India-China Relations, Indian Domestic Politics and the Future of Kashmir – A Conversation with Indian Professor Amitabh Mattoo


Professor Amitabh Mattoo

In the sixth segment of the NESA South Asia Interview Series, Professor Hassan Abbas interviews Professor Amitabh Mattoo, one of the India’s leading public policy thinkers and presently Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He also served as advisor with cabinet rank to the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir and remained the Vice-Chancellor of Jammu University (2002-2008). He was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, for his contribution to Education and Public Life in 2008. Professor Mattoo comes from a highly respected Kashmiri Pandit family of Srinagar which never left the valley during the years of conflict. For more details about his distinguished career and writings, see www.amitabhmattoo.com


HASSAN ABBAS: Beginning with the developing Chinese posture and its implications for South Asia, I would like to refer to your recent article “China’s Wolf Warrior Diplomacy: Why we are all Hong Kong now,” where you argue that China’s main strategic advantage has been its policy of incrementalism moving little-by-little, under-the-radar but now its approach is changing dramatically. Please share how this transition impacts India-China relations for the foreseeable future.

AMITABH MATTOO: I have been a China skeptic for some years now.  I have been following the Tibetan cause and have had the chance to interact with HH the Dalai Lama. I have seen the manner in which Beijing has systematically marginalized the Tibetan people, their identity, their culture, and their demography from the region: insidiously, incrementally but with a clinical grand strategy in place, executed with precision. In contrast to most China-watchers, I had been warning in my writings and through policy advisories of the fallacy of the belief that China had been socialized into accepting the existing rules of the international system.

China’s big advantage for the last decades thus has been its incrementalism. Especially in its foreign policy, its method was to move little-by-little, step-by-step, under-the-radar. This was a strategy of managing to stay just below the level of a full-blown provocation, such that any concrete retaliation by injured parties would look like a hysterical over-reaction.

This combination of a slow but certain incrementalism – couched often parables attributed to Confucius and other Chinese philosophers – had made Beijing’s diplomatic behavior inscrutable and yet generally viewed as benign. It gave the country an advantage in being able to change facts on the ground and attract zero retaliation and minimal critique. It was the perfect excuse for Western and Indian companies and governments to look the other way and continue with the high profits that business-as-usual with this authoritarian regime brought.

This has now dramatically changed, with Xi no longer abiding by Deng’s advice to bide time; he believes that China’s time has come, and that it needs to assert itself across the continent and in the oceans. China does not really care about its reputation or being described as a Wolf Warrior; the border incursions into Indian Territory and the new security law in Hong Kong are just two examples. But these are just examples of a wider pattern.

In fact, one can apply this insight to other aspects of China’s behavior too. The World Trade Organization is a case in point. China has slowly, deliberately, and quietly chipped away at the rules (or the spirit of the rules) that underpin the multilateral trading system but attracted scarce attention. All this does not augur well for Sino-Indian relations. Chinese intransigence and military mobilization on the border, its relationship with “hostile” Pakistan and interventions across South Asia, seem to indicate that China is desperate to box in India and contain is aspirations.  This is probably the biggest challenge that India has faced since independence.

HASSAN ABBAS: Moving onto politics in India, kindly help our readers understand the context and rationale of recent Indian moves as regards Kashmir (especially abrogation of article 370 of the Indian constitution) and later clampdowns. Is it a domestic power-politics play or did geopolitical considerations inspire it?

AMITABH MATTOO: The move to abrogate Article 370 is located both in geo-politics and domestic politics.  There was gradually an erosion of most of the autonomy guaranteed through Article 370 including the applicability of fundamental rights, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, the jurisdiction of the many of the Federal Laws that were not part of the original article. These were done through various presidential ordinances. Last August there was dramatic shift in terms of the whole Indian Constitution becoming applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. In terms of major restructuring of Centre-State vis-a-vis Jammu and Kashmir, this is perhaps—since the 1954 presidential order —the most major restructuring that has happened.

By moving to revoke the ‘special status’ granted to the state under Article 370, and by reorganizing the state into two union territories, Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, the BJP  (largely seen as a Hindu nationalist party) translated into reality one of  its fundamental promises in its election manifesto, but this may have unleashed a chain of events difficult to predict or contain.  For one, while even the founding fathers recognized that Article 370 was a transitional or temporary provision, there was clearly subtext; that its revocation would only happen once the acquiescence of the people of the state was obtained. And currently,there is widespread resentment against the decision in the valley even amongst pro-India parties.

