had to be transported out of the state as Kashmir’s jails became too crowded to house them.

To deprive Kashmir of its autonomy, the Indian government amended its constitution

On August 5, Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah introduced a resolution into India’s parliament to repeal Article 370 of the country’s constitution. Article 370 guaranteed a special autonomous status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir: It enabled the state’s parliament to control all government questions apart from those related to defense, foreign affairs, finance, and communications. It was the passage of that measure that persuaded the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir to allow for partial integration into India in the 1950s, The New York Times noted.

At the same time, the Times emphasized, repealing Article 370 fulfilled a campaign promise that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had leaned on during his 2014 campaign. At the time, Modi favored integrating Kashmir fully into India’s political structure. The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which Modi currently leads, has supported that position for decades. India’s parliament, which requires 125 votes to pass new measures (the BJP holds 107 seats), quickly approved Shah’s measure to repeal Article 370.

At the same time, the Indian government announced a plan to divide Jammu and Kashmir into two territories: Ladakh (which is currently a part of the former state) and Jammu and Kashmir. Territories, unlike states, do not have their own governments in India. Instead, they are controlled by federal officials.

Modi argued that the subordination of Jammu and Kashmir to India’s central government would enable the defeat of terrorist forces in the region. He reminded his constituents that 42,000 people had been killed in the region within the last three decades.

For the first time in half a century, the UN Security Council stepped into the conflict

On August 16, the UN Security Council held a closed-door meeting on the situation in Kashmir after Pakistan and China called for a hearing. Pakistan and China are close economic and political allies united by a shared opposition to India.

The day after the Security Council’s meeting, Pakistani Prime Minister Imrin Khan tweeted enthusiastically about the fact that the Kashmiri conflict had been discussed in “the world’s highest diplomatic forum” for the first time in 50 years.

The Pakistani premiere proceeded to compare India directly to Nazi Germany, calling the country’s government “fascist” and “racist” due in part to its actions in Kashmir.

Indian media outlets hinted that Russia had betrayed the Indian government. Those arguments were based on a single tweet.

On August 10, a number of prominent Indian media sources published a statement from Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry stating that Russia would “proceed from the fact that [...] the change in the status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its division into two union territories are carried out within the framework of the Constitution of the Republic of India.” In the same statement, the Russian government expressed hope that India and Pakistan would be able to handle their disagreements bilaterally according to the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1999. The Indian government was entirely satisfied with that position, but Pakistani journalists quickly noted that the Russian statement never appeared on the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s website. Though many of those journalists implied that their Indian counterparts may have published fabricated quotes, Foreign Affairs Ministry representative Maria Zakharova confirmed to Meduza that the statement was authentic.

During the Security Council’s closed meeting, Russia once again sided with India and advocated for the Security Council to refrain from releasing a statement about the meeting’s results, diplomatic sources told the Indian outlet The Wire. The U.S. and France also reportedly supported that decision.

However, The Wire wrote that “behind the scenes, the Russians were under pressure from China.” The outlet’s sources claimed that Russia had initially supported China’s proposal for an open UN hearing, though Russian officials said the opposite. India opposed holding a public debate on the matter.

Indian journalists’ suspicions increased further after Dmitry Polyansky, the lead deputy for Russia’s UN representative, tweeted following the Security Council meeting that the Kashmir conflict should be resolved bilaterally, but not only according to bilateral agreements.

In addition to the 1972 and 1999 agreements between India and Pakistan, Polyansky mentioned the UN Charter and “relevant UN resolutions.” That assertion “raised eyebrows,” The Wire wrote, because “any allusion to UN resolutions in the same sentence as Kashmir is radioactive for India.” Other Indian media sources noted that in 1948, the UN passed Resolution N47, which declared that “the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite.”

“India has always opposed any reference to UN resolutions in any formulation on Kashmir because it believes the Simla Agreement supersedes all previous resolutions,” the Indian outlet The Tribune explained. “On the other hand, Pakistan and China routinely allude to UN resolutions from 1948 onwards as the basis for solving the Kashmir dispute.” According to Pakistani officials, the UN has passed 11 resolutions that support Kashmiris’ right to self-determination. The Russian diplomat’s reference to those resolutions “stunned” India, confirmed yet another Indian news source, the Deccan Herald. After all, the Herald reasoned, “India's position was well known to its ‘old friend’ Russia.”

“May be something was lost in translation but the fact remains that Russia accommodated China, its go-to friend these days. One can ‘understand’ but one needn’t paper over facts,” concluded The Economic Times, one of the country’s most popular English-language newspapers. Perplexed Indian Twitter users also posted numerous replies to Polyansky’s tweet. The diplomat himself did not clarify what his message meant. The Indian government has not commented on Polyansky’s post.

India has begun to soften its emergency measures in Kashmir, but it does not intend to restore the region’s autonomy

Meanwhile, following India’s constitutional amendment, the country’s government has begun to relax its emergency measures in Kashmir. On August 19, 196 of the region’s 900 schools were reopened, as were all of the government institutions in the regional capital of Srinagar, according to the Indian channel NDTV.

Nonetheless, telephone and Internet signals remain blocked in Kashmir, and the Indian government has no intention of restoring the region’s autonomy or even discussing the matter with Pakistan. “If talks are held with Pakistan, it will now be on PoK (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir),” Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh declared during a town hall meeting in the Indian state of Haryana.

Report by Pyotr Lokhov with reporting from Konstantin Benyumov

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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