Imran Khan and Donald Trump 20190723
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, July 22, 2019, in Washington. Image Credit: AP

US President Donald Trump’s bombshell that he would like to mediate the vexed Kashmir conflict has set the stage for a high profile diplomatic tug-of-war between India and Pakistan involving the world’s sole superpower. While Trump’s keenness to play the mediator in the frozen conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations has enthused many, India appears less keen. There are historical reasons for India’s reluctance to third-party intervention on Kashmir, which we will dwell upon later.

On Monday during a much publicised joint press conference with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the Oval Office, Trump set the proverbial cat among pigeons by offering to broker peace talks over the Kashmir region that remains a sore point in India-Pakistan relations. “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” Trump said. “If I can do anything to help, let me know.”

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, two of which have centred on Kashmir.

Trump added, “I was with Prime Minister Narendra Modi two weeks ago (on the sidelines of the G20 meeting in Osaka, Japan) and we talked about this subject and he actually said ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator’, I said ‘Where’, He said ‘Kashmir’. Because this has been going on for many, many years ... I think they would like to see it resolved and you (Imran Khan) would like to see it resolved. If I can help, I would love to be a mediator.”

Khan, quick to notice a shift in the traditional American position on Kashmir, responded by saying, “the prayers of over a billion people will be with you if you can mediate and resolve the situation.”

However the Indian response, which came soon after, was on expected lines. The Indian foreign ministry spokesman, Raveesh Kumar contradicted Trump’s statements, saying “no such request has been made” by Modi.

History of third-party mediation

The US offer to mediate in the Kashmir dispute is not new. There have been precedents when India and Pakistan have allowed a third-party to help resolve their issues. Both in international law and diplomacy, mediation often denotes a ‘friendly interference’ of a neutral state in the controversies of other nations, with the objective of using its influence to ‘adjust their difficulties’. If we look at the history of India-Pakistan dispute, several areas have benefited from such arbitration in the past.

Both nations, for instance, were able to reach agreements through third party mediators in case of the Indus Waters Treaty and the negotiations on the Rann of Kutch dispute. While the Indus Waters Agreement, brokered by the World Bank, led to distribution of the water available in the Indus System of Rivers between India and Pakistan, the Rann of Kutch Accord (mediated by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson) persuaded the combatants to end hostilities and establish a tribunal to resolve the dispute. In both cases India and Pakistan used the good offices of a third party resulting in agreements that have stood the test of time. Similarly during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, the then USSR led mediation efforts paved the way for India and Pakistan to withdraw forces from each other’s territories (to their positions before the military engagement) while agreeing to discuss all future matters. This was followed by signing of the Tashkent Declaration in Uzbekistan.

So what about Kashmir?

Given the heightened state of nationalism across the border, critics might argue that Kashmir cannot be compared to the Indus Water Treaty arbitration or the Rann of Kutch accord or the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war mediation. India, for instance, argues that mediation has no chance of working better than bilateral agreements, like the Simla Agreement of 1972 that both sides agreed to respect. However the bitter truth is that the Simla Agreement was blatantly violated and led to the fourth limited war (Kargil) between the two neighbours in 1999.

From India’s stand point Kashmir remains an internal problem. Apprehension of the country’s policy wonks mainly stems from the fact that in the event of a third-party mediation (by the US for instance), America could use its might as the world’s superpower to impose a solution on Kashmir that might go contrary to India’s stated position. Such concerns are not entirely without basis. The UN resolutions on Kashmir have historically been a diplomatic imbroglio for India, which emphasises bilateralism on the issue. Clearly New Delhi does not want to set a foreign policy precedent if it allows some kind of international facilitation on Kashmir.

Resolving the dispute

Kashmir dispute has dragged on for nearly seven decades now. Wars have been fought over it and countless lives lost across both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Both countries are nuclear armed and there is a danger — as witnessed during the recent Balakot strikes — of a skirmish turning into a big flashpoint over Kashmir. The suffering and pain it has caused in Kashmir itself — in Trump’s words 'beautiful name, beautiful place' — is immense. It’s tragic that the issue has been allowed to fester for so long. It is time for India and Pakistan to resolve the conflict and if they somehow find the mutual distrust too big to gulf, may be take help from a neutral player. Principles of state sovereignty and non-interference dictate that mediation needs not be imposing. It can be beneficial, non-coercive and compatible with the structures of international system. We already have a historical precedent to it.