Professor Mattoo receiving Padma Shri award from the President of India (2008)

The move is clearly also embedded in the larger geopolitics of the region and the way regional alliances are marginalizing Indian interests in the heartland of the region. With the United States seeking a quick exit, and willing to let the ISI sponsored Taliban control Afghanistan (and the Chinese deeply embedded in the power play), the heartland of central Asia has rarely been as adverse to Indian interests since 1989, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan.  Kashmir could, in these circumstances, become even more vulnerable to external elements than in the 1990s.

On top of it, the new camaraderie between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and the repeated offer by the American president to meditate in Kashmir may have precipitated the decision, which would, however, have in any case taken months of preparation. A decision to cancel the Amarnath yatra, and take hard decisions, with both domestic and international ramifications, suggests that the government believed that a settlement in Jammu and Kashmir and its pacification’ was vital for India’s national security.  This was, of course, in marked departure from recent history.

Now, shorn of its ideological fervor, what is seemingly being put in place is new audacious plan beyond the constitutional interventions. As a start, the Modi plan is fundamentally about directly reaching out to the people without the mediation of either separatist groups or mainstream politicians.

Reaching out to the people is seen as being best done by empowering local democracy to its fullest. In the past, the devolution of powers to the Panchayats and urban local bodies carried little popular appeal with elected members of the Legislative Assembly, who saw this as directly eroding their authority and had a vested interest in centralizing power.

In the interim, the new doctrine will have to persuade the majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir that greater integration with India will provide them with more opportunities, provide more freedom and space, strengthen their rights much more than the alternatives proposed by other mainstream parties or separatists.  In particular, concerns about demographic change and access to government jobs will have to be addressed

Will the Modi plan lead to greater harmony between New Delhi and Srinagar, bringing enduring peace to the body and the soul? If it does, it will have performed an extraordinary national service and resolved one of New Delhi’s greatest challenges.  For the moment, however, we must live with the uncertainty that is germane to all high-risk, almost adventurous undertakings.

HASSAN ABBAS: You have been a strong advocate of multiculturalism and political reconciliation between different religious groups in Kashmir. Given the new challenges faced by Kashmir, what are the prospects of positive developments in this direction?

AMITABH MATTOO: The basic reconciliation must be between Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims.  Most of the Kashmiri Pandits were displaced because of the violence in the 1990s.

But after three decades of exile, the promise and possibility of the dignified return of the Kashmiri Pandits to the valley seems as elusive today as it was in 1990. And yet, it is clearer than ever before, the secure presence of the Pandit minority would be an (if not the most) important marker of sustainable peace in the Kashmir valley. Much has happened since those cataclysmic days of the 1990s, including the restructuring of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the abrogation of Article 370, and yet other than schadenfreude, the events have brought little joy to the Kashmiri Pandits or indeed increased the possibility of them returning home.

Professor Mattoo with the Dalai Lama

Make no mistake; the Kashmiri Pandits are individually members of arguably the most successful ethnic minority in the country; collectively, however, they are confronted with a loss that is painfully difficult to fathom or describe to those who do not share that sense of anomie. Returning home  is then not just about atavistic roots of longing, but as much about reclaiming an intellectual space of belonging.  In this sense, both personal triumph and collective tragedy face them in almost equal measure with no signs of an actionable plan for their return.

Indeed, the intriguing history of the Kashmiri Pandit community is an anomaly in contemporary times that has privileged stories of ideological clashes, confronting cultures and competing nationalisms. Where else would you find an educated (with hundred percent literacy) mostly professional, materially successful, religiously liberal, politically flexible, microscopic minority inhabiting one of the most conflicted and contested parts of the country? They lived, in retrospect, fairy tale lives; and that fairy tale became a nightmare in the 1990s.

Sadly, for most liberal political analysts and thinkers, the Kashmiri Pandit exodus became part of the larger tragedy of the Kashmiri issue and was forgotten or marginalized. Meanwhile the Kashmiri Pandits struggled, adapted, built new lives, in the midst of adversity, in India and abroad, and succeeded. Apart from the few who live in camps or makeshift accommodation, they are today a model of material success.

Like with many diasporic communities, memories of the past continue to haunt the present. The Kashmiri Pandits can neither forget their beloved Kashmir nor the circumstances under which most of them have had to leave the valley in 1990-1991. Is there a prospect of reconciliation with the past and returning to the valley?  In the Manichean worlds that Kashmiri Pandits and Kashmiri Muslims inhabit today, their narratives are almost diametrically opposite. While most Pandits seem their departure as part of a systematic “ethnic cleansing” by a section of the Kashmiri Muslims, most Muslims see in the departure of the Kashmiri Pandits as a deliberate conspiracy of the Indian state with two objectives; to give them a bad name and simultaneously give a free repressive hand to the security forces.  This divide shows few signs of being bridged. Under these circumstances, the prospects of reconciliation seem bleak unless there was a common project like a new Sharda Peeth University that could bring them together and recreate the bonds of interdependence that had held them in good stead over much of history.

