President Donald Trump is known for grandiose, over-the-top statements not always backed by facts, and not just on the Twitter universe. During the recent visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to the White House, there was a joint press conference during which world matters were touched upon, from trade to foreign policy. So when mediation in Kashmir was woven into this conversation, India sat up and took notice.
Asked by a media person whether Imran Khan would ask America to mediate in the Kashmir dispute, Khan said, “I will be asking President Trump. He’s — it’s the most powerful country in the world, the United States. It can play the most important role in bringing peace in the subcontinent. You know, there are over a — over a billion and a quarter people in the subcontinent. They are held hostage to the issue of Kashmir. And I feel that only the most powerful state, headed by President Trump, can bring the two countries together.”
To which Trump grandly replied: “So I was with — I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, 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.”
Trump further added that he would love to be a mediator to which Imran Khan replied, “President, I can tell you that, right now, you would have the prayers of over a billion people if you can mediate and resolve this issue.”
He responded, “It should be resolved. So it — but he asked me the same, so I think there’s something. So maybe we’ll speak to him or I’ll speak to him, and we’ll see if we can do something because I’ve heard so much about Kashmir. Such a beautiful name.”
Trump did not know exactly how many years the Kashmir conflict had been on for until Imran Khan helpfully told him “70 years”. He also did pronounce ‘Kashmir’ as in ‘Cashmere’, the shawl, (as someone commented on social media, “Trump was thinking about a cashmere sweater for Ivanka) but that was not what got India’s ire. It was Trump’s astounding claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested him to mediate in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.
In fact, the mediation claim by Trump had India and the Indian Parliament in an uproar and caused the opposition MPs to walk out of the House for two days in a row.
Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister, told a heated up parliament that no request for mediation by Prime Minister Modi had ever been made. “I would like to categorically assure the House that no such request has been made by the prime minister to the US president. I repeat, no such request was made by the prime minister to the US president.”
He went on to reiterate that it has been India's consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally, and that any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism and that the Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally. He concluded: “I hope in the view of my very specific and categorical responses that there is no confusion in the mind of anybody on this matter.”
The story played out on social media too. Tweeted Imran Khan: “Surprised by reaction of India to Pres. Trump’s offer of mediation to bring Pak and India to dialogue table for resolving Kashmir conflict which has held subcontinent hostage for 70 years. Generations of Kashmiris have suffered and are suffering daily and need conflict resolution.”
President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet the Prime Minister of the Pakistan Imran Khan on July 22, 2019, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
While Khan may have been disingenuous in his surprise over India’s reaction, US officials seem to acknowledge the Trumpian faux pas. The US department of state merely noted: “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist.”
However, Rep Brad Sherman tweeted “I just apologised to Ambassador @HarshShringla for Trump’s amateurish and embarrassing mistake.”
Nicholas Burns,@nicholasburns, the Harvard Kennedy School Professor and former American diplomat tweeted, “This is embarrassing, to say the least, for President Trump. His claim that PM Modi asked him to mediate the Kashmir conflict denied categorically by Delhi. This is what happens in diplomacy when you make things up.”
With this one little white lie, Trump has certainly stoked up a frenzy – type in ‘Trump mediation in Kashmir’ in the search box in Google and you get 42,400,000 results! The story – or lack of one – is in all the media of the world.
As Alyssa Ayres noted in a post in the Council on Foreign Relations titled,
Trouble with the Facts when Trump Meets Imran Khan, “So it seems that Trump misinterpreted whatever he and Modi might have discussed, if indeed they did discuss Kashmir. Or does the president think he alone can broker a “deal” on this notoriously tough dispute?”
We asked someone who is an erudite scholar and has spent many years of his life in Kashmir to give his insights. Rakesh Kaul is the New York-based co-founder of the Global Kashmir Diaspora Group, and the author of ‘The Last Queen of Kashmir’.
Kaul wonders aloud why there is this great urge internationally to mediate the Kashmir issue. “Do we make the same recommendation for the China- India Border Dispute? No. We have a Doklam faceoff yet does anyone go haywire saying there are these two nuclear armed giants and there should be a mediator. Again, so many people have died in Tibet yet no one says we should have a mediator there. So what is there about the Kashmir issue that periodically you get these calls for a mediator?”
As he points out it is not just a 70-year-dispute but a very old issue that was inherited by the modern state of India and this old issue has been leveraged by the state of Pakistan with aspirations of making Kashmir a Sharia state. He says, “I think we have to take this whole mediation thing in Kashmir with a grain of salt and recognize that Pakistan is constantly looking to fish in troubled waters.”
Kaul agrees that it is a bilateral matter and though there’s no guarantee, it will prove to be the right way to go. He points out that earlier there was a third party mediator – the United Nations, supposedly the most neutral third party mediator that one could think of. “India went to the UN and asked for mediation. So after decades of non-compliance by Pakistan, not just India, even the UN threw up their hands in disgust,” he says, “It's not that India has been averse to third party mediation - the World Bank was the mediator in the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan and as recently as Kargil it was Bill Clinton who stepped in. US diplomats go to Kashmir all the time. But now, India and Pakistan are governed by the Tashkent and Shimla agreements which mandate bilateral negotiations only.”
“I don't think India is insecure, I don't think India is in any way in isolation here,” he says. “In the Kashmir issue, India recognises that the US has no leverage over Pakistan - it will just give Pakistan more oxygen for its mischief. So it's just a pragmatic assessment on India’s part.”
Coming back to the recent drama at the White House, Kaul believes many people just don’t understand Trumpspeak: “Trumpspeak is not about facts – it is simply a brilliant technique to score a political point. What came out very clearly from that meeting between Trump and Imran Khan was that desperate Pakistan has once again sold itself back to the US as a client state to get it the much needed bailout from IMF. Trump will get his help in Afghanistan.”
Trumpspeak was very visible in the meeting with Imran Khan when Trump announced, “Well, I think he’s going to win. And I think what’s going to happen — of course, he’s got a little ways to wait — (laughter) — but I’ll go over — I’m going to campaign for you. I’m going to help him win his campaign.”
As Kaul says: “Look, Trump is a businessman -- he couldn't care less about Kashmir. This is hardball posturing, messing up people's minds and exciting people. Trump does have an uncanny ability to do that and hats off to him for trying that. People have to understand what Trumpspeak is and not get all bent out of shape about it. Indians have a lot of leverage in Kashmir and should work proactively to get all of it back. That will be good for the US and the world. We should relax – this is nothing but a storm in a teacup.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina. Read Lavina Melwani's columns