American Activism on the Kashmir Question

- Chintamani Mahapatra


"Neither the Cold War, dollar diplomacy, nor anti-colonialism caused the first major bilateral difference between the United States and independent India. The problem arose over the unfinished business of partition--the dispute over the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir," writes Dennis Kux in his book, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies.1

Kux is right in his assessment that the differences over the Kashmir question is the first major political issue between the United States and India. But his contention that it is "the unfinished business of partition" exemplifies part of the political problems between the two countries. For India, the Kashmir problem arose because of Pakistani aggression and occupation of almost one-third of Indian territory in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and that it has nothing to do with partition as such.

In October 1947, a couple of months after the emergence of India as an independent state, Pathan tribesmen from the Pakistan's Northwest Frontier crossed into Jammu and Kashmir and began to advance towards Srinagar. The Maharaja of Kashmir sought India's military help and signed an Instrument of Accession making the state a part and parcel of India. Prime Minister Nehru promptly sent military help and the fighting began. Initially the Truman administration kept its hands off. Loy Henderson, Director of the Near East Office in the State Department, urged Acting Secretary of State, Robert Lovett to stay out of the dispute to avoid "making a choice between giving support to the interests of India or of Pakistan."2

Had this policy of non-interference, adopted for a brief period for whatever reasons, continued, one of the major issues of bilateral problems could have been avoided. But once the Kashmir question was taken to the United Nations by Nehru on the advice of Lord Louis Mountbatten, Washington took active interest in the issue. Indian leaders almost always perceived the US policies and approaches towards resolving the Kashmir issue as anti-Indian in character and the US administrations felt the Indian position unhelpful in the resolution of the problem. As a result, Kashmir issue continued to vitiate the political atmosphere preventing India and the US to move politically closer towards each other. As the UN Security Council Resolution of April 1948, primarily moved by the US and the UK, failed to criticise Islamabad for the aggression and treated the aggressor and the victim of aggression equally, Indian leaders were enraged. Nehru charged that Washington and London played a "dirty role" in the UN on the Kashmir issue.3

As the US continued to seek a role in the Kashmir issue, it occasionally bounced back to widen the political chasm between New Delhi and Washington. In 1953, as Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah began to change his position on the status of Kashmir and even toyed with the idea of an independent Kashmir, his meeting with a former US Democratic presidential candidate sparked off a severe political row between India and the US. It was alleged that Abdullah was conspiring with the Americans for the US support for an independent Kashmir in exchange for military base facilities in the state. When India and Pakistan fought a war over Kashmir in 1965 in the wake of Pakistan launching Operation Gibraltar, the US attitude was clearly pro-Pakistan. Although Washington apparently sought to adopt an even-handed approach by imposing an arms embargo against both India and Pakistan, for the second time it equated the aggressor with the victim of aggression. After all, the US knew that it was Pakistan which initiated the aggression, a repeat of 1947-48 and India had to respond. Now, in fact, it has become known that Washington was aware of the Pakistani design even before the war was initiated.4

In his report Secretary General U Thant said on September 3, 1965: "...General Nimmo has indicated to me that the series of violations that began on 5 August were, to a considerable extent, in subsequent days in the form of armed men, generally not in uniform, crossing the Ceasefire Line from the Pakistan side for the purpose of armed action on the Indian side..."5 US Representative Goldber in the Security Council on September 18, 1965 seconded the Secretary General's report by saying, "...The Secretary General has reported to us in full on his mission of peace. The United States commends the Secretary General for his impartial efforts to give effect to the Council's resolutions and achieve an honourable settlement."6

"Pakistan attacked India in September 1965," write Harold Gould and Sumit Ganguly, "precipitating the second Kashmir war. The United States, though quietly acknowledging that Pakistan had initiated the war, imposed an arms embargo on both countries...From the Indian standpoint, nothing could be less fair. As far as New Delhi was concerned, Pakistan had initiated the conflict, used American arms, and now--to add insult to proverbial injury--the United States had equated the nations through the imposition of the arms embargo."7 According to another American scholar, Robert J. McMahon, "The war had been precipitated by Ayub's decision in early August (1965) to send Pakistani 'volunteers' into Kashmir. A gradual escalation had ensured, culminating on September 6 with an Indian invasion on Pakistan."8 Did the US gain anything by siding with the aggressor? McMahon argues that the end result was that Soviet diplomacy rather than American one that "ultimately facilitated a diplomatic settlement" in the subcontinent. The US did not gain politically or strategically in Pakistan and lost all goodwill in India generated by its response during the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

