Six months after the terrorist attacks on the United States, there is a growing strategic dialogue between India and the United States. Two of the world’s most vibrant democracies now have first-hand experience of the savagery of terrorism and both are together in the global hunt against terrorists. But a true test of their new relationship may be what happens in Kashmir.
ROBERT BLACKWILL, the U.S. ambassador to India, summed up the changed relationship this way in a recent address to New Delhi’s policy luminaries:
“No longer do U.S. officials encounter Indian counterparts who instinctively assume a studied stance of moral superiority. No longer do Indian government representatives face Americans who believe constant public criticism, incessant private nagging and a one-issue agenda should dominate American diplomacy toward India.”
Indeed, even if one discounts the official spin from both sides, the facts on the ground are hard to ignore. More than 50 American policy makers at the assistant secretary level and above have visited India since July.
There has been an equal number of visits by Indian officials to the United States, including by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee himself, the home and defense ministers, senior members of the national security team.
Over the long run, the U.S.-Indian relations could hinge on Kashmir, a territory that was divided between Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu-dominated India when the nations were created in 1947. The majority of Kashmir’s people are Muslim, and conflicts over control of the region erupted immediately after the partition and have persisted.
Today, forces face off along a de facto border — the Line of Control — that runs through Kashmir, and India accuses Pakistan of allowing extremists to cross the border to stage attacks on Indian interests in Kashmir.
Now, India is looking to the United States to pressure Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to halt the incursions. In return, India is increasingly accepting the legitimacy of U.S. interests in Pakistan, long an ally of Washington.
There have been some positive results already, with Musharraf clamping down on some of the key Islamic militant organizations that have a track record of creating mayhem in the Kashmir valley.
The U.S. State Department’s annual report on human rights worldwide, issued earlier this month, picks holes in India’s human rights record but its public acknowledgement of foreign militants in strife-torn Kashmir has pleased Indian policy makers. “Many of the militants are not citizens but Afghans, Pakistanis and others,” the report noted.
Indian lobbying was behind the U.S. government designating two militant groups active in strife-torn Kashmir — the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba — as “foreign terrorist organizations.”
THE BIG OBJECTIVE
Traditionally, India’s policy establishment has bristled at prospects of having the United States in its backyard. But today, many among India’s security affairs fraternity say that although New Delhi does not like Washington lionizing Musharraf and showering him with no-strings-attached economic aid, it should use the United States’ current leverage with Pakistan to its advantage.
“India’s biggest strategic objective is to get Pakistan cleaned up of extremism. If the U.S. can really get Musharraf to stop sending terrorists across the border into our territory, good for us,” said retired Maj. Gen. Ashok Mehta, now a commentator on Indian security affairs. “Stability in this region is as much in the United States’ interest as ours and critical to removing terror root and branch.”
In another sign of stronger ties, the United States has removed the sanctions it slapped on India after New Delhi conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the countries have discussed plans to cooperate on developing a light combat aircraft, and the United States is considering selling India weapons.
The United States also has asked India to be part of an international maritime coalition force to police the Indian Ocean and crucial sea lanes, including oil routes from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits.
“The Indian navy has experience and there will be commercial spin-offs,” says security analyst Mehta. “This would elevate India’s position and de facto establish India as a strategic player in the Indian Ocean.”
The next big test for Indian-U.S. relations will come in late May, when the snow in the Himalayas begins to melt and guerrilla infiltration from Pakistan into the Kashmir valley becomes easier. If border clashes increase, India will be watching closely to see if Musharraf reigns in the extremists, and U.S. reaction if he does not.
Published in MSNBC. Patralekha Chatterjee is MSNBC’s contributor based in New Delhi, India