HASSAN ABBAS: Coming to India-Pakistan relations, the downward trend in bilateral relations seems to be gaining momentum lately. How does New Delhi view Islamabad’s security policy today both internally, in terms of counterterrorism, and externally, especially towards India?

AMITABH MATTOO: It has been clear, for some years now, that India has been unable to fully comprehend or address the complexities of a changing Pakistan. Not surprisingly, New Delhi’s policies have floundered, if not failed.  Strident debates in the Indian media – frightening in their Manichean simplicity – reflect this lack of appreciation of the intricacies of the Gordian knot in which bilateral relations seem to have been tied. Robust if differentiated, focused but flexible multi-track responses must now define India’s policy towards Pakistan’s fragile and fragmented political and social structure.

“India and the Contemporary International System” (2014)

Finally, it seems that there is a process of deep churning within Pakistan’s multiple “societies”, which seems to translate, at the moment, in almost schizophrenic iresponses on key issues of identity.

India’s Pakistan policy has not succeeded because, while remaining a prisoner of past dogmas, it has been unable to respond to the multiple political and social forces in Pakistan that need to be first understood and then addressed.

As we know, the strategic community in India has traditionally been overwhelmingly in support of a policy of aggressively countering Pakistan. These are the Subedars [civil/military officials]. Only a minority, the Saudagars [traders/merchants], has wanted to ignore and benignly neglect Islamabad or integrate it economically. A microscopic few, however, want New Delhi to be proactive in promoting peace, even to the extent of making unilateral concessions. These are the Sufis [mystics/saints].

But these strands cannot afford today to remain in opposition to one another. What is needed is for the Subedars, the Saudagars and the Sufis to come together and shape a new Pakistan policy. At a time when it has become risky to invoke Mohammed Ali Jinnah, it is still important to recall his original design for the state: Muslim, Moderate and Modern. It is this Pakistan that an Indian strategy must systematically work towards constructing. In the present scenario, Indian policy must have at least the following strands.

First, India needs to build strong defensive and offensive capabilities to deter “asymmetric” attacks by non-state actors within Pakistan that may have backing from within elements of the Pakistani establishment.  Nuclear weapons, at the end of the day, will only deter nuclear weapons and, at best, a full-scale conventional war.  Doctrines like cold start will, however, remain in cold storage until they are able to explicitly demonstrate that diplomatic, political and military benefits outweigh the costs.

Second, India must reach out and strengthen all those who have a stake in better relations with India and an interest in regional stability through unilateral gestures that do not demand reciprocity. These would include specific initiatives for civil society actors, as well as many others within the business and political community.

Third, India must systematically seek to weaken, delegitimize and isolate those who are enemies of a moderate Pakistan, and by implication of a stable subcontinent. This can be done unilaterally or in conjunction with allies. It is also unfortunate that sub-continental Islam, built on an ethos of multiculturalism and tolerance, has not been projected with the robustness needed in these difficult times. This “soft power” of South Asian Sufi Islam remains the best weapon against extremism.

Fourth, Ultimately, we need to understand that the India-Pakistan relationship, over the last 62 years, has been about almost everything that matters: history, memory, prejudice, identity, religion, sovereignty, ideology, insecurity, betrayal and much more. Ironically, a troubled Pakistan, confused about its identity and its place in the world, may offer a real chance to move beyond conflict and towards real reconciliation. It is an opportunity to finally cut the Gordian knot; a chance that India cannot afford to miss

HASSAN ABBAS: How do you view the recent US negotiations with the Taliban in Afghanistan, and do you think the forthcoming Afghan-Taliban negotiations will lead to the stabilization of Afghanistan?

AMITABH MATTOO: I genuinely believe that the future of Afghanistan must be decided by the Afghans themselves, and it is a myth that the Pashtuns and other ethnic groups cannot coexist or find sustainable peace. Our former Vice President Hamid Ansari had promoted the idea of a neutral Afghanistan, guaranteed by the great powers and without external interference whether it be from ISI or CIA. I still believe this idea holds great promise and would best serve the cause of the Afghan people and its neighbors.

Be sure to read the earlier installments of the South Asia Series:

The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.