A missing link

August 22, 2019

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I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE state here has accepted the challenge of getting undone the Narendra Modi government plan to strangulate the people of India-held Kashmir and thus force them to abandon their dream of freedom. Can it accomplish this huge task without mobilising its people for an active role?

Hitherto the government has concentrated on garnering support for the Kashmir cause from foreign governments and international organisations. This is no doubt essential but Islamabad’s capacity to influence foreign states and the international community’s opinion cannot be exaggerated. Besides, mobilisation of world opinion in favour of the Kashmiri people’s struggle for their basic rights can at best be part of the overall strategy and not the whole of it.

While the US government’s call for release of all detainees in India-held Kashmir and respect for the Kashmiri people’s basic freedoms is encouraging, one should like to hope that President Donald Trump will not stop short of calling for reversal of the territory to its pre-Aug 5 status. The tendency to read too much into the Security Council’s meeting must be resisted. More work is needed to enlighten the states that erroneously consider the change in the status of India-held Kashmir as India’s internal matter.

Further, can the clearest and most effective message to the world be derived from official wisdom alone? Shouldn’t this message be enriched and fortified with the people’s input?

That the government cannot further the Kashmiri people’s cause without the conscious and active support of Pakistani society should be obvious to any rational mind. Islamabad must therefore attach due priority to mobilising allies at home.

The media and civil society organisations can strengthen the national campaign for the Kashmir cause.

However, before anything else, the government’s policy needs to be critically reappraised. The people are being offered an endless sequence of speeches by the prime minister and his colleagues in authority that consist mostly of their resolve to play their role as defenders of Kashmir’s cause, or barrages of calumny against the perpetrators of excesses in Srinagar and elsewhere in India-held Kashmir. A great deal of bravado is in the air that only raises the stakes for this country without lighting the way ahead. Not only is there no invitation to the people to discuss what Pakistan’s options are and how best these can be exercised, they are not even adequately informed. It seems the government has been advised to join a grim battle with its hands tied at the back.

For example, both the prime minister and the army chief have affirmed their resolve to go to the extreme limit to prevent the usurpation of the Kashmiri people’s rights. There will be no problem if the extreme limit in the war of words and diplomatic effort is meant. But the prime minister has also referred more than once to the possibility of India resorting to armed aggression and/ or provocation. The possibility of Pakistan withdrawing its forces from the western border for deployment along the border with India has also been reported in the media. Now the DG ISPR has said that Pakistan will fight for the Kashmiri people’s rights to the last soldier and the last bullet. These brave words conjure up visions of an all-out war. Are the people being told to prepare themselves for any wider conflict?

A broader issue is the form and extent of public participation in the national effort to defend the Kashmiri people’s rights. That the people join rallies, punch the air with their fists and otherwise reproduce the official narrative is not enough; it will be of limited help to the Kashmir cause. The people must have an active role in the formulation of the national strategy and its implementation over a long period, for New Delhi is unlikely to mend its ways soon.

If the situation is as serious as is being projected by official spokespersons, it may be necessary to have national unity in the government that states often create when faced with extraordinary challenges. When Winston Churchill accepted the task of fighting Nazism he gave important portfolios in the war cabinet to Attlee, Bevin, Bevan and Cripps, all belonging to the Labour Party and whom he detested as vermin. Their good performance was one of the factors of Labour’s victory over Churchill’s Tory party in the 1945 election.

It is too much to expect from the PTI government to induct an opposition member into its ranks, as that could compromise its anti-corruption drive, which is still its main selling point, but it should be able to take the risk of fostering people’s unity at the non-official level.

And for this the government will be required to change its attitude towards the media and civil society organisations because they can build a bridge between the state and the citizenry and also enrich and strengthen the national campaign for support to the Kashmir cause.

That the media is facing a crisis of survival cannot be denied. Journalists are scared of expressing their views freely and find safety in publicising the official word as the only truth. This is the result of holding freedom of expression incompatible with the demands of national security, although the latter will be better guaranteed by a free and independent media. The country needs the counsel of media persons who have witnessed the rise and fall of many a ruler and can see the present situation in proper perspective. Further, due respect for freedom of expression alone will enable the media to report what the conscious and qualified citizens might wish to convey to the government.

Similarly, it is time the government realised the important role that civil society can play in mobilising public opinion in support of the Kashmiri people’s struggle. The official record keepers might have noticed that the statement of Human Rights Watch, one of the INGOs on Islamabad’s hit list, denounced Modi politics more lucidly and more effectively than has been done by many of Pakistan’s foreign friends. A little confidence in civil society organisations’ ability to contribute to appropriate formulation and execution of national policies, and also to check, correct and improve the official narrative, will yield handsome dividends.

If the media and civil society are not properly enlisted in the fight that the government has joined, the national campaign could face problems.

Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2019