Six years later, the US Administration would once again side with Pakistan which unleashed a large scale massacre of innocent people in East Pakistan and the end result was the division of Pakistan, and the Simla Agreement that subsequently became the basis for any future solution of the Kashmir problem. The Nixon Administration's "tilt" towards Pakistan during the war for the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 is now a well known fact of history. It was ironical that President Nixon, who took a momentous step in charting out a new policy towards China on geopolitical and geostrategic calculations in late 1960s and early 1970s, perceived the developments in the Indian subcontinent on the basis of his personal whims and fancies. According to Christopher Van Hollen, former Assistant Secretary of State for NEA: "Nixon's reaction to South Asia was influenced by his long-standing dislike for India and the Indians, and his warm feelings for Pakistan...Despite disclaims, Richard Nixon's contrasting feelings toward the Indian and Pakistani leaders undoubtedly colored his judgements in 1971..."9 But the war was a thumping victory for India. It brought about a substantial alteration in the geopolitics of the subcontinent. As the Simla Accord was signed in 1972 and it was stipulated that issues between India and Pakistan, including Kashmir, would be resolved bilaterally by the two countries without any third party mediation, Washington significantly came around to accept this position.10

Kashmir issue became relatively calm thereafter, until December 1989 when terrorism struck the state. Given the nature of Pakistani interference in Kashmir affairs, it is safe to assume that Kashmir's relative stability was first due to Pakistan's soul searching for several years after the 1971 war and later because of Pakistan's complete involvement in the Afghanistan crisis. So long as Pakistan acted as proxy of the United States in fighting against the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, Kashmir could remain calm and free from external interference. However, by the time the Cold War was coming to an end and dialogues between Washington and Moscow had showed signs of conclusion of the Soviet military operation in Afghanistan, Pakistan had begun to realise that its strategic importance to the US might go down. At the same time, victory of the mujaheedin forces in Afghanistan with Pakistani help had inculcated a certain confidence in Pakistan that it could try its hand in Kashmir as well. Around this time, secessionist tendencies had begun to appear in Kashmir.

The rising militancy in Kashmir could have been more easily contained, if only Pakistan under the Prime Ministership of Benazir Bhutto, whose ascendancy to power in 1988 symbolised restoration of democracy in that country, could have sought to improve ties with India in the backdrop of significant developments in international affairs and would have refrained from capitalising on brewing unrest in Kashmir. Although Prime Minister Bhutto had initially shown interest in improving bilateral ties with India and had considered herself and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi as post-partition leaders who could change the course of Indo-Pakistan relations, her domestic opponents prevented her from going far in this initiative. Some of the agreements signed between New Delhi and Islamabad in the areas of travel, trade, cultural exchange, double taxation, drug trafficking and border smuggling could have given ways for positive improvement in ties in other areas. But Benazir's opponets had other desires in mind, especially taking advantage of the law and order problem in Kashmir. Their aim was to replay Afghanistan in Kashmir by supporting efforts at formation and training of anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani groups in Kashmir. Incidentally, Kashmir got affected by transborder terrorism and insurgency only after six months of the Tiananmen Square episode in China, about three months after the former Soviet Union pulled back its last batch of military troops from Afghanistan. Benazir soon retreated from her initiative to reshape Pakistan's relations with India. According to Strategic Survey, 1990-91, "At the turn of the year, she abandoned the Afghan policy to General Beg and his Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), which had long been managing the mujaheedin on the ground. She yielded to army demands for both a forward thrust in Pakistan's nuclear weapons programme and a 50 per cent increase in the defence budget, in response to threats and opportunities arising from unrest in the Indian part of Kashmir. Bhutto took up the cause of the Kashmiri 'freedom fighters' in an attempt to steal her political opponent's thunder with her own fiery nationalistic rhetoric. She left the job of assessing Pakistan's support for the insurgents to the army: this involved providing weapons, training and a sanctuary in Pakistan's part of divided Kashmir...Kashmir was not a matter of domestic dispute in Pakistan. Generals and politicians shared the objective of putting maximum pressure on India, short of actually provoking a war which Pakistan was certain to lose."11

