You are here

Explaining Miliband’s ‘Kashmir Gaffe’

Commentary, 9 February 2009
Terrorism, Central and South Asia
A comment made by David Miliband on Kashmir caused outrage in India after he inadvertently breached the fiercely defended separation between the Kashmir question and the problem of terrorism in Pakistan. Indian sensitivities over Kashmir could well cause problems for the Obama Administration’s much-touted regional strategy in South Asia.

A comment made by David Miliband on Kashmir caused outrage in India after he inadvertently breached the fiercely defended separation between the Kashmir question and the problem of terrorism in Pakistan. Indian sensitivities over Kashmir could well cause problems for the Obama Administration’s much-touted regional strategy in South Asia.

Rudra Chaudhuri for RUSI.org

David Miliband’s ‘Kashmir gaffe’, as one Indian news channel described it, caused a diplomatic storm following the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to the Sub-continent. A senior Indian Government spokesperson claimed that Miliband ‘did not come across as the foreign minister of a friendly nation.’ The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - India’s main opposition party - labeled the trip a ‘diplomatic disaster’. Almost every Indian national daily chastised Miliband for unduly interfering in India’s internal affairs. What was it that Miliband had done or said to rouse the ire of India’s political elite? Why were his statements on Kashmir so strongly rejected by Indian leaders?

Miliband’s so-called ‘gaffe’

On 15 January, in an article in the Guardian entitled ‘War on Terror was Wrong’, Miliband wrote that cooperation was ‘the best antidote to the terrorist threat in the long term’. A resolution of the Kashmir dispute would, he argued, ‘help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms’. In consequence, Pakistani authorities would be able to ‘focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders’.[1]

The Foreign Secretary had written nothing that was necessarily controversial. His argument that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would help undermine the raison d’être of extremist groups is hardly radical. It seems clear that grievances over Kashmir have fueled extremism in the region. A resolution of the dispute would rob them of their principal rallying point. It would not, of course, lead inevitably to groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) - accused by the Indian government of masterminding the terrorist attacks in Mumbai – to just give up the fight. Such is not Miliband’s argument. He writes only that it would help undercut ‘their main call to arms’.

India’s Irritation

It would seem that making these suggestions was Miliband’s great crime, at least in the eyes of the Indian government and opposition parties, as well as mainstream media. The Indian national daily The Hindu stated that Miliband’s visit was an ‘ill conceived foray’ into India’s internal affairs. The Asian Age went so far as to argue that by portraying the dispute over Kashmir as the ‘main call to arms’, Miliband had inadvertently justified terrorist actions.[2]

So a foreign diplomat had evoked a storm of controversy by daring to use the ‘K’ word, infuriating an entire cross-section of India’s political elite. In reality, however, the scale of Miliband’s ‘gaffe’ was mainly a result of bad timing and the ill-considered context of his remarks. Miliband’s decision to place these remarks in a crowded paragraph that dealt with everything from his views on the ‘war on terror’ to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, and the ‘lesson of Guantánamo’ was not a wise move. Statements concerning Kashmir, much like those relating to Northern Ireland in the 1990s, need to be more delicately packaged. Miliband and his advisors in the Foreign Office might perhaps have paid more attention to the political mood in India and the reasons why Indian policy makers and security experts have become all the more sensitive about any discussion concerning Kashmir.

Firstly, following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the Indian government has tried hard to dissociate the Kashmir issue from the question of terrorism. It is imperative for India that the issue of dealing with terrorists operating in Pakistan, who use this safe haven to prepare and actively support attacks inside of India, does not get mixed up with the dispute over Kashmir. The rationale is fairly simple. By separating the two issues, India can pressure the Pakistani state and garner international support to clamp down on groups like the LeT, whilst preventing the Pakistani state from using the ‘K’ card to distract the international community’s attention from the terror threat emanating from Pakistan.

Miliband’s approach, linking terrorism to the Kashmir dispute, was thus directly opposed to the approach adopted by the Indian government. This became all the more problematic when the LeT reacted to Miliband’s comments by stating that they would give up their ‘jihad’ if India grants ‘freedom to Kashmir’.[3] In effect, Miliband’s paragraph long statement was read by Indian leaders as undermining their chosen strategy for dealing with the issue of terrorism.

