Presentation as part of a panel on
(Cornell University, 2 October 2014)
Who am I to talk about Kashmir?
I’m an activist for peace and justice, and a travel journalist. I think that part of the ethical responsibility of travellers is to speak up about what we see, not just go home and forget about the places we’ve visited – especially when we visit places with few foreign observers other than tourists. Tourists play an increasingly important role as citizen human rights observers.
The focus of my human rights activism is the USA, although that’s not today’s topic. And I don’t claim to be a historian or an expert on current events in Kashmir.
What I can offer is a perspective on Kashmir in terms of contemporary norms of human rights, democracy, and self-determination, rather than explanations of contemporary polices rooted in what I think is irrelevant ancient history.
The big picture, about which we’ll hear more from some of tonight’s other speakers, is that since 1989, India has maintained a military occupation of the Kashmir Valley by more than half a million soldiers, police, paramilitaries, and other armed “security” forces brought in from outside Kashmir.
This occupation has had all the typical attributes of any military occupation, in unusually intense and prolonged form. For most of the last 25 years, the Kashmir Valley has been under various flavors ofde facto or de jure martial law, with soldiers everywhere, army camps next to every village, checkpoints on every city block, curfews, house to house searches, legalized arrest and detention without trial, and official suspension of many of the norms of democratic governance and civil liberties.
Since the departure of the principal non-Muslim population group, the Hindu Pandits, in the 1990s, essentially all of the remaining population in the Kashmir Valley — other than the occupation forces — has been Muslim. That has allowed the Indian forces to define the entire valley as a free-fire zone in which the Kashmiri Muslim population is considered and treated as the enemy: presumed to be either “militants” or their sympathizers, and fair game for summary killing. Military and paramilitary forces have effectively complete impunity for any actions against civilians, which have come to include systematic torture of detainees, rape of civilian women, collective reprisals (against families, neighborhoods, and villages), shooting to death of children who throw stones at soldiers, and attacks targeting medical personnel, human rights activists, and journalists.
To put the death toll in perspective, this month the Kashmir Valley has suffered from its worst natural disaster in a century: a 100-year flood that has killed perhaps 500 people. But on average, several times this many Kashmiris have been killed by Indian “security” forces in Kashmir every year for the last 25 years — a total of at least 50,000 out of a population of around 7 million people in the valley.
What has not happened, throughout this time, and still isn’t happening, is any plebiscite, referendum or negotiations on self-determination for Kashmiris or any change in Kashmir’s status.
Fundamentally, as I see it,
1. What is going on in Kashmir is best understood as a Kashmiri nationalist struggle for self-determination (despite efforts to frame it as a dispute about history, as a dispute about “terrorism”, as a dispute between secularism and religious fundamentalism, as a dispute between Hindus and Muslims, as a dispute between India and Pakistan, and so forth); and
2. Self-determination is a human rights issue.
Self-determination is itself one of the most widely recognized and fundamental human rights. “The principle of … self-determination of peoples” is recognized in Article 1 of the U.N. Charter. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the USA, India, and Pakistan are all parties) provides that, “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status…. The States Parties to the present Covenant… shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations.”
There are “liberals” and “reformers” within India, and some foreign human rights activists, who want to separate self-determination from (other) human rights. But that’s not possible.You can’t have a velvet-gloved occupation. Maintaining power by force, over popular opposition, requires brute, and brutal, use of force — regardless of whether that opposition is itself violent, nonviolent, or a mix of both. Some say that self-determination is a “political question” on which human rights activists should remain “neutral”. But that denies the status of self-determination as itself a human right. The (other) human rights issues in Kashmir cannot be resolved without addressing the human rights issue of self-determination.
The central demand of Kashmiri nationalist movement is “Azaadi”, often translated as “Freedom”. But what exactly does that mean? While some outsiders profess confusion, Kashmiris themselves have been remarkably precise, consistent, and coherent: Their central unifying demand for decades has been for a plebiscite on the status of Kashmir, as was promised by the government of India (including in repeated statements by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru), by the government of Pakistan, and by resolution of the U.N. Security Council supported by India, Pakistan, and all of the Permanent Members including the USA.
Neither “azaadi” nor self-determination necessarily means independence for Kashmir. To demand the right to decide is not to presume what that decision would be, only that the decision should be made (1) by Kashmiris themselves and (2) at the ballot box through electoral means. To put it another way, the question is not how Kashmiris should vote, but whether they should have the right to vote on this specific question.
If the central Kashmiri demand is for the holding of an election, what are the circumstances in which human rights, including the right to self-determination, require that such an election be held?
Plebiscites or referenda on independence or national status aren’t so uncommon. We’ve seen them ratifying independence for Eritrea, East Timor, and South Sudan, even when the results seemed a foregone conclusion by the time those elections were held. We’ve also seen them voting down independence, at least for the time being, in Scotland, Québec, and Puerto Rico — more than once in each of those places. In each of these elections, a simple majority vote was defined in advance as that which would constitute a sufficient basis for independence or other fundamental change in status.
