A Way Out for Kashmir?

— interview with Hamid Bashani

HAMID BASHANI IS a Kashmiri, a former student activist, and presently the Secretary-General of Advocates International. Members of South Asian Left Democratic Alliance (SALDA) in Toronto interviewed him on July 25, 2002.

This interview was conducted prior to the fall elections held by the Indian government in Kashmir. While the turnout and extent of coercion is in dispute, the election results were a crushing defeat for the governing Kashmiri party linked to the Indian government.

Kashmir has a population of over nine million. It borders India, Pakistan and China; sixty-five percent of its land is under Indian Administration. Another portion is under Pakistan governance. A third part is the Northern mountainous regions of Gilgit and Bultistan, also ruled by Pakistan.

There is a UN-monitored Line of Control between these regions. The overall region is considered officially to be “disputed territory” between India and Pakistan.

By official count 20,000 Kashmiris have been killed by “militants,” the Indian military, and networks of government-backed counterinsurgents. The “militants” state that 75,000 have been killed. Amongst the many minority victims have been the Kashmiri Pandits, thousands of who live in refugee camps in Delhi and Jammu.

SALDA: Is the right to self-determination for Kashmiris the basis of a progressive politics in that region?

Hamid Bashani: The right to self-determination for the people of Kashmir is important and not different than anywhere else. But I would like to stress on some points that make the issue different than in other parts of India or other parts of the world.

Just after the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 the former princely state of Kashmir was declared by the UN as disputed territory between India and Pakistan. And each time the UN discussed this issue they used the phrase “right of self-determination.”

Through 1948-53 this issue was very much alive at the UN Security Council meetings as well as the UN commission for India and Pakistan. More than three resolutions passed making this the central issue for Kashmir. Why did this come to be?

Kashmiris rejected and resisted the Partition, as well as influences of religious and sectarian forces in the subcontinent. The leadership tried to keep Kashmir out of Partition politics and the politics of division.

Thus, at the time when the subcontinent was divided there was no problem within the state of Jammu and Kashmir like religious riots, conflicts, and hatred. The Maharajah of Kashmir wanted to keep Kashmir united, secular as it had been historically, and he tried to see the different options.

He tried to negotiate with India and Pakistan to keep the status quo. But different political forces started to manipulate the Kashmiri people on the same lines as all over India. In some areas some political parties tried to affiliate with the Muslim League; they went to the leadership and asked them to intervene and to make the state part of Pakistan.

At that time some tribes from Pakistan and the North West Frontier Province went to Kashmir and started helping those people to liberate Kashmir from the Maharajah. Some were former military men, some were impressed by the “two- nation” theory.

As soon as the fighting started the people of the present Indian part of Jammu and Kashmir felt threatened by these invaders, mujahadeen, tribes, ex-soldiers. So they started negotiating with the Indian leadership to provide them with protection. In response to that Indian forces landed in Srinagar.

This was October 24, 1947. By then the Pakistan regular forces were already inside Kashmir and declared their own presence. So India and Pakistan went to the Security Council to stop the war between them.

Thus the concept of “the right to self-determination” was introduced into the terminology of the people of Kashmir and adopted by both India and Pakistan. Yet from the Pakistani point of view it was only a right for the people of Kashmir to choose to become part of Pakistan.

The Kashmiri people are mostly Muslim and naturally became very affected by what they were hearing about Partition. So that is what Pakistan means by the right to self-determination, and why Pakistan is always trying to push it. They believed that if the UN would grant that right through a referendum, then ultimately people in Kashmir would want to be part of Pakistan.

For its part, India only recognizes this right in relation to its own “democratic” system. They are sure that if the people were not manipulated they would choose to be in India.

When Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, declared that the people of Kashmir had this right and would decide their own future he was relying on the popular pro-Indian leadership of the National Conference Party (NC) in Kashmir, Sheikh Abdullah and those political personalities who did not think of Kashmir in sectarian or religious terms.

After Nehru's time things started changing. Pakistan was promoting fundamentalism -- if not the government, then Pakistani intelligence forces. Yet India did not realize that there could be a big uprising against India.

India continued to say that in the regular elections people were exercising their right to self-determination. But people were actually not voting on that. They were merely given the choice to vote for parties.

For the UN it was a territorial issue between India and Pakistan: which country did people want to join? The issue was brought to the UN only by these two countries. Kashmiris never had an opportunity to speak in the Security Council.

