Following months of international censure over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia touched down in New Delhi this February. Breaking with diplomatic protocol, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted the embattled leader at the airport, hugging him enthusiastically in front of local and international press representatives.
The unlikely partnership between Mr Modi, a representative of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Crown Prince of the conservative Islamic Kingdom is testament to longer term efforts to ‘Look West’ by Indian foreign policy makers. Mr Modi visited the Middle East 10 times during his first term, in stark contrast to his predecessor Manmohan Singh’s 4 state visits to the region during his 10-year Prime Ministership.
An invitation from the United Arab Emirates for India to attend as a ‘Guest of Honour’ at the 2019 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi suggests that Middle Eastern outreach in India is not limited to Saudi Arabia alone. Significant development in India’s relations with the Muslim world look set to pay dividends for India’s diplomatic position in relation to the ongoing dispute over the constitutional status of Kashmir, a majority Muslim region in the country’s far north.
An invitation from the United Arab Emirates for India to attend as a ‘Guest of Honour’ at the 2019 Organisation of Islamic Cooperation Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi suggests that Middle Eastern outreach in India is not limited to Saudi Arabia alone
On the 5th August, India moved to scrap the nominal autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, splitting the state into two new ‘union territories’, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, under the direct rule of New Delhi, effectively abrogating Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gave Kashmiri authorities legislative power over all matters barring finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.
To carry out this constitutional coup, India sent thousands of troops into the region, arrested hundreds of political representatives, shut down communications and instituted a de facto curfew. While procuring information from the troubled region has proved difficult, the outbreak of protests across the Kashmir Valley has been widely reported. Mr Modi argued that a ‘New Era’ had begun in Kashmir.
Integrating the region more closely with the rest of India has long been a promise of Mr Modi’s Party and its parent organisation, the Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Mr Modi argued that ‘Article 370 was a hurdle for development in Kashmir’ which ‘gave only separatism, nepotism, and corruption to the people of Jammu and Kashmir’. Mr Modi and his supporters have long cited security concerns and economic underdevelopment as grounds for revoking the territories special constitutional status.
On the 5th August, India moved to scrap the nominal autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, splitting the state into two new ‘union territories’, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, under the direct rule of New Delhi
In addition, Modi has effectively removed a constitutional article introduced in the 1950s to secure the state’s acquiescence to Indian control. Under the terms of Article 35A, introduced by a presidential order in 1954, the Jammu and Kashmir legislature was entitled to forbid outsiders from buying land, settling, holding government jobs or winning scholarships in the region. Critics see the move as an attempt to alter Kashmir’s demographic and cultural make up, paving the way for Hindu settlers to move into the region.
The domestic implications of Mr Modi’s decision are likely to be significant: security analysts argue that it may provoke a more widespread, openly violent independence struggle in the region, threaten outbreaks of extremist activity throughout India, and contribute to a deepening authoritarian tendency within Mr Modi’s party. Yet the dispute over Kashmir’s status has never been a domestic issue to be dealt with by India alone.
Most obviously, it draws in the Pakistani state, India’s long-term adversary which controls its own share of Kashmiri territory and sees itself as an important defender of the Valley’s Muslim population.
Indian authorities have long accused Pakistan’s intelligence services of sponsoring and recruiting extremists in the territory and conflict escalation could prove disastrous between two nuclear states containing one fifth of the world’s population between them. An escalation of confrontation may also encourage Pakistan’s powerful military to play a more significant role in the country’s politics.
Indian PM Narendra Modi /AFP
The military has ruled the country directly for more than half of its existence and security crises have often precipitated direct overthrows of the state’s fragile democratic order. Pakistan also remains a key actor in ongoing discussions between the Taliban and Government in neighbouring Afghanistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has already threatened to move troops away from the border with Afghanistan to the Line of Control, which separates Pakistani and Indian controlled sections of Kashmir.
Most obviously, it draws in the Pakistani state, India’s long-term adversary which controls its own share of Kashmiri territory and sees itself as an important defender of the Valley’s Muslim population
Guy Burton, a Visiting Fellow at the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics argues that threatening the peace process in Afghanistan would be unadvisable for Pakistan given its recent attempts to resume normal relations with the United States, but given its international isolation Pakistan may use its role in Afghanistan as potential diplomatic leverage: ‘it is reminding the US and others that it has some cards to play with’.
China, long seen as an all-weather ally of Pakistan also has ongoing disputes with India over the status of Kashmir, a territory which it controls over 15% having been ceded control of strategic territory by Pakistan in 1963.
Thus far, China has stood firmly behind Pakistan in recent meetings of the United Nations Security Council over Kashmir. China has signalled its intent to bring its full weight to bear at the Security Council against India. A continuing deterioration of relations between Beijing and Delhi will cause justified alarm amongst security experts.
However, Pakistan can call on significantly fewer international allies in any dispute over Kashmir. Whilst the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation had long yielded reliable partners critical of India’s encroachment on Kashmiri autonomy, responses in the Arab world on the recent escalation of tensions have been muted.
China has signalled its intent to bring its full weight to bear at the Security Council against India. A continuing deterioration of relations between Beijing and Delhi will cause justified alarm amongst security experts.
Dr Burton argues that Indian commercial and security relations in the region underpin quiescence over the issue in the Arab world. India’s relations with the region are primarily commercial in nature. The region’s multipolarity has allowed India to develop ties with a range of Middle Eastern states. Dr Burton argues, ‘the lack of any single and dominant presence has meant that India has been able to hedge its bets between antagonistic actors like Israel, India and the Saudis’.
According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, 8.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf States alone. The Middle East has become a strategically important source of fuel imports and labour remittances. Around a quarter of Indian imports are from the Middle East, 80% of them being petroleum and crude oil products, according to the Asia Society, a think tank.
According to the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, 8.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf States alone. The Middle East has become a strategically important source of fuel imports and labour remittances.
In return, India exports chemical products, refined oil, gems and metals to the region. Saudi Arabian Oil giant Aramco and Abu Dhabi’s National Oil Company have reached an agreement with India to develop the largest greenfield refinery in the world in the Indian state of Maharashtra.
Whilst Cold War relations between the Gulf and Pakistan were strong, increasing dissatisfaction with Pakistani links with extremist groups and sluggish economic performance - Pakistan is in the midst of its 13th bailout by the International Monetary Fund in 3 decades - have alienated erstwhile allies. As India has eclipsed Pakistan economically, Middle Eastern states have begun to rebalance their relations toward India.
Mr Modi’s courting of favour in the Middle East may yet prove a mixed blessing. Maintaining simultaneous relations with Israel, the Gulf and Iran may prove a challenge beyond Mr Modi’s capabilities. Yet for now, Modi’s decision to look West may prove valuable as India seeks international allies for protracted negotiations over its longest lasting territorial dispute.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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