Pakistani involvement in Kashmir militancy became more and more deep-seated at a time when India was not only facing an economic down-turn but also political uncertainties of coalition politics after the Congress defeat in the general election. Communalism in India also threatened to increase instability in the society, as militancy in Punjab was still continuing and the crisis over the Babri Masjid was gaining momentum. By this time, it was also established that Pakistan had acquired a nuclear weapon capability. How did Washington view the Kashmir problem at this time? It clearly failed to see the Pakistani involvement in a game of destabilisation and the rising menace of cross-border support to terrorism in Kashmir. Instead, it sought to view Kashmir issue in the light of a human rights issue and the nuclear development in the subcontinent. Another round of Indo-US political row thus started.

In May 1990, as Indo-Pak relations deteriorated over the growing incidence of Islamabad-backed militancy in Kashmir, President George Bush sent his deputy National Security Advisor, Robert Gates, and Assistant Secretary of State, John Kelly to the subcontinent. It was reported in American press that Gates impressed upon New Delhi and Islamabad that yet another round of war over Kashmir could lead to a nuclear confrontation and that his diplomatic efforts succeeded in averting a possible nuclear confrontation in South Asia.12 Since then it has become fashionable in the American academic as well as policy making circles to speak of a nuclear danger in the Indian subcontinent.

In the press, a new kind of political game was played by linking up the Kashmir and the nuclear issues. The American scholars as well as officials have been seeking to create an impression that one of the best ways to resolve the nuclear issue between India and Pakistan is through the resolution of the Kashmir problem between the two countries. All kinds of worst case scenarios are being floated around suggesting that the next nuclear holocaust may occur in the Indian subcontinent where India and Pakistan may resort to a war over the Kashmir issue. In early 1995, the US Secretary of Defence William Perry in his speech at Washington's Foreign Policy Association said: "I would start off by observing that India and Pakistan have long-standing ethnic, religious, and territorial differences dating back to their partition in 1947. These differences have caused them to fight three wars since partition. Today each of them has the capability to build nuclear weapons. Because of this nuclear capability, a fourth Indian/Pakistan war would not just be a tragedy, it could be a catastrophe--so we care a lot about what happens there."13 In March 1996, in his annual report to the Congress on the global situation and the role of the US military, Perry wrote: "...The ongoing dialogue can help all three countries (US, India and Pakistan) to focus on areas of common interest, such as international peacekeeping, nuclear proliferation and the long-simmering conflict over Kashmir."14 The annual report of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency for the year 1996 mentioned that "While the likelihood of a fourth war between Indian and Pakistan is small, the possibility of a war in the region going nuclear are perhaps higher than anywhere else in the world. We continue to believe that both nations could assemble nuclear weapons within a short time; and that both have tested missiles and acquired aircraft capable of delivering such weapons. In addition, the past year has witnessed a significant decline in Indo-Pakistani relations...Regional stability, and therefore proliferation continue to be driven by Indo-Pakistani tensions, particularly over Kashmir..."15

It is well known to all those who are familiar with nuclear issues that neither India's nor Pakistan's nuclear programmes were developed with the Kashmir issue in mind. The origin, evolution, target and the nature of the Indian and the Pakistani nuclear programmes are in no way connected with the Kashmir issue. It, however, serves the Pakistani purpose to link up the Kashmir issue with the nuclear issue, as it seeks to justify its nuclear programme on the basis of India's larger and more sophisticated nuclear capability. It has also, at the same time, taken advantage of the American concerns over the human rights issue around the world by pursuing a diplomatic offensive against the Indian Government's handling of the militancy problem in the Kashmir valley by portraying it as violation of human rights.

