Human rights and religion in Kashmir

Human rights can promote the ‘right’ to freedom of religion while religion can promote the ‘responsibility’ to enforce freedom of religion


It is given that writing involves delving into the forbidden. Common discussion in bazaars and between friends at home do little more than scratch the surface of the most contentious issues of our times. Irrespective of our religious persuasion, we rarely introspect and dig deeper into our souls to find formulae that can liberate us from using our religious identity as the basis for determining the state of human rights in our region.

Whenever discussion of human rights is evoked, dictatorships as much as democracies and liberals as much as extremists appear to ‘talk the talk’. Demanding the standard by one particular religious group usually appears to negate the standard expected by the other religious group. The Hindu Pandit / Muslim divide in the Kashmir Valley appears to be a case in point. The former’s exodus from the Valley was considered by many to be in aid of protecting Hindu lives (their human rights) while Muslim Kashmiris were exposed to mass violations of those very rights. The Muslims of what subsequently became known as AJK, though they were protecting their human rights in late 1947 when they killed, forcibly converted or forced Hindus and Sikhs to flee from their ancestral homes to the Eastern side of the LoC.

The exploitation of religious identity to claim human rights is further obfuscated by the lack of distinction between human rights, human needs and human wants. What constitutes a genuine need or want does not automatically translate into a right. It doesn’t necessarily follow that wanting to have a better car or house constitutes a right. It needs to be qualified by an effort, entitlement and confirmation that the rights of (an) other are not violated in the process.  

The right to self-determine one’s political future using whatever democratic means possible is of course a human right enshrined in the UN Charter of 1945. The issue should not be the right per se but in how the exercising of that by one community impinges on others. This is the juncture where religious identity takes over the discussion as well as momentum of what is essentially a genuine need, want and right. Developing a discourse that promotes tolerance of differing values is a must before one can envisage people of different religious persuasion being persuaded to co-exist for the collective good in a given territory. The task underhand throughout the erstwhile Dogra State of Jammu and kashmir is immense; when you consider how human rights (and indeed political rights) have been selectively applied depending mainly on religious identity.

The various Shia sects in Gilgit Baltistan consider their human rights to be repeatedly violated by the minority Sunni community under Pakistani State sponsorship. The Shia in Kargil feel a difference in applicability of human rights by the Indian government to them as compared to the Buddhists of Leh or the Sunnis of the Valley. The Hindus of Jammu feel aggrieved at the constant attention given to the Muslims of the Valley. The Dalits feel they are marginalised by the upper-caste Hindus. Remaining in Jammu, the Hindus from Rajauri and Poonch feel they are given less opportunity than Kashmiri Pandit migrants in the city. Muslims in Jammu have their own version of discrimination to tell. Progressive Muslims in PaK have a stark divergence of opinion with their more extreme, exclusivist compatriots who have a fixation with the human rights violations of the Kashmiri Sunni Muslims of the Valley.

Bubbling above these deep divisions of selective human rights (mainly related to religious identity), is a comprehensive set of issues that need to be collectively tackled. The cost of parochial notions of human rights repeatedly throws ‘the baby out with the bathwater’. What suffers is the collective potential of the economy, standards of education, health, infrastructure, how to combat environmental impacts of modernisation. Indeed, governance as a whole loses it’s bearings as it adheres to the whims and fancies or plays to the fears of various religious groups. India and Pakistan may have derived some utility from adopting such measures in the past but in an increasingly transparent age, the collective loss to the State of Jammu and Kashmir is becoming clearer by the day.

While aspirations of re-uniting the State to it’s original position as on the 16th of August 1947 are still a pipe-dream, deriving a purposeful combination that takes influence from universal human rights as well as (all) religion(s) to develop a charter of rights and reponsibilities for every citizen could be the way out of our current imbroglio. In an open information age when every religion and indeed civilisation can make a claim to superiority, it is imperative that all religions are given due prominence where they initiate ideas of human flourishment and longevity of the planet. In other words, where human rights capture the common code of rights applicable to everybody, religion contributes to the creative discourse on reponsibilities. Everybody will not adhere to a particular religion (or even a particular version of such) but religions throughout the world can help humanity immensely by agreeing on and adopting a universal declaration of human rights. In short, human rights can promote the ‘right’ to freedom of religion while religion can promote the ‘responsibility’ to enforce freedom of religion.

If our society fails to break out of these shackles then each religious identity will search for it’s regional/global partners to deliver it from the violations and lack of opportunity perpetrated by the other. Then no nation state will remain a nation state but a local proxy of a wider interest. That in itself has destabilising connotations as exemplifed throughout history. Lebanon’s story is before us. A more current example is the manner in which the Bahraini resistance movement for greater freedom, opportunity and rights is gradually being drawn into a Shia-Sunni struggle. The minority ruling Sunnis have received assistance from Saudi Arabia while the resistance is alleged to be acting under Shia Iran’s dictations.  

What is clear is the supposed attraction of being linked to co-religionists afar. During the late 1980s, it appeared unquestionably clear to most Muslims of PaK and Pakistan that fighting ‘Hindu’ India was a must, just as much as it was clear for Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s to assist the US in it’s fight against the Soviet infidel in Afghanistan. In a similar vein, the Hindus and Sikhs of PaK felt no option but to seek refuge amongst Indian troops in late 1947. The backlash against them was a collective  response, supposedly for the injustice meted out to Muslims under a series of Hindu kings. Subscribing to mob rule in a given environment comes so easily to human beings. Creating an environment which enables people to rise above that temptation is crucial. The rest is a matter of economics, governance and resource utilisation.

Finishing with history, it was important for the Hindus and Sikhs of the State to support the change in nomenclature from the Muslim Conference to the National Conference in 1938 and assist the State in a move towards universal suffrage. That didn’t happen. This further bolstered or even re-invigorated the desire amongst many Muslims to seek deliverance from the Muslim Conference via the Muslim League and Pakistan. The State remains divided and what is divided doesn’t develop.

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at