Widening the Kashmir debate

Updated 11 Aug 2020

Email

The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT has been a year since the Indian government changed the status of Kashmir by making amendments to Articles 370 and 35A. Since then, Pakistan’s efforts to highlight this unilateral change to a disputed territory and the human rights violations within it have been under the spotlight.

In the past year, Islamabad has tried to draw domestic as well as international attention to India’s actions, especially the human rights violations as well as its unilateral efforts to change what is seen and accepted as an international dispute.

The government claims the strategy is a success. And as evidence, government officials point to the widespread, international coverage of the situation in India-held Kashmir, especially the human rights violations and the miseries faced by the valley’s hapless Muslims.

This coverage, especially as it includes criticism of India, is a breath of fresh air for many of us in Pakistan, used as we are to a world press routinely critical of Pakistan and enamoured of an India which is seen, in turns, as a democratic, emerging economic power and exotic.

But how much of this coverage has taken place due to the efforts of the Pakistani state and how much is due to India itself? One, after all, should not deny India credit for its achievements.

Discussion is needed on all IHK-related changes in order to understand and find ways to deal with them.

And regardless of the answer to this question, it shouldn’t be forgotten that such coverage, especially of Kashmir, is not new. The 1990s were not much different either when the valley saw considerable violence; there was coverage then also. But then as the unrest decreased so did the coverage. Be it international press coverage or even condemnations issued by international platforms, their ability to change the course of politics or history is limited. We would do well to remember it.

At the same time, our focus on how the world is viewing Kashmir has prevented any debate on other pressing matters, among which is the rapidity with which India has put in place steps to try and change the valley’s demography.

This has been detailed in the recent International Crisis Group’s report on Kashmir titled Kashmir: Raising the Stakes in Jammu and Kashmir.

According to the report, in April this year, as the world was dealing with Covid-19, the Indian government allowed Indians from other states to seek permanent residency in Jammu and Kashmir. It says that in “the eyes of most Kashmiris, including pro-India parties, this change in legislation, and the circumstances in which it was taken, is a clear indication that the BJP government’s long-term objective is to alter Jammu and Kashmir’s ethnic, social and religious identity”.

The new rules have made eligible those who have lived in Kashmir for 15 years and their children who have studied there for seven, as well as children of central government employees who have resided there for 10 years and migrants (and their children) registered with the relief and rehabilitation commissioner. Apparently, by late July (a mere three months later), over 400,000 residency certificates had been issued. In addition, the report states that the government has removed “all obstacles” to non-Kashmiris seeking to buy property in Kashmir.

The report also pointed out that outsiders now hold a considerable number of senior bureaucratic posts as well as those at the district level. “… [N]one of the lieutenant governor’s top four advisers — equivalent to ministers — are Muslims. At the district level, too, only half the civilian administrative heads are Kashmiri Muslims”. According to the report, “Kashmiris perceive the arrival of new officials at the district and subdistrict levels, especially in the revenue and land departments, as part of a design to alter land records”.

However, there is little discussion at home of these changes. Perhaps, it is just too difficult to acknowledge what these legal and administrative changes can and will mean not just for India-held Kashmir but for the bilateral relationship and the status of the disputed territory. But we must discuss it and understand it in order to find ways to deal with it.

A second issue to be addressed head-on is the larger, international perception. The recent ICG as well as the USIP reports point to this. ICG’s report acknowledges the home-grown militancy in Kashmir by writing that “Unlike the 1990s, when many militants in Kashmir were foreigners, mainly Pakistanis, and local insurgents were reportedly trained across the border, the new generation of Kashmiri militants is mostly home-grown. Trained locally, they are motivated by local factors; many have never left the Valley.”

But the report also speaks of Pakistan’s alleged proxies. This issue has been highlighted in another report on Kashmir by the United States Institute of Peace, which also claims infiltrations are increasing. Both the reports refer to the pressure of the Financial Action Task Force on Pakistan.

Of course, such reports can be easily dismissed by pointing to the bias of the author or the organisation but it may prove more helpful to ask why — despite the efforts of the state in this regard — Pakistan has not been able to convince the world at large of its efforts to turn its back on proxy groups.

This is a difficult and an unpleasant question to ask. For the answers it leads to and the debate it stirs will not be particularly comfortable for it will require us to talk about our past and present, our media as well as our academia.

But these questions must be asked and uncomfortable conversations had if we are to address some of the issues around the Kashmir crisis. And they will also need to be had because of the initial international reaction in the aftermath of Balakot. Silence is always easy but it doesn’t resolve issues.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 11th, 2020