For example, the government of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir spoke; but they were sent and sponsored by Pakistan; the same thing from the Indian side.

None of the two sides recognizes the real right of self-determination. They are just using the word. Till today these countries see the solution of Kashmir within the two-nation perspective of the Partition.

A New Approach Needed

Now a problem is that we are talking about solutions in a similar way as 1947 -- referendums, etc. Progressive forces should look at the issue differently now.

Pakistan has been a complete failure as a state -- politically, constitutionally, economically. They have been dancing around every legal system -- secular, sharia, whatever -- but nothing has worked for the common people. There is no reason for people of Kashmir to join Pakistan.

As far as India is concerned, it believes that the issue is already settled. The people of India-administered Kashmir have voted in several elections. India ignores that the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a whole has to decide what it wants -- not just the part under India.

Unless we bring the three parts together to get a solution acceptable for all there is no solution. We have already tried division but the problem remains. The solution has to come from a collective and united Kashmir. That is the first step.

SALDA: How has the left contributed to the debate? What has been the history of the left in the area?

HB: In 1947 the National Conference was a left-thinking mass political party, not leftist but left leaning. The reason was that the Marxist and Leninist groups were all in the National Conference. They thought that Sheikh Abdullah might be a progressive and left-thinking person and that they could help him avoid the sectarian politics which Pakistan was trying to impose.

They were relying on Sheikh Abdullah. There was not a separate left party that had influence with the masses. Yet the NC was following India. They had no international personality to go to the UN.

There was also the Kashmir Socialist Party, led by Pundit Premnath. During Partition he promoted pro-Pakistan politics, saying that because it was majority Muslim, if we don't go with Pakistan we would face lots of religious and sectarian hatred and would never be able to concentrate on the real issues -- so let us once and for all resolve this issue and then try and change people's lives.

He didn't have a mass following. All those who were progressive or left leaning were in the NC; they needed a mass political party which could lead people to a secular democratic setup, which meant being part of India. To be independent was not feasible at the time. They were not even thinking about that.

For us today, the right to self-determination is based on the fact that Kashmiris resisted the politics of Partition, so any solution to do with “two nations” or Partition cannot be imposed on the people of Kashmir. We have to also have the right of separation, from India and Pakistan.

A Choice for Kashmir

SALDA: What do you then envision as necessary?

H.B.: We cannot maintain the status quo, we cannot deny the right to self-determination, and we cannot put it under the carpet any longer. We need to develop a progressive and humanistic approach towards this issue.

The people of Kashmir do not recognize the two-nation theory or any plebiscite to decide between joining India and Pakistan. They think the choice must include the right of separation and the right for independence. That doesn't mean formation of a separate state.

Kashmir might have been an independent princely state; it may be an independent state in the future; but nobody can deny that Kashmir is firstly part of the Indian subcontinent. People of Kashmir cannot be indifferent to issues and problems of the people of South Asia, and neither can the people of South Asia ignore the suffering of the Kashmiris.

We are looking at hundreds of nationalities in South Asia, some of whom are striving for their separate identities, while some are not. But all of them have the right to preserve their culture, languages, and historical identity, all of them have the right to self-determination whether they ask for it or not.

So we need to find common ground, to grant and respect the rights of everyone without jeopardizing the rights and interests of others. That first question we should ask, then, is what purpose will the right to self-determination have if Kashmiris are given a chance to exercise it?

Is it going to promote and strengthen the ideals of freedom, democracy and social justice in Kashmir specifically and in the subcontinent generally? Is the exercise of this right going to promote religious conflicts and the politics of hatred?

As I have described it, there is a huge gap between the positions of India, Pakistan and the people of Kashmir and we have to bridge it. Kashmir could be a bridge for a journey of reconciliation between India and Pakistan.

If both India and Pakistan completely accept the right to self-determination of Kashmir including a limited right of separation, in return the people of Kashmir could settle with a united, democratic, secular and autonomous Kashmir under the joint suzerainty of India and Pakistan.

For us progressives then the solution is straightforward:

1) First of all there should be a free and fair election in the three parts of Kashmir, especially for the election of members to resolve the issue. These elected members can have a joint session to form a secular and democratic constitution to run a united autonomous state of Kashmir under the joint suzerainty of India and Pakistan.

At this stage, India and Pakistan must demilitarize the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir and put their forces on a prepartition position. They should enter an agreement for joint defense of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

2) Following this agreement would come free trade, free movement of people and goods. Andorra is a good example of this. It is under the joint suzerainty of France and Spain.

