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MEPs visit: Perception management is not a one off affair

By Lieutenant General SYED ATA HASNAIN (retd)
October 30, 2019 18:23 IST
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'The idea that the J&K issue gets internationalised by allowing foreign delegations to visit it appears bizarre to me because the issue is not about Article 370 or the decisions relating to the abrogation, but more to do with the post decision handling,' notes Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (retd).

Members of the European Parliament during a shikara ride on the Dal Lake in Srinagar. Photograph: S Irfan/PTI Photo

IMAGE: Members of the European Parliament during a shikara ride on the Dal Lake in Srinagar. Photograph: S Irfan/PTI Photo

The Opposition in India is obviously furious that select members of the European Parliament have proceeded to Kashmir to ascertain how things there are while members of the Opposition parties in India were some time ago sent back from Srinagar airport.

On the face of it, it does appear strange, but then Kashmir and its connected actions never pose a static situation; a dynamic environment keeps changing shades with a gain here and a loss here.

This time there seems a problem. Even the Shiv Sena, the Bharatiya Janata Party's partner in Maharashtra, seems perturbed about the decision to allow in a set of MEPs whose credentials are not fully established and the visit has been put together by some kind of an NGO. The Shiv Sena is reportedly alleging internationalisation of J&K.

The media too is stating that rather than cultivate the Indian narrative this action is helping internationalise Kashmir, much against the Indian stance of bilateralism and non-mediation.

The issue of India's Kashmir narrative needs greater analysis to see what our stance should really be and what actions must follow.

The larger issue is that Indian diplomacy has been proactively visible in the right quarters and achieved a fair degree of success. However, it cannot be left at just that because it is an evolving situation and being an important and respected member of the international community India cannot allow sponsored vilification of its actions to go unchallenged.

How exactly do you do that?

I recall the year 2006 when I was attending the prestigious Royal College of Defence Studies programme in London. A delegation of international fellows of the same institution from 15 countries was visiting India. I was on a different delegation visiting the Middle East.

To my surprise I found that the delegation to India was taken to Kashmir for two days; they attended briefings, met the governor, roamed around Lal Chowk and Residency Road and had a flying visit to the LoC.

When they got back they were full of praise for the Indian handling of J&K. I was asked to join them when they briefed the British chief of defence services and the defence secretary and I even answered a few queries put to me by the latter.

It was one of the finest decisions taken by the Indian government. No RCDS delegation ever visited Kashmir thereafter despite my strong recommendation in the after event report. The lack of continuity in decision making did us in.

The lesson from the above is that you have to have the right people visiting a troubled area of your nation and at the right time, which must thereafter be followed up with more to avoid making it a one off affair.

Now what exactly is our perception issue concerning Kashmir?

I find that the government has done a splendid job diplomatically concerning the justification of its decisions taken on August 5. Most major nations have endorsed the Indian government's stance. The challenge thereafter really lies in two fields.

First, the international media has not taken the bite and appears unimpressed, more because the Pakistani effort to cultivate it has perhaps been decidedly a lot more energetic. This has been dismissed by many in India as the opinion of a biased liberal foreign media and we can live without it.

Be what it may, it is the opinion of the international media which goes into influencing decisions beyond the optics of endorsement by high profile political visits. Personalities change at the political helm, but international media outlasts all of them.

Second, the idea that the J&K issue gets internationalised by allowing foreign delegations to visit it appears bizarre to me because the issue is not about Article 370 or the decisions relating to the abrogation, but more to do with the post decision handling, the much maligned supposed 'lockdown', which some sources are still reporting as a virtual curfew.

In this sphere neither the Opposition nor the media reporting from Kashmir has got it right. We may keep crying hoarse that there are traffic jams in Lal Chowk but unless people see more of these and particularly those who will speak about it, the better it is.

To that extent opening up Kashmir to foreign delegation visits isn't a bad idea at all. Remember, India is not looking for mediation efforts to get engaged in talks with Pakistan or seeking resolution of J&K. All it is doing is to let the situation speak for itself through the eyes of others.

On this issue of mediation or intervention it all boils down to semantics. In 1990 US special envoy Robert Gates was involved in shuttle diplomacy between New Delhi and Islamabad in the wake of Exercise Zarb-e-Momin which almost brought India and Pakistan to war.

It was neither mediation, intervention nor internationalisation. It was simply crisis management.

In 1999, then US president Bill Clinton used all the pressure on Pakistan to get it to vacate the remaining Kargil heights. Again, it was none of the above labels and simply a case of conflict management.

Thus, all lofty allegations of internationalisation of J&K due to a visit by a foreign delegation do not pass muster. To that extent, the government isn't wrong in its decision. Where it needed to be more circumspect about the handling of the cultivation of the Indian narrative was again in two domains.

First, there needed to be a level of transparency for the political Opposition within. Obviously, the current awkward picture could have been overcome by a preceding visit of an all-party delegation to Kashmir to speak to the people and visit the main areas. That would have been part amelioration, perhaps not full.

Second, the choice of people for the first foreign delegation visit was important. Yes, there was obviously a need for some people who would not be awkwardly intrusive in the first visit itself. The choice of the MEPs somehow did not gel with the idea of most observers in India, including the mainstream media.

It may be better to start a little smaller by allowing more visits of the diplomatic corps from Delhi. Perception management is not a one off affair. It constantly needs resource people who will act as connectors and communicators. Some high profile nonpolitical people from diverse fields need to be brought into this on the basis of goodwill.

What needs to be clear is that India has taken all precautions while pursuing its political goals in J&K. These precautions were necessary in the light of previous experience with law and order and sponsored hybrid war activities.

Progressively, these precautions are being eased even as a vilification campaign has been launched against India. We are not looking for an all clear report; all that India is seeking is that it has followed the principle of proportionality and reserves the right to safeguard its security.

In doing this, progressive transparency of its actions in the eyes of its own people and credible foreign institutions is mandatory.

That is the way forward.

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Lieutenant General SYED ATA HASNAIN (retd)