Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Valley of Injustice: Contradictions of upcoming G20 meetings in Kashmir

Photo: Zainab/Maktoob

“Wake up and smell the coffee – Article 370 is history, the sooner people realize it, the better”, said Indian foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) meetings held in Goa last week. India-Pakistan relations (or lack thereof) took centre stage at the forum that convened foreign ministers from China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on topics of regional development and security.

The catalyst was a question from a journalist in a press interview who asked Pakistani foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, if he endorsed the upcoming G20 events to be held in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Bhutto Zardari responded by saying the events were a display of India’s arrogance and lack of observation of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, international law and bilateral agreements. In his response, he stated that while he obviously was not in support he would, “at the right time make a memorable statement” on his position. These words were reported in the Indian press as a direct and explicit threat of violence from the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected this claim, stating, “It [the insinuation that Bhutto Zardari was threatening violence] is an attempt to shift focus from the Foreign Minister’s key message of conflict resolution through dialogue and in accordance with international law and UN security council resolutions.”

In a separate press conference, Jaishankar was asked to share his thoughts on the matter. Jaishankar responded, “Jammu and Kashmir was, always is and always was part of India”. He went on to say that Pakistan is a “promoter, justifier and spokesperson of a terrorism industry” and that the only topic to discuss was “When will Pakistan vacate its illegal occupation of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir?”. 

When asked about the lack of bilateral meetings at the summit between the two countries, Jaishankar refuted, “victims of terrorism do not sit with perpetrators of terrorism to discuss terrorism”. 

India took over the presidency of the G-20 — an economic cooperation bloc composed of 19 countries and the European Union — in December of 2022. The Indian government is expected to host a total of 215 G-20 meetings at over 55 locations this year, some of which will be focused on promoting the tourism sector. Currently, the G20 tourism working group meetings will be held in Srinagar, Kashmir, from May 22nd onwards. 

The symbolism of hosting tourism sessions with foreign dignitaries in an area that has been one of the most militarized zones in the world, whose majority of citizens are smeared as murderous fundamentalists, where people are caged and humiliated, tortured, raped, in mass graves or have disappeared, is uncomfortable, to say the least. The horrors experienced by Kashmiris have long been veiled by the current Indian government. Efforts of assimilation and erasure of the lived experience of the Kashmiri people are taking new heights through normalizing international tourism in an area whose native residents remain to live under heavy surveillance.  

The Indian state has routinely come under scrutiny for its “occupation” of Kashmir, accused of human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, and repression of dissent, which has fueled resentment and resistance among the Kashmiri people. Its response has been to portray itself as a victim of international bias accusing foreign governments and human rights organizations of interfering in its internal affairs. Indian officials have emphasized that the situation in the region is a matter of national security and have sought to downplay or dismiss reports of human rights violations. 

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s current ruling party, seems to possess a distinct historical amnesia with a strong desire to rewrite history in its consistent assertion that Kashmir, “always was an integral part of India”. It was India’s preceding governments, and its formative leaders including, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, a Kashmiri Pandit, Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Minister of Law and Justice, B.R. Ambedkar, assisted by Prime Minister of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir N Gopalaswamy Iyengar and Indian Minister VP Menon, who contributed to the Instrument of Accession. The Instrument of Accession was the set of lawful conditions under which the Maharaja of Kashmir was to accede to India, Kashmiri autonomy and sovereignty being the document’s nucleus. 

In August 2019, without warning and under the pretext of a looming terror threat from Pakistan, Narendra Modi and the BJP party told Hindu pilgrims and tourists to evacuate Kashmir and then barricaded 7 million Kashmiris in their homes and revoked Article 370, the segment in the Indian constitution that guaranteed Kashmir’s autonomous status. The change in political status was accompanied by an increase in security forces bringing the total number to 700, 000 Indian soldiers stationed in Kashmir, curfews were implemented and information black-outs lasted for several months. During the communication black-out, Kashmiris were denied access to doctors, hospitals, work, no business, no school, and no contact with loved ones.

Satya Pal Malik, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir under which revocation occurred, said, “phone lines were not important for Kashmiris and were only used by terrorists”.

Since then, the central government has changed land and domicile laws that Kashmiris fear are aimed at bringing demographic changes in the Muslim-majority region. The new laws allow anyone from outside Jammu and Kashmir to buy land and property there, as well as apply for jobs in the region. Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest industrialist had promised, ‘several announcements’ in the region, which possesses a fragile ecology, a land of vast glaciers, high-altitude lakes, and five major rivers. In the immediate aftermath, Google trends showed a surge in searches for, “marry a Kashmiri girl,” and, “buy land in Kashmir”. 