It’s less obvious, and has been much less discussed, what threshhold showing of the possibility that a majority might vote for independence or some other change in status is sufficient to entitle a population to have such a vote. But I would argue that Kashmir passes any such test. Not because it is clear that a majority of Kashmiri people would vote for independence, but because there is a reasonable possibility that they might, and because a majority clearly want the chance to find out the result of such a vote.
So if it’s that simple, why has there never been such a vote in Kashmir?
Basically, India doesn’t allow Kashmiris to vote on their future status because India fears that it might lose such a vote. This is an essentially undemocratic — indeed, anti-democratic — policy.
Of course, India doesn’t say this. What are India’s excuses for denying Kashmiris their human right to vote on their status, and how do those excuses stand up against the norms of human rights?
1. India says that the Maharajah (hereditary monarch) of Kashmir “acceded” to India in 1947. But this is irrelevant to the human rights of the Kashmiri people today, both because of the inability of any monarch to determine the rights of the people (even if he were some sort of “benevolent” despot rather than, as historians universally portray the Maharajah of Kashmir, debauched, incompetent, selfish, and widely reviled by all communities of Kashmiris), and because of the inability of any person or people to sign away the human rights of subsequent generations. The moral bankruptcy of the Indian argument from monarchist “accession” is perhaps most clear by comparison to Scotland. I was travelling in Scotland for much of this past summer, during the run-up to last month’s referendum on independence. I never heard anyone try to tell the Scottish people, “Generations ago your Queen acceded to England, so that settles Scotland’s status forever, and you never get to vote on whether you think differently today than your Queen did back then.” Anyone who said that would have been laughed at — or worse.
2. Next, India falls back on a claim that, “The pre-conditions for the referendum have never been met.” That’s true, but equally irrelevant to Kashmiris’ rights. In 1948, with the agreement of both India and Pakistan, the U.N. Security Council adopted its Resolution 47, providing for a plebiscite on the status of Kashmir, under U.N. observership, after the withdrawal from Kashmir of both Indian and Pakistani armed forces. India and Pakistan have been pointing fingers at each other ever since as to which is to withdraw first, while the U.N. has never sent more than a token observer mission. But from the perspective of the rights of the Kashmiris, it doesn’t matter whether India or Pakistan or both have broken their promises. There’s nothing that Kashmiris were supposed to do, in order to be entitled to a plebiscite, that they haven’t done. Of all the ways that the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has prejudiced the rights of Kashmiris, this is perhaps the clearest. If the real problem were that Pakistan and/or India won’t withdraw its troops, then both should welcome an increased U.N. observer and peacekeeper presence to facilitate this. In reality, of course, India — which controls the most valuable and populous region of Kashmir — is happy to have the excuse of Pakistan’s non-withdrawal to justify indefinite postponement of the plebiscite. If India and Pakistan can’t work out between themselves how to create the conditions for a free and uncoerced plebiscite in Kashmir, that’s a reason for international involvement. Indeed, a central Kashmiri demand has been for an increased U.N. observer presence, and the U.N. office in Srinagar has been the focus of marches and rallies by as many as a million Kashmiris during those times when street demonstrations have been possible. The international community, including human rights advocates, should listen to what Kashmiris themselves have been asking for. Here in the U.S.,we can and should lobby the U.S. to push for such action in the U.N. Security Council — where it has already been authorized by the terms of Resolution 47 — and with India and Pakistan.
3. India says that the Kashmiri people have already voted (although indirectly) for accession to India, because the elected legislature of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir supports accession to India. But members of that legislature must take an oath of allegiance to India before assuming their seats — which is why, among other reasons, most advocates for independence have boycotted these elections, as have many voters.
4. Some people in India and elsewhere raise the specter of a “domino theory”: If Kashmir becomes independent, it will encourage “separatists” elsewhere in India, and perhaps in other countries. But Kashmiris have no duty to sacrifice their own national aspirations to Indian (or any other) “national unity”. Some people think that larger multi-ethnic federations are preferable to smaller and perhaps more homogenous nation-states. I’ve met people, for example, whose national identity was as Yugoslav or Soviet, and who would have preferred that Yugoslavia and/or the USSR had each remained a single country. But the place to make that argument is to Kashmiris, as part of the plebiscite campaign, as an argument for why Kashmiris should vote to remain in (or become part of) India. These arguments were made, successfully, in the plebiscite campaigns in Québec and Scotland. But this is not a basis for denying Kashmiris the right to be the ones to weigh and vote on this question.
5. Some people fear that, “Independence for Kashmir will lead to Balkanization.” Smaller and smaller splinters may seek independence, as did first Serbia and Montenegro from Yugoslavia, then Montenegro from Serbia, and so forth. Where will this end, once it begins in Kashmir? There is a certain fractal character of Kashmir. But that’s a complicating factor, not something that the should be taken as a barrier completely precluding any plebiscite. Consider, for example, the situation in Belgium, where there are majority-Flemish neighborhoods within the majority-French metropolitan region of Brussels, which is itself located within, and entirely surrounded by, the main body of majority-Flemish territory. Despite those complications, Flanders could be one of the world’s next independent countries, and most people expect that ways can, and of necessity will, be found to deal with these problems. The <a style=’margin: 0px; padding: 0px; color: #196ad4; outline: none; backgro