On 14 February 2019, just before lunchtime, the South African government received news that 42 Indian troops had been killed in a suicide bombing along a highway in Pulwama, in the Indian-occupied territory of Kashmir. The bombing was claimed by a Pakistani rebel group.
Before the close of business, President Cyril Ramaphosa had released a statement “on behalf of the government and people of South Africa, extending the country’s deepest condolences to the government and the people of the Republic of India following the unjustifiable and cowardly attack”.
Yet when it comes to Indian-occupied Kashmir, the most militarised region in the world, where 42 000 people have been killed in 30 years of military and extra-judicial killings by the Indian military, the South African government has remained almost silent.
It’s been more than 50 days since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which means that Muslim-majority Kashmir, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, no longer has special status of limited autonomy to decide on its own Constitution. The announcement came merely hours after a dramatic military crackdown, when Modi deployed tens of thousands of new troops to Kashmir, beginning a spate of arbitrary arrests of 4 000 political leaders and civilians, a debilitating curfew and a total media blackout.
Some South African activists are asking why, even now, with Kashmir back on the agenda of the world media and multilateral presidential-level discussions, Ramaphosa is keeping mum?
South Africa’s bias
Thus far, the most that has come out of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (Dirco) has been a press release, which says that it “notes with concern the escalation of tensions surrounding developments in Jammu and Kashmir. The issue … should be resolved bilaterally”.
There seem to be a few possible reasons why South Africa is showing this bias. “From an economic diplomacy point, South Africa will do all it can to maintain its good relationship with India,” says Zeenat Adam, former diplomat and independent international relations consultant.
She says that with India as one of South Africa’s top five trading partners, and the countries working closely together in Brics, the Indian Ocean Rim Association and the Ibsa (India-Brazil-South Africa) Dialogue Forum, there is a fair amount at stake for South Africa.
According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ information on India-South Africa relations, bilateral trade between India and South Africa has reached $10 billion (over R150 billion) and they aim to increase that to $20 billion (over R300 billion) by 2021.
In January this year, Ramaphosa and nine cabinet ministers paid a state visit to Modi, accompanied by a large business delegation.
Another potential factor is the historical connection – the bond of resisting British colonial rule, and India being the first country to impose political and economic sanctions on the apartheid government in 1946 – which some believe is blinding South Africa to India’s increasingly right-wing policies of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Iqbal Jassat, executive member of the Media Review Network says, “There cannot be any reasonable basis for being pro-India except a misplaced understanding that the India under BJP today is the same country which held a firm anti-colonial and anti-apartheid policy.”
“To lack the ability to distinguish between a progressive India of the past and the current right-wing regime betrays the South African government’s human rights-based foreign policy,” he adds.
Jassat attributes the lack of local civil society discourse to the rhetoric that the “conflict” between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is a religious dispute between Hindus and Muslims, that it is an internal Indian issue, or that it’s a bilateral problem between two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Debacle over the Modi docket
However, there are those taking the issue on in full force. Last year the South African Muslim Lawyers Association and the South African Kashmiri Action Group laid a complaint with the National Prosecuting Authority, calling for the arrest and prosecution of Modi, for crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute, upon his arrival in Johannesburg for the 10th Brics Summit.
Yet Modi came and went, and the Modi docket, as it is known, is currently in limbo because of a lack of evidence. “We were able to get affidavits from two people who have been victims of these crimes against humanity,” says Yousha Tayob, Vice Ameer and attorney at the Muslim Lawyers Association. “But the NPA is requesting in-person interviews, and it’s very difficult to find people in Kashmir who are willing to talk on the record.”
Adam says that even though South Africa is “on the back foot” with its unequal economic partnership with India, it still does have international fora where it could raise the issue, such as Brics, the G20 and now the United Nations Security Council.
“South Africa needs to be forceful and firm,” she says. “This issue is about liberation, and not a bilateral issue as the government’s been saying. If we don’t use our positions in these international organisations, it would seem that we have forsaken our policies on human rights in favour of our policies on trade.”