The issue of India – Kashmir – Pakistan has been triangulated for over seven decades. Surprisingly, China has largely been absent from the mainstream narrative with China-Kashmir-India relations largely unnoticed, under-reported and under-analyzed.

The topic of Kashmiri sovereignty in the areas occupied by India has been taken to the UNSC several times. The first time was in January 1948, when India and Pakistan both sought the Council’s help to resolve the dispute. The UNSC passed a resolution on 17 January 1948, which called for an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of troops from the region. Since then, the issue has been brought before the Security Council in 1951, 1957, 1965, 1971, 1972, and 1998. The resolutions passed by the Security Council have not been fully implemented, a plebiscite which was promised to the Kashmiri people never occurred. The plebiscite would allow Kashmiris to decide whether they want to be part of India, Pakistan or an independent state. While India has maintained that the dispute is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and has resisted outside intervention, Pakistan has called for the implementation of the UN resolutions.

The fears of holding a plebiscite now are hardly unimaginable. The state of relations between Kashmiris and the Indian army are akin to prisoner and prison warden with Kashmiris living in an open-air prison, comparable to the people of Palestine. It was the Israeli Defence Force after all who trained the Indian special forces. In current times, it may be hard to imagine a plebiscite resulting in India’s favour. However, even when a referendum could prove favourable to India, such as in 1971, when the Pakistani Army was committing horrific atrocities in Bangladesh, Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India at the time, still chose not to hold a referendum. AG Noorani argued in an article titled, ‘Kashmir: Bridge, not battle ground’ that while Jawaharlal Nehru had suggested a plebiscite to resolve the Kashmir issue, he never intended to actually carry it out.

The recent events at SCO demonstrate that Pakistan is unwilling to engage in bilateral relations unless discussions of Kashmir are back on the table, a strategy met with total indifference. The response from the Indian government has been consistent – challenging Pakistan’s credibility, naming it a terror state and its citizens, terrorists, accusing Pakistan of aiding terrorists in the Kashmir region and insisting it does not negotiate with terrorists.  Terrorism is consistently used as a tool to distract and deflect from the topic of Kashmiri sovereignty. 

If Pakistan does not possess the credibility to speak on Kashmiri human rights and Kashmiri sovereignty, then who does? G20 nations including Britain, Sweden, Germany and South Africa have previously called out and raised concerns about the Indian government’s treatment of the Kashmiri people to be met with languor and inattention.

In January 2021, British Labour Party’s Sarah Owens urged the UK government to take a position against Kashmir’s illegal annexation. British Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi, “We in this Parliament talk about girl’s rights in Afghanistan, but what about girls’ rights in Indian-occupied Kashmir”. Conservative British MP Paul Bristow stated, “Just as we care about injustice against the Rohingya and the Uyghur, we also care about injustice against Kashmiris”. “This is not pro or anti-country, it is definitely pro-human rights”, said British Labour MP Debbie Abrahams. Abrahams also wrote a letter to India’s high commissioner to the UK, saying the revocation of Article 370 had betrayed the trust of the people of Kashmir.

India responded by expressing dismay suggesting the Houses of Parliament in London are relying on “false assertions” and unsubstantiated allegations propagated by a “third country” – an apparent reference to Pakistan. In 2020, Abrahams attempted to visit India and upon landing at New Delhi’s international airport was unable to clear customs after her Indian visa was rejected. Abrahams said she was “treated like a criminal” and told to leave India before being marched onto a plane bound for Dubai.

On August 9, 2019, American Congressman, Tom Suozzi, sent a letter to the United States Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, citing concern over the revocation of Article 370 and a total communication blackout in the region. The letter was met with outrage by some Indian Americans. Jagdish Sewhani, the president of the American India Public Affairs Committee stated, “If any letter is required, Congressman Suozzi needs to write to Secretary Pompeo about the nefarious actions of Pakistan and ask to take decisive and irreversible action against terrorist organizations”. 