Secondly, India’s sensitivity over the Kashmir dispute has been heightened in response to a discussion in the United States regarding a regional strategy in South Asia centered on Kashmir. Over the last four years the officials and academics who now form Barack Obama’s team of advisers have argued that the US should use its increased leverage with India – a result of the recently concluded India-US civil nuclear deal - to push it to re-initiate talks with Pakistan over Kashmir. In a number of interviews during his campaign, President Obama argued that India and Pakistan should ‘try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that [Pakistan] can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants [camped on the border with Afghanistan]’.[4] At the time, even pro-US and pro-Obama commentators in India took exception to his comments.

The concluding section of Miliband’s article echoed Obama’s re-centering of the Kashmir issue. This again, did not go down well in India. Ever since Obama was elected President, the Indian government has lobbied hard to disassociate a regional strategy in South Asia from a settlement in Kashmir. This lobbying appears to have borne fruit. In what is now referred to as an open secret, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan was originally meant to serve as a representative not just to these two countries but to India as well. Holbrooke was to explore the possibility of executing the regional strategy previously outlined by Obama. New Delhi, however, managed to use its influence and leverage in Washington to make sure that India was not included in Holbrooke’s brief.[5] For the time being, at least as far as official statements are concerned, Kashmir has been kept out of the dossier underpinning the US’s strategy in South Asia.

Avoiding the ‘K’ word while encouraging dialogue

At a time when India is working hard to make sure that the issue of terrorism is kept separate from concerns over Kashmir, it is not surprising that Miliband’s statements on the subject were so badly received. In an already charged political environment, it was essential for New Delhi to rebuke Miliband because failing to do so would suggest that the government of India was not serious about battling the regional strategy approach that has been publicly promoted by the new US administration. The British Foreign Office would have been well advised to take note of these complexities - avoiding controversy in a part of the world where any reference made to the ‘K’ word has the potential to lead to a diplomatic storm.

In the coming months, it is unlikely that India will change her stance on separating the issue of Kashmir from that of terrorism, and this will mean that President Obama’s plan for a regional strategy must be re-thought. Public pronouncements on resolving the Kashmir dispute will cause more harm than good, creating a wider wedge between Indian and US interests in South Asia. An effective way forward might be to publicly declare that the dispute over Kashmir is a bilateral issue to be resolved by India and Pakistan alone. Privately, the US, as well as the UK, could use its good offices and networks to encourage India and Pakistan to re-initiate dialogue, which risks being suspended following the Mumbai attacks. However, both the US and the UK need to appreciate that India will not tolerate an intrusive policy, such as the one envisioned in Richard Holbrooke’s brief prior to India’s interjection. Encouragement should not be mistaken for compulsion.

Further, the US and the UK could consider hosting backchannel discussions between non-governmental but influential Pakistani and Indian experts. In the past, dialogue took place between retired Indian and Pakistani military officers on what their governments might consider an acceptable strategy to demilitarise the Siachen glacier. Expert groups from India and Pakistan could discuss impending issues such as the Chenab waterfront, the internationalisation of the Line of Control (LoC), as well as the potential to create softer borders. Neither of these processes or discussions is likely to bear fruit in the near future. However, they promise to bolster confidence building measures between India and Pakistan, measures that might be used to convince the Pakistani military to focus more of its attention on the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Rudra Chaudhuri is a Teaching Fellow at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

NOTES

1. David Miliband, ‘The War on Terror Was Wrong’, The Guardian (15 January, 2009). Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/15/david-miliband-war-terror

2. For a summary see: ‘Miliband Faces India Media Flak’, BBC News (19 January, 2009). Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7837961.stm

3. Prem Shankar Jha, ‘Miliband’s So-Called Blunder’, The Guardian Comment is Free (26 January, 2009). Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/26/india-pakistan-kashmir-miliband  

4. C. Raja Mohan, ‘Barack Obama’s Kashmir Thesis’, The Indian Express (3 November, 2008)

Siddharth Varadarajan, ‘Promise and Pitfalls of Obama’s South Asia Policy’, The Hindu (27 January, 2009)

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research