Generations of Indian diplomats have been walking the corridors of the United Nations with the Kashmir millstone around their necks. During my first assignment at the Permanent Mission of India , New York (1980-83) I used to say that there was no “Kashmir issue”, as Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India. During my second tenure (1992-95) we started saying that there was an issue of terrorism in Kashmir and we were willing to discuss it with Pakistan. This year, our diplomats are likely to say that there is a Pakistan Occupied Kashmir issue we would like to discuss with Pakistan. Most countries do not bother about these nuances, but they are worried that two nuclear armed neighbours fighting over territory is likely to be an existential threat to the world. Therefore, whether we like it or not, Kashmir will be uppermost in the minds of many diplomats. They are waiting to see how India and Pakistan will clash in the General Assembly.
Apart from direct confrontation with Pakistan, there are many issues on which our views are shaped by the “K” factor. Among them are self-determination, human rights, implementation of Security Council resolutions and non-proliferation. The time has come for us to give up this baggage
The initiative of raising the Kashmir issue has always been with Pakistan as we have never been keen on debating the issue at the UN after the Shimla Agreement, according to which the matter should be discussed bilaterally. But Pakistan invariably raises it at the General Assembly and India reacts to it, often at a fairly low level in strong words. There have been occasions when we thought of not reacting at all, but that is not a viable option in the UN format where right of reply is expected. The matter is also raised routinely in the Third Committee when self-determination is discussed and in the Fifth Committee, when the renewal of the peacekeeping operation, United Nations Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) comes up for consideration.
The temperature of the discussion is raised by Pakistan during certain years either to satisfy internal public opinion in Pakistan or to seize what they consider an appropriate opportunity to embarrass India. They stooped so low as to characterise India as “the sick man of Asia” when an External Affairs Minister of India had difficulty walking on his own. From 1992 to 95, Pakistan felt that it was time to change the pattern of discussion of Kashmir during the Cold War. They relentlessly raised the issue in every Committee of the General Assembly and we staged even Inder Gujral and Farooq Abdulla to reply in the Committees they were routinely following. It was only when they realised that their efforts would not succeed that they reduced the frequency of raising the issue at the General Assembly.
By that pattern, this should be the year when, as Prime Minister Imran Khan has declared, Pakistan will open all stops to raise the issue, forcing us to react in kind. As far as we are concerned, we have other preoccupations. Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale stated that the Prime Minister’s visit has three main pillars to it. “First the multilateral engagements at the United Nations, second the bilateral component of the visit in the United States covering political meetings, interaction with the business community and with the Indian diaspora and thirdly the bilateral meetings that he will have with world leaders in New York”. He specifically said that India had no intention to discuss Kashmir, knowing fully well that we will be dragged into it one way or the other in both bilateral and multilateral meetings.
Syed Akbaruddin, our PR was more realistic. Responding to a question on whether he expects Kashmir to be raised during the UN General Assembly session and how will India tackle it, he said:
“What you are telling me is that it will be more of the same, much more of the same from the side of one country. If that is so, what is our response? So let me put it this way. That it is for every country to determine its trajectory of how it wants to approach global platforms. There may be some who stoop low. Our response to them is we soar high” He continued, “What they want to do is their call. We have seen them mainstream terrorism in the past. And what you are now telling me is they may want to mainstream hate speech. It’s their call, if they want to do that. Poison pens don’t work for too long,” In other words, the stage is set for a fierce exchange between India and Pakistan.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a busy agenda to address a number issues such as terrorism, global trade, energy etc in multilateral, regional and bilateral fora. Among other things, he needs to work with like minded countries to save the multilateral system itself. The UN is under challenge by the views of President Trump who sought to change the fundamentals of multilateralism and the United Nations last year. “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism…….And let us come here to this place to stand for our people and their nations, forever strong, forever sovereign, forever just, and forever thankful for the grace and the goodness and the glory of God.” We do not know whether he will pursue these ideas. Perhaps, his interaction with the world in pursuit of solutions of conflicts may have influenced his thinking on the utility of the United Nations.
But regardless of that, 193 countries, including the United States, will bring their bags of problems to huddle in New York, seeking solutions bilaterally, regionally or multilaterally. They go there because the UN is the only hope for mankind in the midst of the conflicts, tensions, terrorism and threat of nuclear annihilation. India will be distracted by the India-Pakistan debate, but hopefully our delegation will have the capacity to deal with the larger issues facing the world. The UN cannot take the world to heaven, but it still has the strength not to allow it to descend into hell.