While India managed to produce several credible evidences of Pakistani involvement in Kashmiri militancy, it failed to prompt the Bush Administration to declare Pakistan as a state sponsoring international terrorism. There is little doubt that the militancy in Kashmir started with the formation of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in 1989 with the assistance and encouragement of Islamabad. The JKLF has always aimed at achieving independence for Kashmir which include the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) as well. Islamabad thus was looking for an opportunity to encourage groups other than JKLF which would not aim at independence and which would take advice from the Pakistani capital. In a couple of years, Pakistan succeeded in distancing itself from JKLF and in training and equipping pro-Pakistani groups, particularly Hizb-ul-Mujaheedin. By 1991, a new formation uniting the Hizb-ul-Mujaheedin, Tehrik-ul Mujaheedin and nine other pro-Pakistani splinters grouped into FAS or "Forum Against Sell-OUT."

When the United States was undergoing the process of presidential election in 1992, Indo-Pakistan relations had deteriorated further, as reflected in Islamabad's initial permission to JKLF leader Amanullah Khan to march across the LOC in Kashmir, a sympathetic strike in Pakistan in solidarity with the "Islamic brothers" in Kashmir, abduction and torture of an Indian diplomat in Islamabad, and clashes at the Siachen glacier. When Bill Clinton won the presidential election, there were hopes in certain quarters in India that Indo-US relations could take a positive turn. Clinton's emphasis on restoring American economic competitiveness raised hopes that Washington under his leadership would view positively the economic reforms undertaken in India since 1991 and that there would be no more US interference in the subcontinental affairs.

Such hopes were, nonetheless, misplaced. President Clinton hinted that his approach to the Kashmir issue may alter a little by referring to the ethnic conflicts "from Caucasus to Kashmir" in a speech before the UN General Assembly in September 1993. Islamabad was visibly happy over Clinton's remark, whereas there were resentments in India. The following month, Robin Raphel, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, reportedly said in an "off-the-record" briefing in Washington that the United States did not accept the Instrument of Accession of Kashmir which led to the merger of Kashmir with India. Her statement challenging the legal validity of the Instrument of Accession, in particular, created an uproar in the Indian Parliament as well as among the Indian public. Soon after that Raphel, while speaking at the Asia Society in Washington, linked up the Kashmir issue with Afghanistan.

Such statements not only threatened to create a political divide between New Delhi and Washington but also encouraged the Kashmiri terrorists and their supporters from across the border. There was considerable escalation in terrorist activities in Kashmir around this time and one of the worst attempt by the terrorists was to steal a secret religious relic--a single strand of Prophet Mohamad's hair--from the Hazrat Bal shrine in Kashmir and put the blame on the Indian security forces. While the Government of India took timely steps with the help of the security forces and foiled the attempt by the terrorists, Islamabad sought to make political capital out of it and even raised the issue at the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of States.

In late 1993, the political divide between India and the United States widened further, as President Bill Clinton shared Pakistan's concern over the "human rights violation" in Kashmir at the time of accepting the credentials of the new Pakistan Ambassador to the US and had little sympathy for the innocent people who were killed by the terrorists.

However, in response to considerable resentment in India, the US position on Kashmir was soon clarified and US support to the Simla Agreement was reiterated. Nonetheless, a new element was inserted into the US stand, which was that in the resolution of the Kashmir issue, the views of the Kashmiri people should be taken into account. India did take into account the views of the Kashmiri people, not at the behest of the United States but by releasing some of the extremist elements from jail who wanted to join the political mainstream and abjure the path of violence. Since 1994, the Government of India took several measures to facilitate the holding of elections in Kashmir, while dealing sternly with the terrorists. Pakistan nonetheless sought to destabilise Kashmir through consistent support and assistance to the Kashmiri militants and simultaneously trying to tarnish India's image internationally by making false and exaggerated propaganda about the human rights violations in Kashmir.

