Understanding the president’s Kashmir bombshell—and why it matters.
On Monday, early in the afternoon in Washington, D.C., and around the time most people in New Delhi were going to bed, U.S. President Donald Trump livened up a press conference with a revelation that would shake relations between the United States and India, the world’s two biggest democracies: “I was with Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi two weeks ago. He actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir.’”
Trump was seated beside a smiling Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is in Washington this week.
Trump then added: “I’d love to be a mediator.”
Nearly 8,000 miles away, in New Delhi, government officials brushed off their disbelief and sprang into action. “No such request has been made,” tweeted Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But it didn’t end there. On Tuesday, as Indians woke up to the news, opposition leaders angrily demanded that Modi clarify what actually transpired between him and Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Tokyo last month. While Modi has yet to respond, the country’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, read out a statement in the upper house of parliament, diplomatically mirroring what his spokesman said: “I repeat, no such request was made by the prime minister to the U.S. president.”
Why is India angry? And why is it adamant about not involving a mediator in Kashmir?
It all goes back to 1971 when East Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh. India played a pivotal role in that war, fighting West Pakistan and enabling East Pakistan to break away and form a new country. Months later, on July 1972, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—now presiding over a sharply reduced territory—met in the Indian town of Shimla, then Simla, to construct a blueprint for relations between their countries. Troops were pulled back beyond borderlines; prisoners of war were returned. But more consequentially, the two sides signed what became known as the Simla Agreement—a document that created the so-called Line of Control in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
One line in the Simla Agreement has come to be defining: “[T]he two countries are resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations.”
While India and Pakistan have since been involved in several hostilities, New Delhi has steadfastly referred to the Simla Agreement’s resolution to stick to bilateral negotiations as a reason not to involve external mediators.
“It is absolutely unthinkable that an Indian leader—let alone the prime minister—would ask a foreign leader to mediate in Kashmir,” said Navtej Sarna, who recently retired after serving as India’s ambassador to the United States between 2016 and 2018. Sarna spoke to Foreign Policy on the phone from New Delhi. “We have a strong position on this issue, which has been in place for years. It is a well-understood dynamic.”
Indian diplomats have long made clear to their counterparts that they don’t want international interference in Kashmir. (While both India and Pakistan claim all of Kashmir’s territory, India controls only about 45 per cent of its land; Pakistan administers around a third; and China controls Aksai Chin, which represents about 20 per cent of Kashmiri territory.) Part of the reason why New Delhi prefers to contain Kashmir as a local issue is that international mediation could lead to adverse outcomes for India, including a potential Kashmiri plebiscite, which could, in turn, set a precedent in other parts of the country.
And why would Pakistan want mediation in Kashmir?