COLOMBO -- South Asia's smaller countries are caught in the diplomatic crossfire as India and Pakistan tussle over Kashmir, a disputed region that has been under a military lockdown for over three weeks after India's Hindu nationalist government imposed a new political order.
Sri Lanka and the Maldives have had to tread a fine line since New Delhi revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, with both countries releasing statements saying the end of decades of autonomy in the predominantly Muslim region was largely an internal matter for India. That caution has slowed Islamabad's effort to bring the matter before the United Nations.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena's office stepped in after the Pakistani ambassador implied that Sirisena was partial to Pakistan's ideas on resolving the Kashmir dispute. Sirisena's office denied that he had told the ambassador that "Jammu and Kashmir is a disputed territory and expressed his desire that this dispute should be resolved according to wishes of Kashmiris, under U.N. resolutions."
Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid weighed in similarly, after a disagreement emerged over whether Kashmir came up during a telephone call with his Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
Shahid stated that "both Pakistan and India are close friends and bilateral partners of the Maldives." The minister also said that he "stressed the importance of resolving the differences between the two countries amicably through peaceful means." But Qureshi told Pakistani media that they had not discussed Kashmir -- apparently to avoid the embarrassment of being snubbed by the Maldives.
South Asian diplomats consider the reactions by Sri Lanka and the Maldives as a likely diplomatic template for the rest of the region, with Bangladesh and Bhutan viewing the latest twist in the Kashmir issue as an internal Indian matter. Afghanistan and Nepal do not fit the pattern, however, regarding it as a bilateral issue between New Delhi and Islamabad. Nepal's position became clear following a visit by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar to Kathmandu to lobby for support over Kashmir.
"It is unlikely that South Asian countries will endorse Pakistan's push to internationalize the Kashmir issue because it will set a bad precedent for these countries," a veteran South Asian diplomat told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Most of them have their own domestic, politically sensitive issues that they would prefer to be dealt with internally, and not invite scrutiny from neighboring countries or the U.N."
Kashmir is just as unlikely to be taken up by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, an eight-member regional body. Indian influence at SAARC's founding more than 25 years ago also ensured that Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars during the past 70 years, was kept off the table.
According to John Gooneratne, a senior Sri Lankan diplomat, "India will enjoy the edge within SAARC, because it avoids taking up political questions and bilateral issues, and it requires all decisions to be approved unanimously." He reckons that the smaller South Asian countries will pursue a strategy of maintaining regional ties by saying that "India has gone through the constitutional process" in its handling of Kashmir.
But some analysts say India's advantage with regard to Kashmir lies in differing perceptions about Pakistan and India in the region. "India's diplomatic leverage has grown over the years, not just because of its economic and security relationships with all its neighbors but because Pakistan's support of terrorism has hurt its cause both with South Asian countries and others," said Aparna Pande, director for the Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The obstacles facing Pakistan were also apparent at the U.N. Security Council, where the issue of Kashmir was taken up for the first time in nearly five decades. Pakistan welcomed the discussion as a partial diplomatic victory after China, its longtime ally, called for the Security Council meeting. One U.N. watcher, however, said the issue was treated more as a formality. The council "didn't even issue a president's statement," which would have carried diplomatic weight.
These setbacks are unlikely to stop Pakistan from trying to rally international support for Kashmiris. According to Mosharraf Zaidi, a former adviser to Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, Pakistan would like its neighbors to understand "how deeply the Kashmir issue resonates within Pakistan," and how important it is to replace the threat of conflict in the region with the opportunities for open, cross-border trade.
"Obviously, Pakistan would have preferred a more robust set of statements supporting the Kashmiri people's dignity and right of self-determination -- and India would have preferred a total silence, as it does in Kashmir," he said.
For now, the chorus of concern about India's harsh treatment of Kashmiris is being echoed by human rights campaigners. India has cut off Kashmir's internet and telephone service as part of the crackdown, isolating it from the outside world. New roadblocks and travel restrictions have sprung up. And there has been a surge in detentions of Kashmiri political leaders.
"This is collective punishment of an entire people, and has some parallels with the way China is treating its Uighur Muslim minority," said Biraj Patanaik, South Asia director of Amnesty International. "And unfortunately, just like China seems to have got away [with its crackdown], India will as well because the reaction by the international community so far is tepid -- not even a squeak. Pakistan is not the aggressor here."