With the improvement in Indo-US relations, particularly since the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's trip to the US in 1994, the State Department refrained from making rhetorical statements on Kashmir issue. Pakistan, however, occasionally succeeded in seeking political support of some of the Congressmen and Senators in the US to raise the issue of human rights in Kashmir during various Congressional debates. At no point, Washington conceded the Government of India's views on the Pakistani hand in Kashmiri militancy to an extent that would have been politically acceptable to India. Washington's overall stand appeared to have been tilted in favour of Pakistan. New Delhi's endeavour to drive home the point that the Kashmir issue had to be seen in the backdrop of rising Islamic extremism, fundamentalism and narco-terrorism failed to receive adequate political support from the US. In the post-Cold War era, Islamic fundamentalism has been identified as a growing source of international tension and instability. Glimpses of this phenomenon can be found in North Africa, Middle East, South Asia as well as Southeast Asia. There are some analysts who argue that fundamentalist forces are trying their best to make in-roads into the Central Asian Republics.

More worrisome is the fact that these fundamentalist forces are not isolated cases in diverse societies but are increasingly developing cross border connections. In the future, no particular country may experience a situation where Islamic fundamentalist forces will capture political power. It once happened in Algeria, but only for a short time. But the fact remains that even without capturing political power, the fundamentalist forces can create tremendous trouble internationally. What is happening in Kashmir may happen elsewhere. Washington has to redesign its stand on the Kashmir issue in the light of this development rather than harp on the old-fashioned theories. Washington has to refrain from compartmentalising terrorism as "domestic" and "international." The US State Department's annual report on terrorism, Patterns of Global Terrorism 1996, considers terrorism in India, Algeria, Sri Lanka and Pakistan as "domestic terrorism." It also says that "Domestic terrorism is probably a more widespread phenomenon than international terrorism. Because internationalism has a direct impact on US interests, it is the primary focus of this report."16

There are several contradictions in the report. It defines international terrorism as the one which involves "citizens or the territory of more than one country." After the known involvement of Pakistan in Kashmir, some of the Afghan mujaheedins in the state and the kidnapping of the foreign nationals, can it be called "domestic terrorism"? The 1996 State Department report, in the chapter on state-sponsored terrorism says "There is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing international terrorist attacks since 1986. Nevertheless, Syria continues to provide safe haven and support for several groups that engage in such attacks..."17 However, several US intelligence reports on Pakistani involvement in militancy in Kashmir and several US official statements on Pakistani involvement in Kashmiri terrorism failed to brand Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism. More than the US State Department branding Pakistan as a state sponsoring terrorism, India would expect the US to view militancy in Kashmir in its proper perspective rather than as a case of mere violation of human rights by the state security forces.

It would perhaps be more appropriate if Washington keeps its hands off Kashmir to avoid serious political confrontation with India. There are, unfortunately, no indications that Washington would mind its own business and allow the Kashmir problem to be resolved by the regional countries. While reiterating its support to the bilateralism concept envisaged in the Simla Agreement whenever it suits its interest, officials in the US do kick up dust at other times which is certainly not helpful in resolving the issue and, to the contrary, unthoughtful statements on Kashmir made in the US make things more complicated and create political confusion. Only recently, George Pickart, a senior advisor to the South Asian Bureau of the State Department, reportedly said that "the USA believes that Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory and is an issue to be resolved between India and Pakistan taking the desires of the Kashmir people into account."18 President Bill Clinton, on the other hand, reportedly had stated in the first week of August this year that the US presence should be heavily felt in South Asia and that it was a source of continuing concern to him that "the people of Pakistan and the people of India have not been able to work through their differences." He then went on to say that the US would be a better friend of India and Pakistan in next fifty years and that it would be a "more constructive supporter of resolving these difficulties in the near term."19

The entire spectrum of political and public opinion in India took serious objection to the American statements. Prime Minister I.K. Gujral forcefully remarked that the Indian sovereignty over Kashmir was not negotiable.20 Several times in the past all kinds of statements have been made in the US and clarifications have been issued in the face of protests in India. This time was no exception. On President Clinton's remark, stressing the need for strong US presence in South Asia the new State Department spokesman James Rubin said: "Perhaps, he was talking about the fact that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has said that she hoped to go to the region this year" and that the President was not referring to a physical US presence in the region but was hinting at the importance of the region to the US.21 The State Department also issued a statement on Pickart's remark saying any impression created by his speech of "enunciating a new policy" was wrong.22

