Kashmir in the spotlight

ON the weekend, London witnessed a significant gathering of South Asian expatriates protesting at Trafalgar Square for an issue that has been the mainstay of the long-standing Indo-Pakistan diplomatic stalemate.

The ‘Kashmir million march’ sought to raise awareness internationally of the plight of Kashmiris who have had to tread the rough political terrain of a disputed territory. Protesters passionately raised their voice in support of the emancipation of the Kashmiri people.

“It is an issue of fundamental human rights. There is an immense need for the international community to unite and raise a voice against the brutality,” said Rehman Anwer, an interfaith and peace activist currently working for an international NGO in London.

PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari made a charged-up appearance at the rally. His enthusiasm though was not responded to in kind. The PPP’s political slogan ‘Jeay Bhutto’, which encapsulates the legacy of the party, ruffled quite a few feathers as he stood on the stage next to his sister Aseefa Bhutto, his security team trying to control the chaos around. The crowds of people were against supporting an individual party and made it clear that they were here for Kashmir and not for political reasons.

Some angry protesters expressed their dissent through pointed verbal attacks while others resorted to hurling plastic bottles at the young party leader. The slogan became a sore point for those who saw it as an attempt by a political party to usurp a cause that had a different agenda.

“I was surprised to see Bilawal because I did not expect a political angle to the struggle as it is all about Kashmiris. When he came he started saying ‘Jeay Bhutto’, which irked the people as there is mass protest in Pakistan against traditional politics at the moment,” said Anwer.

With the men exceeding the number of women at the rally, most were from Mirpur and Srinagar. “I think it should have been purely a human rights based protest,” said Anwer. “No Pakistani politics should be involved in this.” He gave the example of Scotland, where recently a referendum was held on independence. “We should learn from this example and let people decide what they want. Kashmir should decide on its own.”

This point was addressed by Lord Nazir Ahmed, member of the British House of Lords, during his speech to supporters at Trafalgar Square. “We have a political, moral responsibility. If a referendum is good enough for Scotland, then let the international community support Kashmir,” he said to a cheering crowd.

With his arms and hands wrapped in chains, Yasir Gilani from Muzaffarabad and now a trainee solicitor in London was vocal about wanting India to leave Kashmir. “We are not free, we are controlled by India by force and are in chains, and that is what I am symbolising today,” he said.

Born and raised in England, Zulekha Husain from Mirpur, whose grandparents are from Kashmir, waited eagerly to walk to 10 Downing Street along with her cousins and aunts.“Here in England, Pakistanis are three per cent of the population but Kashmiris are two per cent, so we are the majority. We want to stand in solidarity with them to show they are not alone,” she said. The march, which had a Facebook page and used the #KashmirMillionMarch hashtag, did not use the social media as the main method to galvanise people, though. “This came together at the last minute. Former AJK prime minister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry went from town to town, so this was really based on word of mouth,” she said. “I feel Indians are less concerned about this issue than us because they are more integrated into the British society than us.”

With the Indian media reporting the gathering at Trafalgar Square as having been in the hundreds only, Chaudhry maintained this was the biggest gathering for Kashmir’s independence movement and said the march was going to make history.

At the recent United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif brought up the issue of the Kashmiri people who have lived under years of occupation and without fundamental human rights. His Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, expressed engagement in bilateral talks but prior to the recent march, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj publicly asked the British to halt the “anti-India” rally.

The demonstration in London looked like the start of a campaign to internationalise the Kashmir issue at a time when the Indian prime minister is trying to change the constitutional status of India-held Kashmir. It was an impressive show but it may take the Kashmiri diaspora more than one demonstration to make Western powers take their cause seriously.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2014