India's decision to cancel a travel visa issued to Dolkun Isa, a leader of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a dissident group that advocates for the nearly 12 million Muslims living in the Chinese region Xinjiang, could have unintended repercussions. Mr. Isa believes that India revoked his visa at the behest of China, which has suffered a number of attacks by Uyghur separatists. India's inserting itself into the Xinjiang controversy, though, is more likely to enflame Kashmir-obsessed Pakistani Islamists than Uyghurs.
China's ongoing struggle against Uyghur separatists has resulted in a crackdown not only on militancy, but on the religious freedom of Xinjiang's Muslim majority. Last year, China banned civil servants and public employees from fasting and ordered restaurants to remain open during Ramadan. In 2014, Chinese authorities banned anyone with a "large beard" or Islamic clothing from riding public buses. Prayer and other religious practices have been banned in public buildings and business offices, and, adding insult to injury, Uyghur Imams were forced to dance in the street and to tell children that prayer is harmful.
Facing its own insurgency in Muslim majority Kashmir, India is likely sympathetic to China's troubles in Xinjiang. Unlike China, though, India has not sought to stamp out the Kashmir insurgency by restricting Muslim religious practices. Outside of a brief court decision to enforce a 150-year-old ban on slaughtering cows, one that was quickly overturned, Kashmiri Muslims have been left relatively free to practice their religion. Muslim groups have openly carried out campaigns promoting hijab, the Islamic veil, and the Muslim population of Jammu & Kashmir has grown significantly over the past decade.
This does not mean that Kashmiri Muslims do not face institutionalized repression. International human rights groups continue to express concern about "a cycle of impunity for human rights violations" by Indian security forces that include killings, abduction, and torture. It is actually this heavy handedness, not religious oppression, that fuels propaganda promoting jihad in Kashmir produced by Pakistani Islamists who believe that Kashmir rightfully belongs to Pakistan, a view shared by Pakistan's military.
Ironically, while Pakistan has made Kashmir the centrepoint of its international advocacy, the self-styled "fortress of Islam" has been more than willing to overlook China's religious oppression of Muslims in Xinjiang. This willful blindness is born of a shared concern in Islamabad and Beijing about the threat of Indian regional hegemony. For China, Pakistan serves as part of a counterweight to rising Indian power in the region; For Pakistan, China is an important supplier of military hardware including nuclear missile technology, as well as its primary hope for economic growth through the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Despite a shared interest in limiting India's regional power, however, China-Pakistan relations have experienced a persistent tension in recent years over Islamist militancy. In 2007, Pakistani security forces raided the Red Mosque (Lal Masjid) in Islamabad after its madrassah students kidnapped several Chinese workers. In 2012, the Pakistani Taliban killed a Chinese tourist in retaliation for Chinese actions in Xinjiang. China has openly accused Pakistan of tolerating terrorist training camps within its borders used by Uyghur militants, and Chinese officials privately express suspicion that Pakistani intelligence agents are working with Uyghur militants at these camps. These concerns notwithstanding, China continues to help Pakistan avoid international scrutiny over its support for Islamist militants, as when China recently vetoed a UN effort to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Masood Azhar as an international terrorist.
Whether India's initial decision to grant a visa to Dolkun Isa was a direct response to China's UN veto on Masood Azhar, the subsequent decision to rescind Isa's visa is almost certainly a function of India's desire to cultivate warmer relations with China. Unfortunately, the real beneficiary of India's reversal may not be the Chinese, but Islamists in Pakistan who have been handed a ready-made talking point that allows them to blame India for Chinese religious oppression.
With India's rescinding of Isa's visa, Pakistani Islamists can finally take up the issue of Muslim oppression in Xinjiang without threatening Pakistan's crucial relationship with China. Moreover, Pakistani Islamists can do so in a way that perfectly fits their ideological narrative that posits India, especially under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as an anti-Muslim power. Pakistani Islamists, lacking specific anti-Islamic oppression to point to in Kashmir, will now be able to repurpose Chinese religious repression in Xinjiang to fuel their anti-India jihad.
India and China face a common threat: Islamist militants operating from within Pakistan. Due to decades of mutual suspicion, the two countries have largely worked at cross-purposes; the most recent example being China's protection of Masood Azhar at the UN. Prime Minister Modi has made significant progress in bringing the two countries closer together, but the decision to revoke the visa of the Uyghur activist could result in unintended consequences that threaten, not strengthen, regional security. A more effective strategy would be for India to help convince China to permit Uyghur Muslims to practice their religion, and to use its influence to persuade Pakistan to crack down on all militant groups operating within its borders and to comply with UN Resolution 47 which calls on the Government of Pakistan to withdraw all tribesmen and Pakistani nationals who have entered Kashmir for the purpose of fighting.
(This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post on May 19, 2016.)
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