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Kashmir turmoil

Indian anger at Malaysia's Kashmir stance threatens palm oil trade

Mahathir's 'unprovoked' and 'unacceptable' remarks prompt talk of boycott

India's main palm oil trade group has asked its members to refrain from importing Malaysian palm oil.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India has blasted Malaysia and Turkey for openly supporting its archrival Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region whose special status was scrapped in August by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Amid reports that New Delhi is contemplating trade curbs against the two countries, an influential trade group in India asked its members recently to refrain from importing Malaysian palm oil, in their own interest and as a mark of solidarity with the government.

"The recent developments pertaining to strained relations between our nation and Malaysia have put a lot of responsibility on our industry in view of [the] huge imports of palm oil from that country," said Atul Chaturvedi, president of the Solvent Extractors' Association of India, in an advisory to members.

"Our government has not taken kindly to the unprovoked pronouncements by the Malaysian prime minister, and [it] is contemplating some retaliatory action. It would be [fitting], as a responsible Indian vegetable oil industry, [to] avoid purchasing palm oil from Malaysia till such time as clarity on the way forward emerges from the Indian government," Chaturvedi said.

The association, with 875 members, can process up to 30 million tons of oil seed annually. India is the world's largest buyer of vegetable oils, importing about 9.5 million tons of palm oil per year: 6.5 million tons from Indonesia and 3 million tons from Malaysia.

Elaborating on the advisory, the association's executive director, B.V. Mehta, told the Nikkei Asian Review that it was issued because the trade group feared India may take retaliatory action in the wake of the current tensions with Malaysia that could affect the import of palm oil from the Southeast Asian country.

"We told [our members] to be careful," he said. "If they are buying palm oil from Malaysia, there could be some trouble at a later date [if] the government of India changes its policy."

Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for India's Foreign Ministry, told a media briefing on Thursday that he was not aware of any government decision on retaliation. "In any case," Kumar said, "I think it is important to understand that the decision to import any commodity or otherwise is the prerogative of the importing company. But at the same time, they are not impervious to the state of affairs between any two countries."

Mehta said traders have been advised to defer purchases from Malaysia for the time being, until the government clarifies whether it will take any action against palm oil imports from the country. India, he added, can purchase more from Indonesia, which produces 40 million tons of edible oil a year, compared with 19 million tons for Malaysia.

"If you are a businessman, and you are getting the same product and quality at the same price [from other countries], will you still buy from Malaysia?" Mehta said. "Why would a businessman take a risk when you know that the government of India may take action," he said, pointing out that India has already blacklisted a Turkish defense equipment company.

Mehta was referring to media reports that Turkey's Anadolu Shipyard, which makes naval support ships, has been barred from doing business in India. Prime Minister Modi is also said to have put off a visit to Turkey, although officials say the trip was never finalized.

Siding with Pakistan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in his address to the U.N. General Assembly in September that the stability and prosperity of South Asia cannot be separated from the Kashmir issue. "It is imperative to solve this problem through dialogue on the basis of justice and equality, instead of conflict," he said.

Kashmiri girls shout slogans during a protest in the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, in September.   © Reuters

Mahathir, in his U.N. speech, said India had "invaded and occupied" Kashmir, a disputed region that both New Delhi and Islamabad claim. After stripping the region of special constitutional status that gave it more autonomy, New Delhi imposed restrictions on the movement and communications of Kashmiris.

Mahathir has refused to take back his criticism of India over Kashmir, and bilateral ties have also been hit over the issue of the extradition of Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, who fled India in 2016 after being accused of promoting hate speech. Malaysia, a majority-Muslim country, has granted Naik permanent residency.

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar met his Malaysian counterpart, Saifuddin Abdullah, on Wednesday on the sidelines of a Nonaligned Movement ministerial meeting in Azerbaijan. "The issue of Zakir Naik did figure in the discussion. We did reiterate the support that we expect from Malaysia toward the extradition of Zakir Naik, and we expect Malaysia to take action in that regard," ministry spokesman Kumar said.

On Mahathir's Kashmir remarks, Kumar said: "His statement is unacceptable and is not in keeping with the facts. We hope that the government of Malaysia will do serious introspection."

Responding to questions on Turkey, Kumar said the repeated statements by the Turkish government on the Kashmir issue "are not factually accurate," while refusing to say what actions, if any, were being taken against that country.

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