In a separate letter to Pompeo dated September 11, 2019, Pramila Jayapal, the first and the only Indian-American Congresswoman in the House of Representatives, and Congressman James McGovern, said the international media and independent human rights observers must immediately be allowed into Jammu and Kashmir to investigate reports of abuse. “We urge you to work across the Administration to press the Indian Government to immediately end its communications blackout of Kashmir, expedite the process of reviewing and releasing individuals ‘preventatively’ detained, ensure hospitals have access to life-saving medicines and protect the rights of the Kashmiri people to freedom of assembly and worship,” reads the letter.

In December of the same year, India’s Foreign Minister, Jaishankar was slated to meet with a bipartisan group of American lawmakers but declined to do so because Jayapal was part of the group.  Jayapal responded by stating it was inappropriate for a foreign government to dictate which members of Congress participate in meetings on Capitol Hill. She added, “It’s also a sign of weakness for any great democracy to refuse to allow those who have some criticisms to participate in a meeting — a giant missed opportunity for two countries that value dialogue and dissent”.

Sweden strongly condemned the continued restrictions and political detentions roughly four months after Article 370 was abrogated. In a response to a question on the situation in Kashmir in the Swedish parliament, Sweden’s foreign minister Anne Linde called for the lifting of the remaining restriction in the region. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom tweeted earlier in the same month that the people of Kashmir “must be included” in decisions concerning their future. 

In October 2019, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters, “The conditions in which the people of Kashmir are living are unsustainable and must be improved,” on a trip to New Delhi where she held talks with Modi. India’s response was to direct the European nation to the problems of terrorism that emanate from Pakistan and the two leaders issued a veiled message to Pakistan, calling on countries to ensure that their territories are not used for terror activities against other countries. 

Two years later, in October of 2022, German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock on a visit to Pakistan, stated, “Germany has a role and responsibility with regard to the situation of Kashmir. Therefore, we support intensively the engagement of the United Nations to find peaceful solutions in the region”. Reacting sharply, the spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi said, “The Indian Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has borne the brunt of such a terrorist campaign for decades. This continues till now,”. 

In 2019, the Norwegian government expressed concern about the human rights situation in Kashmir and called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. In the same year, the governments of Ireland and South Africa also expressed concern about the situation in Kashmir and called for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

None of these events were met with a level of seriousness to include Kashmiris in the decision-making process of their region or the promotion of dialogue between the Kashmiri people and the Indian government. 

Scrutiny of the Indian state and its role in Kashmir has repeatedly come from independent civil society groups. Immediately after the annexation of Article 370, several United Nations experts* wrote to the Indian government and publicly called for an end to the crackdown on freedom of expression, access to information, peaceful protest and raised concern about alleged arbitrary detention and torture and ill-treatment. Since then, the UN has routinely expressed concern over India’s decision to strip Kashmir’s limited autonomy, once after nearly two dozen foreign envoys from African, European and Latin American nations visited the disputed region on a government-guided tour to assess the situation. The response from the Indian government was included, stating Kashmir was an integral and inalienable part of India and a BJP spokesperson slammed the UN saying, “It’s India’s internal matter”.

Amnesty International has criticized the Indian government for using excessive force against protesters in Kashmir and for detaining thousands of people without trial under the Public Safety Act. Human Rights Watch, has documented cases of extrajudicial killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by Indian security forces in Kashmir. International Crisis Group, an independent organization that works to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts, has criticized India for its use of force against civilians. None of these reports have been met with any degree of seriousness. 

If it’s not foreign governments or civil society groups, perhaps the voice has to come from the inside. It’s Indian citizens – politicians, journalists, writers and activists who can speak of Kashmiri sovereignty. 

In response to the annexation of Article 370, The Indian National Congress (INC) stated,” Article 370 is the constitutional recognition of the terms of the Instrument of Accession between the State of Jammu & Kashmir and India. It deserved to be honoured until it was amended, after consultation with all sections of the people, and strictly in accordance with the Constitution of India.”

Shashi Tharoor, a member of parliament from the INC party has been vocal about the need for a political solution to the Kashmir conflict over his career. After the abrogation of Article 370, Tharoor said the Article was, “never intended to be forever” but the manner in which the special status was revoked was “undoubtedly violative of the spirit” of the Constitution. However, the Party has quietened down to make direct statements on Article 370 as India pedals into its election season and several Indians outside of J+K support the BJP move to integrate Kashmir into India. 

Communist Party Leader, Sitaram Yechury, has been vocal about his continued opposition to the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. “We will work for the realization of the assurances provided in the Constitution to the people of Jammu & Kashmir. We had and continue to oppose the abrogation of Article 370, and our party has challenged the [J&K] Reorganization Act and new land laws in the Supreme Court,” he said in March 2022.

