PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has reminded the people of Jammu & Kashmir that once they have acceded to Pakistan after the UN-mandated referendum in light of the UN Security Council resolutions, Islamabad would grant them the right to an independent status if a majority so desired. Speaking to a campaign rally in Azad Kashmir two days prior to the elections, he also brushed aside allegations by the opposition that his government was planning to convert AJK into a province. Mr Khan’s statement on the independence for Kashmir has elicited a strong reaction from his political opponents. Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif, in a statement issued on Saturday, said the prime minister’s utterance deviated from Pakistan’s historical and constitutional stance, adding that any attempt to impose a solution on Kashmiris without their will and consultation would amount to a betrayal of the Kashmir cause.

This is not the first time that Mr Khan has issued such a statement on Kashmir. Back in February, on the occasion of Kashmir Solidarity Day, he had also reminded Kashmiris that Pakistan would not stand in their way if they opted for independence after accession to Pakistan. Then too the prime minister had been bombarded with criticism for injecting the ‘third option’ into the Kashmir dispute whereas the UN resolutions only talked about the option of Kashmiris either joining Pakistan or India. Such criticism is not surprising in the acute polarised political environment, but it is entirely misplaced. There is nothing wrong in what he said. In fact, he appears to have given this statement deep thought as well as due legal diligence. His statement draws strength from the Pakistani Constitution. Article 257 of the Constitution clearly states: “When the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir decided to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and that State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State.” This leaves little room for ambiguity. Mr Khan’s statement is fully compliant with the Constitution and is in fact timed well to send a message to the people of India-held Kashmir and AJK that Pakistan will respect their right of self-determination.

The prime minister’s statement is also a welcome reaffirmation of the fact that Pakistan does not see the Kashmir dispute as a conflict over territory, but in terms of the UN-mandated right of self-determination for the people of the state. At a time when India is trying its best to erase the Kashmiri identity by revoking the state’s special status and engineering demographic changes, it is commendable that Prime Minister Khan has reiterated Pakistan’s principled position in clear terms and assured the Kashmiris that while Pakistan is a party to the dispute, it is the Kashmiris who will have the final say both in the referendum and afterwards.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2021

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