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The roots of indifference

03 August, 2010

By Dr Maleeha Lodhi


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Several Congressmen showed up at a conference in Washington to express concern over the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and call for urgent efforts to address the dispute. This served as a contrast to the lack of interest from the American administration – a fact duly noted by Congressmen Joseph Pitts.

The lawmaker recalled that President Barack Obama had not fulfilled his campaign promise to engage with the Kashmir issue. That the administration’s special envoy for the region does not even use the Kashmir word was a “disgrace”, he said. Congressman Robert Aderholt said that the ongoing Kashmiri protests were a fresh reminder that the issue wouldn’t just go away.

The eleventh peace conference, organised by the Kashmiri-American Council and the Association of Humanitarian Lawyers at Capitol Hill, brought together activists, scholars, lawyers, diplomats and journalists from Kashmir, Pakistan, India, the US, the UK and the Kashmiri diaspora. The two-day conference convened last week against the troubled backdrop of renewed mass protests in the Kashmir Valley and the failure of the July 15 talks between Pakistan and India.

The Pakistan-India divide manifested itself at the conference in the sharp clash of opinion among non-officials from the two countries with the Kashmiri participants using this to illustrate how their fate remains hostage to such a deadlock. From the Indian side Kuldip Nayar insisted that as the status quo in Kashmir could not be changed the parties to the dispute should simply accept the Line of Control as the border.

This view was of course challenged by the Pakistani participants especially in spirited presentations by Mushahid Hussain and Munir Akram. Kashmiri speakers were even more vociferous in contesting the Indian view and portrayed the current protests as the latest testimony of popular opinion that sees the present status quo as unacceptable.

It was from the younger members of the Kashmiri diaspora that the conference heard the most impassioned speeches. They offered valuable insights into the nature of the current youth-dominated protests that have raged for the third consecutive year in Srinagar and across the Valley. The speakers stressed that young stone-pelting demonstrators, many in their teens, have grown up in the oppressive environment of barricades and curfews, experiencing the militarising of everyday life.

This new generation is using modern technology including social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate, inform and mobilise. Their anger seems irrepressible as also their will to overcome the hurdles placed in their path with the authorities often shutting down the internet, suspending mobile phone messaging and prosecuting users of Facebook for expressing opposition to Indian rule.

‘Cyber resistance’ is one dimension of how the third generation of Kashmiri is confronting the crackdown. But stone throwing has become the most visible expression of resistance. Professor Anjana Chatterji, convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Kashmir, described “stone-pelting as the response from a subjugated people whose political expression has been thwarted”. Stone pelting, she said, was not the cause of violence in Kashmir today but the reaction to unchecked police and paramilitary brutality.

The news of the killing of four more civilians in Kashmir on the conference’s second day cast a pall of gloom over the proceedings. This took the civilian death toll to 23 in the last seven weeks alone. The indifference of the world community to these killings was a theme that figured prominently at the conference. The speaker who was listened to with rapt attention explaining this was Yusuf Buch who remains the foremost authority on Kashmir. Now in his 80s Mr Buch was born in Srinagar, served in the cabinet of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and had a long career with the United Nations. Age has neither dimmed his passion nor his encyclopaedic knowledge of Kashmir. Because people in Pakistan have little opportunity to hear him his perspective bears detailed mention.

Would such large and sustained peaceful protests going on in Kashmir today be ignored if they occurred in a western country, he asked. Yet there is indifference by the world’s significant powers to the agony of an entire people. He identified three factors which promoted this – apart from the obvious one of countries seeking to avoid taking a position that annoys New Delhi. The first is that the world has become ‘used’ to a dispute that has persisted for over six decades. Second the UN, which has obligations on this issue, has been marginalised since the end of the Cold War. And three, he described “callousness if not outright cynicism to have become the reserve fund of diplomacy” on the issue.

Elaborating the third point Mr Buch said that the very vocabulary used for the dispute has become the means and justification for non-engagement. Two adjectives, he said, that are routinely used including by US officials are “historical” and “longstanding”. What, he asked, is “historical” about injustices that are being inflicted every day? What is “longstanding” about unarmed teenagers pelting stones to express their opposition to Indian rule?

This language is meant to cultivate a diplomatic culture of evasion. It aims to draw a curtain over present-day reality and “provide a moral justification for inaction”. These misrepresentations are also designed to promote a “tolerant” view of a situation that is “hard and pitiless”. Notwithstanding this terminology, the killings of 90,000 Kashmiris have added a “transformational reality to the dispute” according to Mr Buch.

What about the argument that time has diminished the relevance of solemn undertakings embodied in the Security Council resolutions on Kashmir? To assert this, he said, is to ascribe to the law of the jungle. Does a Constitution lose its relevance because it’s been around for a long time? As for the assertions made during the conference that the Indian Constitution is unalterable, he recalled what Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said on June 26, 1952: “If after a proper plebiscite the people of Kashmir said we do not want to live with India, we are committed to accept this. We will not send an army against them. We will change the Constitution if necessary”.

Mr Buch’s advice to the conference was that the “apparent futility” of diplomatic efforts to find a solution should not diminish the necessity of countering the impression that the issue has lost its urgency. No one at the conference disagreed even if most participants remained pessimistic about prospects for progress even as conditions in Kashmir continue to deteriorate.

The Indian delegates pointed out that the view that gained currency in their country after the Mumbai incident was to de-link the Kashmir issue from dialogue with Pakistan. An Indian speaker drew attention to the lack of consensus within the ruling Congress Party about talks with Islamabad adding that the more hard-line home ministry has the upper hand over a “disempowered” ministry of external affairs at a time when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is reluctant to invest real political capital in the peace process.

Not surprisingly there was little agreement on how to deal with the substance of the issue even as Professor Stanley Wolpert warned about the rising costs of non-resolution. He said Kashmir had taken a greater toll on lives and resources then any “other sub-continental catastrophe”. And he proposed that when President Obama visits India in November he should encourage Prime Minister Singh to resolve the Kashmir dispute.

The conference nonetheless ended with a consensus on the need for an early and just resolution to the conflict in accordance with Kashmiri aspirations. It urged an immediate end to human right abuses, repeal of draconian laws, establishment of a commission to investigate the recent killings and the withdrawal of Indian forces from populated areas.

In his message to the Kashmir conference former President Bill Clinton urged that “old hatreds” be replaced with a “modern peace”. But this cannot be achieved unless there is a serious effort to resolve Kashmir by addressing rather than ignoring it.

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