Kashmir, indubitably, is the most beautiful and the serenest place on the planet. It is often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of the East, and â€œParadise on Earth.â€ One would not imagine that such beauty could be beset by years of conflict, war and oppression. And yet, the people of Kashmir have endured such troubles since 1947, when India and Pakistan became separate States. Kashmir, a largely Muslim-populated area with an Indian Maharajah as its ruler at the time, was left aggressively contested by the two new States.
The notion of a Plebiscite, or a referendum as we may better understand it, in the light of the recent Scottish bid for independence was agreed upon by Lord Mountbatten, India’s first Governor-General who stated that the issue of Kashmir must be ‘settled by a reference to the people.’ India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also pledged a plebiscite for the Indian-held Kashmir and this was later enshrined in UN Security Council Resolutions.
Six decades on and the Kashmiris have still not had this promise fulfilled. Instead, they have been caught in the middle as the victims of 3 ravaging wars between India and Pakistan over this territory and are currently under the oppressive occupation of the Indian government which maintains a massive military presence in the region.
On a ground level, the Kashmiris have undergone immense suffering and humiliation as violation of fundamental human rights, killing and torture are commonplace in the valley. Mass graves have been found, mosques, homes and shops have been put to flames and families have been forced apart. The Indian-Pakistani separation, the ‘Berlin Wall’ of Kashmir, means that families living merely minutes away cannot access each other. Kashmir is often described as the world’s most beautiful prison due to the wide range of human rights abuses that have been catalogued and well documented.
Now, in light of the recent Scottish referendum, Kashmiris are calling for the promise of a plebiscite to be made real once and for all. Many Kashmiri voices are drawing on the British experience as an example of how demands for a say on their future could be resolved peacefully. The UK, which has had held its strong union for over 300 years successfully, has been prepared to give the Scottish people the right to choose their own fate despite the fact that all three main English political parties were vehemently opposed to separation. Likewise, if India is truly committed to the value of democracy, it must also afford Kashmiri people the same right.
Indian claims to be the biggest democracy in the world would remain merely a label as long as the collective democratic right of the Kashmiri people is denied. Undoubtedly, the fear of losing Kashmir, particularly to Pakistan, is the greatest hindrance to India granting a Plebiscite. The UK, however, found itself in precisely the same position as English governments feared for the all-round social, political and economic stability of the country should Scotland break off. They did not cower, though, from their democratic responsibility to give the people a voice and instead rose to the game through peaceful, legitimate and un-coercive means of persuasion.
The underlying point here is that a true democracy is never marked by draconian laws or a need to resort to the deprivation of basic human rights for fear of losing control. But India’s rule in Kashmir, for the last 40 years at least, has been dominated by ’emergency rule’ and government insecurity is such that, under the Special Powers Act, soldiers can shoot on a mere basis of doubt. This comes disturbingly close to George Orwell’s fictional concept of ‘thought crime’, wherein the slightest thought of dissent is executionable by law.
India’s ‘Big Brother’ rule over Kashmir runs against the grain of the modern value system in which freedom and self-determination are hailed as the ultimate values of progress. Much smaller states than Kashmir have achieved independence through referendum, for example, East Timor. Other States seek to merge their systems and pool resources, such as in the case of the EU. Whatever the direction, the decision has been marked by choice and a realisation of the will of the people.
Should India wish to realise its own will to become a serious player on the world stage, it must review its human rights record. For one, India intends to build strong economic ties with the EU, the largest trading bloc in the world. At the heart of the EU project is an absolute commitment to peace and human rights. The European mindset is haunted by the ghost of its bloody and dictatorial past, when the mere right to freedom of belief and expression was denied. The return to, or association with, any such system of law is abhorrent to the government and people of the EU. The denial to a whole people of their basic right to choose, as in Kashmir, is therefore not something that would fare well for India when discussing EU trade relations.
Secondly, India aims to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. India has, however, categorically defied the 74 UN Resolutions that have been passed for the freedom of the Kashmiri people. The brazen expectation to be able to join the UNSC whilst openly flouting its rules provides somewhat of an insight into the Indian mentality. A genuine commitment to democracy, legitimacy and fairness for the sake of justice, equality and peace is what is needed to be taken seriously in the world.
Finally, India must learn from the lessons of the past. Peaceful and democratic methods of negotiation and decision-making, no matter how painstakingly slow and bureaucratic they can sometimes be, are always preferable to violent conflict and war. The particular danger with the Kashmir conflict is that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, risking turning Kashmir into a devastating nuclear target. History has taught us time and again that the price of war is far too high. With the danger of risking countless civilian lives, devastating civilian infrastructures and landscapes and essentially turning a country into mere blood and rubble, the question would be what worth would any more war or conflict over Kashmir have for either India or Pakistan, or indeed for the world?
We live in a world where we see the best and the worst examples of human living. On the one hand, we witness the success of the EU project as it replaces war and conflict with peace, democracy and togetherness. On the other, we still have 55 million people living under the poverty line in India. Both situations are strong indications that war is simply not needed, firstly, because there are alternative ways of reaching decisions and secondly, because the world’s resources are already depleted enough. India has a clear choice to make; does it want the way of war and devastation or the way of peace and prosperity for South Asia as in the example of the EU?
Should India wish to live up to its claim of democracy and earn its respect on the world stage, it must show courage to take a new direction, a direction of peace and democracy. India must follow in the footsteps of the recent Scottish referendum and grant the Kashmiri people their right to a Plebiscite.
By:M. Afzal Khan