While detailing significant abuses in Indian-held Kashmir — from sexual violence, excessive use of force, torture and enforced disappearances to name a few — the UN report has also brought both Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir — the two regions that together comprise Pakistani Kashmir — into the fold of discussions.
Noting that the “violations in this [Pakistani] area are of a different calibre or magnitude and of a more structural nature,” the report highlights the impact of counter-terrorism laws as well as the provisions and restrictions in constitutional and legal frameworks that impinge on people’s rights to “freedom of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly and association” in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Editorial: Report on IHK
Within hours of the report’s release, India dismissed it as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated” and Indian officials claimed that there cannot be any comparison between Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistani Kashmir as “the former has a democratically elected government”.
Further, some Indian journalists straightaway termed the report as idiotic, while the character assassination of the Human Rights high commissioner, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, also began with him being termed as a ‘quasi-Islamist’ and the report as toeing Pakistan’s line.
Others in the Indian press have opined that the UN has made a grave mistake by placing the violations in Pakistani Kashmir with those in the Indian-held Kashmir, alleging that the state of affairs in the former are considerably worse than those in the latter.
While human rights violations in Pakistani Kashmir are undeniable, it is my understanding that most Indian journalists do not get access to this side of Kashmir, just as most Pakistani journalists don’t get visas for the other side.
And just as the UN report has stated, little information is available on Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan — which is certainly alarming in its own right — meaning that it is often difficult to understand the state of affairs in Pakistani Kashmir, making such comparisons speculative at best.
The fact that India is up in arms about the ‘incorrect’ terminology, bashing the report for using the terms ‘armented groups’ as well as ‘Azad Kashmir’ and ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’, is a further attempt to divert attention away from the very real human rights issues the report addresses.
While this kind of investigation into Kashmir by the UN is new, by its own admission the UN team was not given access to either side of Kashmir and had to rely on already available information.
Reports by NGOs, human rights commissions of India and Pakistan, and international organisations, such as the Human Rights Watch, Freedom Press and Amnesty International have allowed insights into the state of affairs on both sides.
While some Indian analysts have pointed out that the UN has written the report without stepping foot in Kashmir, it must be noted that the report refers to many credible local and international organisations’ work that have been present on ground for many years.
Any attempt to discard this report as hearsay is futile.
India’s rejection of the report must then be seen as not only a rejection of the UN inquiry, but a dismissal of all the investigations and documentation of human rights abuses by Indian and international watchdogs.
Denial of the security excesses in what India calls its ‘atoot ang’ is certainly not new, but the immediate dismissal of the report shows that a dark future awaits Kashmiris, several of whom have hoped that international organisations like the UN would take more notice of their state of affairs and pressurise Delhi to change its policies in Kashmir.
In fact, one fears that in light of the report, India may retort with an even more hardline approach to crush dissent.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has welcomed the proposal to set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate human rights violations in Indian-held Kashmir, stating that the report is in line with the concerns raised by Pakistan over the years.
However, little attention has been paid to the violations identified in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Just as in India, Pakistan too is quick to point fingers at the other side, trying to steer the focus towards Indian policies.
In its statement, the Foreign Office cautioned: “references to human rights concerns in AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan should in no way be construed to create a false equivalence with the gross and systematic human rights violations in Indian-occupied Kashmir.”
Over the past four years, I have been researching on Azad Jammu & Kashmir and have made several trips to the region to hear first-hand accounts of people’s experiences, many of whom have highlighted the issues raised by the UN report.
While the use of excessive force seen in Indian-held Kashmir is certainly not mirrored in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, locals have their grievances.
The banning of books and dissent, particularly when it comes to political opinions and aspirations of Azad Kashmiris, is a significant issue in the region.
Having to swear allegiance to Pakistan and to the ideology of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan — in contradiction to Pakistan’s official stance on Kashmiri self-determination — before being able to contest elections or hold public office certainly does sideline Kashmiris who hold a different vision for the Kashmir they want to live and fight for.
These issues, often ‘structural’ in nature as the UN has emphasised — for they are embodied in the interim constitution of Azad Jammu & Kashmir — have over the years increased the frustration and agony of many Azad Kashmiris.
Recent reforms in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, which have reduced the Kashmir Council to an advisory body, do promise autonomy, but some worry that the old mechanisms of control may be replaced with new ones under the pretext of ‘empowerment.’
Only time will tell how these changes impact the on ground reality of Azad Kashmiris.
Rather than overlooking the concerns raised in Azad Jammu & Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan needs to realise that the UN report, which is mainly focused on the issues in Indian-held Kashmir, provides a great opportunity for Islamabad to hold the higher moral ground.
By accepting and owning the UN report, not in parts but in full, and assuring the international body as well as the people of Pakistani Kashmir that it will look into these concerns and bring in accountability, Pakistan will come out as the ethical and superior party.
However, it seems like both India and Pakistan are more interested in pulling the other nation down, insisting that things are far worse on the other side. Even if this is indeed true, worse violations do not legitimatise lesser violations.
Violations of human rights are violations. Abuse of power is abuse of power. Imprisonment, false arrests and mistreatment of people, whether of a handful or of hundreds, are deeply problematic.
For too long, Kashmiris have been sandwiched in between this tit-for-tat approach, with both states telling those under their administration that they are ‘better off’ or the ‘lesser tragedy’.
The UN report should not be lost in these redundant comparisons. Both sides must own their own injustices and rectify them, not only in the name of honest representation of Kashmiris, but also if they want to avoid further instability, violence and unrest.
No one is pure in this war of less or more violence, fewer or greater violations. Both sides have much work to do, in their own respective parts that they currently administer.
Header image by Zoha Bundally
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