Letter from Congress heralds changing US position on Kashmir

A call for the assignment of a US special envoy to Kashmir, made by 46 members of the US House of Representatives in a September 28 letter to President Clinton, indicates concern over India's failure to ease tensions in the region. While India has insisted that unrest in Kashmir is a result of Pakistani infiltration, continued unrest despite Pakistan's US-negotiated withdrawal from a recent stand-off over Indian air-strikes on militants in Kashmir's Kargil mountains has perhaps alerted US observers that the tension in Kashmir goes beyond alleged Pakistani infiltration.

The lawmakers urged Clinton to take a more active role in easing tensions in the disputed state, especially in the light of the newly developed nuclear capabilities of India and Pakistan. The letter said in part, "The United States should help break the stalemate over Kashmir to reduce the chance of nuclear war in the Asian subcontinent," according to a September 29 Reuters report. House members also called for a bolstering of the UN military observers currently monitoring the Line of Control. They suggested that Clinton should "consider the appointment of a special envoy who could recommend ...ways of ascertaining the wishes of the Kashmiri people and reaching a just and lasting settlement of the Kashmiri issue."

While the implicit argument is that India is incapable of bilaterally resolving the Kashmir dilemma, the letter cannot be considered an explicit condemnation of India. The US government has generally shied away from imposing demands for international mediation concerning Kashmir as India remains vehemently opposed to international involvement in the region. In an interview with Reuters earlier this week, US Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, rejected a previous call from a group of US senators for a special envoy, saying the best way to be supportive of a negotiated settlement was "without the appointment of a special envoy."

In previous statements, Congresspersons themselves have recognized the perceived importance of not directly confronting India on its Kashmir policies. In a letter to Clinton following the Kargil crisis, Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) called for "strengthening our economic relations with India," a country that according to Holt is the world's fifth largest economy in terms of purchasing power.

But in its implication, the most recent congressional letter concerning Kashmir is an affront to India in its assurances that the Kashmir dispute is an internal domestic issue in which the major barrier to a quick resolution is the continued clandestine involvement of Pakistan. The congressional letter appropriately coincides with an upsurge in tension in Kashmir that seems of indisputable native Kashmiri origin.

The killing of four Kashmiri activists by Indian police during an anti-election rally last Saturday has sparked a region wide strike that has effectively paralyzed the state, according to the Kashmir Times on September 28. At least ten have been killed in Indian army actions on alleged militants, but the Kashmir Times quotes local residents as saying the army has been arresting and even torturing several locals not connected with militancy.

The strike was organized by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a native political organization that has eschewed violence in the quest for an independent Kashmir. Several leaders of the Hurriyat conference have, according to the BBC on September 28, been arrested for protesting the election. According to a separate article in Tuesday's Kashmir Times, Kashmir's Chief Minister Dr. Farooq Abdullah, often seen as a puppet for Indian interests in Kashmir, has himself dared to renew the call for greater autonomy and warned of a likely "battle" with New Delhi should he raise the issue.

Although the United States government has remained silent on the obvious tension in Kashmir and the apparent native discontent with Indian rule, the recent congressional letter is a sign some legislators are beginning to realize that the Kashmir dispute goes beyond Indian allegations of Pakistani infiltration. While the US government is far from placing direct blame on India for the crisis in Kashmir, it appears that India has already failed in one of its primary objectives: to block international scrutiny of the problem. President Clinton is due to visit Kashmir early next year, marking the first visit by a US president in 20 years.

The US government did of course help block calls for a Kashmiri referendum vote similar to that in East Timor. But continuing tension in Kashmir, despite the withdrawal of the Kargil militants, seems to foretell the approaching realization of India's worst fears: international observers interested in, in the words of the congressional letter, "ascertaining the wishes of the Kashmiri people."

Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com

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