The issue was, however, not enunciation of a new policy. It was a question of the timing of such statements. At a time, when India and Pakistan have been taking positive steps on their own to resolve several bilateral issues, including Kashmir, American activism and unnecessary statements do not appear to be helpful measures. The United States wants to be involved in almost all the disputes around the world in some form or the other. It is apparently seeking to play a role in the peace negotiations in the Korean Peninsula, in the Middle East and in Bosnia and in several other areas, including the Tibetan question. In reality, the North Koreans are not very comfortable with the US role and have set a precondition of US troops withdrawal from South Korea before negotiating for peace; the Palestinians are not very comfortable with the US role in the peace process in the Middle East; the Chinese have warned Washington to refrain from interfering in the Tibetan affairs; and in Bosnia, the US has been acting as the big brother. As far as South Asia is concerned, America is suspect in the Indian eye for several valid reasons. First, the US has a long history of close political and strategic ties with Pakistan and seeks to continue its relations with that country. One of the main factors that induced Nehru to alter his earlier stand on plebiscite in Kashmir was the US arming of Pakistan. Till this date, the US arming of Pakistan is a serious issue in the Indian assessment of American role in South Asia.23 Secondly, the US position on Kashmir throughout history has been tilted in favour of Pakistan. Thirdly, in Indian perception the subcontinental issues can best be sorted out without the external interference. And, in this connection, the more Islamabad approaches Washington to play a direct role in Kashmir affairs, more resentment and suspicion are created in India. There is actually no viable alternative to the Simla Agreement as a means of resolving the Kashmir issue. American activism is the problem rather than a solution to the Kashmir question.



1. For details, see Dennis Kux, India and the United States: Estranged Democracies, 1941-1991 (Washington: D.C. National Defence University Press, 1992).

2. Henderson to Lovett, January 9, 1948, report of discussions between the British delegation and US officials, January 10, 1948, Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. 5, pp. 276-78. Kux, n. 1, p. 60.

3. For details, see Speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru, second series, vol. 5, pp. 188-90, 210-211, 218.

4. For details, see K. Subrahmanyam, "Deception on Kashmir-1965: US Knew but Wouldn't Tell," Times of India, August 11, 97.

5. R.K. Jain, ed., US-South Asian Relations, 1947-1982, vol. 2 (New Delhi: Radiant Publishers, 1983), p. 245.

6. Ibid. p. 249.

7. Sumit Ganguly, "US-Indian Relations During the Lyndon Johnson Era," Harold Gould and Sumit Ganguly, ed., The Hope and the Reality: US-Indian Relations From Roosevelt to Reagan, (Boulder, San Francisco, Westview Press, 1992), p. 82.

8. Robert J. McMahon, "The Evolution of American Geopolitical Strategy," in A.P. Rana, ed., Four Decades of Indo-US Relations: A Commemorative Retrospective, (New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 1994), p. 94.

9. Jain, n. 5, p. 75.

10. Kux, n. 1, p. 309.

11. Strategic Survey, 1990-91 (London: International Institute of Strategic Studies, 1991).

12. New York Times, May 16, 1990.

13. Official Text, United States Information Service, New Delhi, February 3, 1995.

14. Pioneer, March 31, 1996.

15. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Annual Report 1996, Excerpt on South Asia, USIS Text Link: 415917, File Date/ID, August 12, 1996.

16. Wireless File, USIS, May 1, 1997.

17. Ibid.

18. Hindustan Times, August 12, 1997.

19. Hindu, August 8, 97.

20. Times of India, Hindustan Times, Hindu, August 12, 97.

21. Times of India, August 9, 97.

22. Hindu, August 12, 97.

23. Telegram from the Department of State to the Embassy in Pakistan, July 27, 1955, Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. 8, 1955-57, South Asia (Washington: US Government Printing Press, 1987), pp. 56-57.