India and Pakistan both squandered a chance to talk peace at the United Nations

Much of what transpires at the annual general assembly at the United Nations is ritualistic. There are an exchange of pleasantries, written speeches, official dinners. Avenue One, where the UN is located in Manhattan, in the heart of New York, turns into an arena for mingling and networking, debating and sparring. But amid these traditional interactions one also sees the UN turning into a space where countries can put forth their “vision” for the future, not just for themselves but for the world.

This year American President Donald Trump used his first appearance at the UNGA podium to put forth his “vision” and threaten North Korea with destruction. This flew in the face of the understanding that the UN is a place where nation states come together to talk about peace in the world and stitch together policies to make this happen. The larger question that then emerged to repeatedly make the rounds, was why contentious issues hardly seemed to move towards solutions, while soft issues were getting so much attention. Conflicts were certainly on the agenda but no interventions were in sight.

India, Pakistan

For a journalist from South Asia like myself, here to cover the UN and keen to observe the proceedings, there hardly seemed to be any change in the discourse. Only the traditional “wrestling” between India and Pakistan stayed in focus. Since both countries have refused to budge from their positions, their hostility also cast a shadow on their conduct in the general assembly.

It wasn’t always like this. There was less bickering just two years earlier, in 2015 when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech here had been softer in language and more reconciliatory in tone. (Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s peace overture had come in December 2014, despite the Pathankot attack on January 15 still souring the air.) This was also the year that Prime Minister Modi had addressed the UNGA for the first time as PM and he had not too offending towards Pakistan.

But last year, in 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to a “war time” script since Kashmir was burning at the time after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. His angry stance was equally countered by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. This year, the face on the Pakistani side was of new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the rich businessman who stepped into Nawaz Sharif’s shoes after he was unseated by an anti-corruption court. As I listened to PM Abbasi, I got the distinct feeling that I was hearing the speech from last—only the hands that held the white sheet on which the words were written had changed.

PM Abbasi mentioned Kashmir 17 times in his speech and India 14 times. He focused on human rights violations and India’s decision to deny the people of Jammu and Kashmir the right to self-determination. He even demanded a special envoy of the UN for the valley.

The response to his speech came as expected. First, a junior diplomat read from a text that introduce the epithet “terroristan” for Pakistan. Later, Sushma Swaraj, who continued with her country’s diplomatic mission for the second year as Modi gave UNGA another miss, made a scathing attack on Pakistan. She taunted Pakistan by saying that India was a model of development and prosperity while Islamabad had only produced terrorists. Her comparison between IIT and Let, IIM and Jem and AIIM and HM drew a lot of attention on social media. She was reminded by many critics that India was also a “rapistan and lynchistan”. Even left-liberals pooh-poohed her for selling to the world what Congress had done over six decades.
PM Abbasi mentioned Kashmir 17 times in his speech and India 14 times. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj did not use the word Kashmir once in her entire speech

Nevertheless, New Delhi has succeeded in leveraging the “terror” factor when it comes to Kashmir. Swaraj was cautious; she did not use the word Kashmir once in her entire speech. These moves to delegitimize the political context and the content of the political movement has so far been bearing fruit. Delinking Kashmir from the larger narrative of terror will be an uphill task for Pakistan.

It certainly did not help that Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN Maleeha Lodhi used an incorrect photograph to highlight the plight of Kashmiri youth who have been victimised by state violence. She showed a picture of a Gaza girl which India swiftly pounced on with its national media in hot pursuit. This drew the world’s attention away from what should have been in the spotlight: the reality that the police and paramilitary forces have wounded and blinded thousands of young Kashmiris by pellets and guns particularly at the height of the uprising in 2016. The pain and rage of the Kashmiris was diluted by what turned into a “celebratory moment” for those who refuse to acknowledge this reality. Pakistan’s bad management squandered a chance to drive home the brutality in Kashmir.

(Amid the scripted wrangle that defined a India-Pakistan moment at the UN, there was one heartening moment when Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra met Malala Yousafzai and tweeted, “Oh @Malala no words will be enough...I can’t believe I..met..U!!You’re just a young girl with so much heart..and such achievements.so proud” . And she too was ecstatic: “Oh can’t believe I met Priyanka Chopra.” Certainly, there are no walls between people only between their governments.)

India, US

The bitter exchange by these two neighbours was lost in the din at the UNGA. There was no substance on reconciliation and peace in their speeches.

India had a strong team led by Swaraj, joined by many diplomats and her junior minister MJ Akbar. Everything was calculated. Bonhomie between New Delhi and Washington seemed to be at play to position India as “different”. Swaraj’s participation in the committee on UN reforms and meetings with important people contrasted with how Pakistan was placed this time. The message Washington is sending is clear: India is an important factor in the South Asia strategy.

Relations between the US and Pakistan, on the other hand, have slumped since Trump’s speech on August 21 had cast a shadow over Abbasi’s visit to UN. He also came at a time when both sides are struggling to deal with a deterioration in ties. Prime Minister Abbasi met Vice President Mike Pence but this was hardly a cause for celebration. The US administration’s hardline position was amply demonstrated; there can be no compromise over terrorism. Pakistan’s strong reaction to Trump’s speech had already pushed relations back with Islamabad cancelling a visit of high-profile diplomats from Washington and Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif’s visit to the US. It was only Chief of Army Staff General Asif Bajwa’s speech on September 6 that hinted at reconciliation while maintaining that Pakistan cannot be ignored in the geopolitical importance of the region.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Srinagar (Kashmir) and can be reached at shujaat7867@gmail.com