Lower house member of parliament Asaduddin Owaisi called the move a “historic mistake”. “The Kashmiri people in 1947 joined India because they thought their Kashmiri identity was important and they felt that their Kashmiri autonomy as Kashmiris will be safer with secular India rather than Pakistan and Article 370 was that promise to them,” said Kavita Krishnan, a member of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.

Several human rights lawyers, academics and activists have been critical of the Indian state in Kashmir. On August 7, 2019, hundreds of Indian citizens rallied in New Delhi to protest against the scrapping of the constitutional provisions, and several protestors were met with arrest. In an article published by Al Jazeera, a demonstrator from New Delhi, who wished not to be named, said: “I have joined the protest because I feel ashamed that how can our government not consult the people of a state about whom it’s made such a big decision. It’s a clear violation of the democratic process and is an insult to Indian democracy.”

 In her essay, Silence is the Loudest Sound, originally published in the New York Times, Arundhati Roy, an author and activist, wrote, “Indian Muslims have been effectively disenfranchised and are becoming that most vulnerable of people: a community without political representation and without a voice”. India’s ruling party, the BJP, currently has no Muslim parliamentarian.

Finally, let’s move to Kashmiris. Surely the right people to speak of their own lived experiences are the Kashmiri people. Shehla Rashid, a member of the Jammu and Kashmir People’s Movement political party, condemned the abrogation of Article 370, “The decision was taken in the absence of an elected legislative assembly in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, so we will fight this decision both legally and politically”. 

Mehbooba Mufti, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir and the president of the People’s Democratic Party has advocated for dialogue and for greater autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian union. Mufti insists that the abrogation of Article 370 seemed to have been carried out to rob Jammu & Kashmir of its resources. “It seems the only motive behind the abrogation was to loot J&K. People from outside are being given top positions at Chenab Valley Power Projects. Our water and electricity are going outside. Our transporters are in trouble. They have to pay toll taxes and more,” she said. “There is no benefit for the people, our identity is at stake”, she concluded.

It would be impossible to note on how many occasions the Kashmiri people have protested for their freedom. The day Article 370 was revoked, up to 10,000 people, from young children and teenage stone pelters to former chief ministers and major pro-India politicians, were arrested and put into preventive detention, where many of them still remain. The cries of humans being tortured were amplified on public address systems.

Under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), several Kashmiri journalists languish in jail under false terrorism charges. Anjana Chatterji, a University of California at Berkeley scholar in an interview with VOA said, “The strategy of the Indian government to brand certain Kashmiri journalists and human rights defenders as agents of ‘terror’ is an assault on freedom of speech and seeks to effectively silence reportage on the egregious political violence and human rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir,”

While it has been almost three years since the revocation, Kashmiris continue to live under military occupation with their movements closely monitored. The Indian government has taken measures to restrict access to the Kashmir region, making it difficult for outside observers, journalists, and human rights groups to monitor the situation on the ground. The Indian government has argued that these measures are necessary to maintain law and order in the region. At the proposed G20 meetings, it is specifically the BJP flag that flies high, not the Indian flag. 

Evidently, the only people who can speak about Kashmir and have their positions legitimized are Narendra Modi, the BJP and their supporters, Bollywood directors and actors who have been accused of making and amplifying films that stoke islamophobia, including the Kashmir Files and the more recent, the Kerala Story. 

While the Kashmir Valley showcases exceptional beauty, rich and historical culture and pristine landscapes, G20 foreign dignitaries should be aware these landscapes are marred with blood and repression of its native people. While India is preoccupied with projecting false normalcy in Kashmir, G20 dignitaries must be aware that Kashmiris believe their involvement in local meetings will allow India to operate with impunity in the region.

Forging and fortifying the global economy, the very essence of the G20, must not be achieved through overlooking heinous human rights violations and stifling oppression in any region; such actions amount to nothing short of unabashed fascism.


(*)The UN experts:  Mr. David Kaye (USA), Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Mr Michel Forst (France), Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr Bernard Duhaime, Chair-Rapporteur, Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Mr Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; Ms Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. 

Sarah Awan is a Kashmiri-Australian writer, Practice Fellow at the Cambridge Center for Social Innovation at the University of Cambridge, and Executive Board Member for the non-profit, Girl Be Heard.


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