This would save the people of Kashmir from massacres, bloodshed, fighting. There would be no problem with the minorities like Hindus, Pandits, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians within Kashmir, who would have no fear for their rights because both India and Pakistan would be major players in guaranteeing this.

An Inclusive Solution

SALDA: Do you see support for this kind of solution?

H.B.: This solution has never been presented in national or international forums. It is new. There is no political party in Kashmir that has presented it. It has no proven political support, just people talking about it.

There are solutions under discussion (as by the U.S. State Department and the Kashmir Study Group in the United States) -- none are like this. This solution replaces, but does not negate or deny the right of self-determination.

For this solution people would not have to vote; it would not trigger feelings of hatred; it would recognize every ethnic and religious group; and ethnic minorities would not be the victim of Muslim majority votes.

Ninety-five percent of people would support it because it would reunify their land. They would be more protected, they have nothing to lose, and if they have good wishes for India and Pakistan they would be in a situation to maintain the relationship without restriction.

I believe that all the forces who are asking for independence would overwhelmingly support this. It would support their nationalist feelings, it would save face for them, and it would give them something real.

Take the fundamentalist militants -- they say they have lost 75,000 in the last ten years, they have faced repression from the Indian security forces, they have sacrificed so much they cannot look back, they have to tell their people what they have gained. They could say that they have achieved a unified Kashmir and its autonomous status.

The nearest to our solution is complete independence, the position put forward by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), for instance. They get a little support. They are hoping they can convince India and Pakistan for independence.

SALDA: Tell us about the JKLF today.

H.B.: JKLF is quite a big group, and it's also secular in its manifesto. It is the first group that launched militancy in 1987. It is divided into two parts, on each side of the Line of Control.

The people are with JKLF because it is fighting India and is militant. It does not mean the organization is secular. The leadership might be clear on secularism, but lots of cadre are not secular. Most are confused.

They have lots of infighting. If you unite on anti-India feelings you don't have a secular approach. The base of their popularity is militancy. With the passage of time they lost support since people who were militants switched to the fundamentalist forces. They would not exist as a political party.

Their power base is militancy. But they renounced militancy in 1993. There is no main player including the JKLF who has equal influence in all three parts of Kashmir.

The Problem of U.S. Policy

SALDA: Can the United States play a useful role in the mediation?

H.B.: U.S. policy cannot ignore the Kashmir conflict. There are so many factors such as the geostrategic location of Kashmir and the threat of nuclear war.

Yet the United States will not be interested in this kind of solution (proposed above). They don't see any reason to support it within their approach. To them it is more practical to ask India and Pakistan to respect the Line of Control and keep the situation as it is, making sure that there is no nuclear war.

If there is this kind of tension they can in fact manipulate it, and get India and Pakistan to follow certain lines, based on insecurity. Our solution would lead to a union between India and Pakistan -- but why would the United States support this?

They do want to resolve the conflict. For them the resolution is when people in Kashmir are quiet.

SALDA: Is Kashmir just a flashpoint between India and Pakistan, rather than the fundamental issue in peace building in the region? Are there many other issues of conflict between India and Pakistan -- such as religious nationalism?

H.B.: Kashmir exists independently of other problems between India and Pakistan. Yet it is a principal issue: Pakistan is trying to use the Kashmir issue to settle other issues, while India thinks that defeating Pakistan in Kashmir would be tantamount to defeating Pakistan's regional aspirations.

In the establishments in both countries there are very powerful section that are still under the influence of Partition politics. There are many such powerful pockets within the civil and military bureaucracies.

SALDA: You are from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. What has been your experience?

H.B.: In Pakistan Occupied Kashmir the Pakistani government always tries to keep this Kashmir issue alive. But they never gave us legal rights. Pakistan never recognized rights of the people of Giligit and Bultistan, who never had an administration to run their affairs. Pakistani governments never granted fair and impartial elections for the people.

SALDA: What should our role be?

H.B.: I think progressive thinking people around the world have a role to play. The situation in Kashmir is that the progressive forces are just now trying to introduce their role. It might take a while before we can support them.

The situation in Kashmir is so bad and so under fundamentalist influence that whatever we can do in supporting secular forces would be good. We can write in different papers, circulate in discussion forums, in India, Pakistan, Kashmir. It is their job to make a forum on the ground.

ATC 101, November-December 2002