Mohammed Afzal Khan

The Valley of Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmir) is believed to be the most beautiful place on Earth and is consequently often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of the East.’ One would not imagine that such beauty could be beset by years of conflict, war and oppression. And yet, the people of Kashmir have endured such troubles since 1947, when India and Pakistan, both then under British colonial rule, became separate States. Kashmir, a largely Muslim populated area with an Indian Maharajah as its ruler at the time, was left aggressively contested by the two new States both making equal claim to its territory.

The notion of a Plebiscite, or a referendum as we may better understand it in light of the recent Scottish bid for independence, was agreed upon by Lord Mountbatten, India’s first governor-general who stated that the issue of Kashmir must be ‘settled by a reference to the people.’ India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also pledged a plebiscite for Held Kashmir and this was later enshrined in UN Security Council Resolutions.

Six decades on and the Held Kashmiri people have still not had this promise fulfilled.  Instead, they have been caught in the middle as the victims of 3 ravaging wars between India and Pakistan over its territory and are currently under the oppressive occupation of the Indian government which maintains a massive military presence in the region.

On a ground level, the Kashmiri people have undergone immense suffering and humiliation as basic human rights are violated on a daily basis, killing and torture are commonplace and women, in particular, are brutally gang-raped and murdered. Mass graves have been found, mosques, homes and shops have been set to flame and families have been forced apart.  The Indian-Pakistani separation, the ‘Berlin Wall’ of Kashmir, means that families living merely minutes away cannot access each other. Held Kashmir is often described as the world’s most beautiful prison due to the wide range of human rights abuses that have been catalogued and well documented in wake of the occupation. 

Now, in light of the Scottish referendum that took place in the UK on 18th September, Kashmiri voices are calling for the promise of a plebiscite to be made real once and for all.  Many Kashmiri voices are drawing on the British experience as an example of how demands for a say on their future could be resolved peacefully. The UK, which has held its strong union for over 300 years successfully, has been prepared to give the Scottish people the right to choose their own fate despite the fact that all three main English political parties were vehemently opposed to separation.  Likewise, if India is truly committed to the value of democracy, it must also be prepared to afford the Kashmiri people the same right.

India claims to be the biggest democracy in the world.  But this claim remains merely a label – or perhaps a showpiece to earn brownie points on the world stage – as long as the collective democratic right of the Kashmiri people is denied. Undoubtedly, the fear of losing Kashmir, particularly to Pakistan, is the greatest hindrance to India granting a Plebiscite. The UK, however, found itself in precisely the same position as English governments feared for the all-round social, political and economic stability of the country should Scotland break off.  They did not cower, though, from their democratic responsibility to give the people a voice and instead rose to the game through peaceful, legitimate and un-coercive means of persuasion.

The underlying point here is that a true democracy is never marked by draconian laws or a need to resort to the deprivation of basic human rights for fear of losing control.  But India’s rule in Kashmir, for the last 40 years at least, has been dominated by ‘emergency rule’ and government insecurity is such that, under the Special Powers Act, soldiers can shoot on a mere basis of doubt.  This comes disturbingly close to George Orwell’s fictional concept of ‘thought crime’, wherein the slightest thought of dissent is executionable by law.

India’s ‘Big Brother’ rule over Kashmir runs against the grain of the modern value system in which freedom and self-determination are hailed as the ultimate values of progress.  Much smaller states than Kashmir have achieved independence through referendum, for example, East Timor.  Other States seek to merge their systems and pool resources, such as in the example of the EU.  Whatever the direction, the decision has been marked by choice and a realisation of the will of the people.

Should India wish to realise its own will to become a serious player on the world stage, it must review its human rights record.  For one, India intends to build strong economic ties with the EU, the largest trading bloc in the world.  At the heart of the EU project is an absolute commitment to peace and human rights. The European mind-set is haunted by the ghost of its bloody and dictatorial past, when the mere right to freedom of belief and expression was denied.  The return to, or association with, any such system of law is abhorrent to the government and people of the EU. The denial of a whole people their basic right to choose, such as is currently the case in Kashmir, is therefore not something that would fare well for India when discussing EU trade relations.

Secondly, India aims to become a permanent member of the United Nations, an International body for world peace and security.  India has, however, categorically defied the 74 UN Resolutions that have been passed for the freedom of the Kashmiri people.  The brazen expectation to be able to join the UN whilst openly flouting its rules provides somewhat of an insight into the Indian mentality – one that fails to understand that size, economic prowess and a superficial practice of Western secular values is not enough to gain the sort of prestige it yearns for.  A genuine commitment to democracy, legitimacy and fairness for the sake of justice, equality and peace is what is needed to be taken seriously in the world.

Finally, India must learn from the lessons of the past.  Peaceful and democratic methods of negotiation and decision-making, no matter how painstakingly slow and bureaucratic they can sometimes be, are always preferable to violent conflict and war.  The particular danger with the Kashmir conflict is that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers, risking turning Kashmir into a devastating nuclear target. History has taught us time and time again that the price of war is far too high and simply not worth it. With the danger of risking countless civilian lives, devastating civilian infrastructures and landscapes and essentially turning a country into mere blood and rubble, the question would be what worth would any more war or conflict over Kashmir have for either India or Pakistan, or indeed for the world.

We live in a world where we see the best and worst examples of human living.  On the one hand, we witness the success of the EU project as it replaces war and conflict with peace, democracy and togetherness.  On the other, we still have 55 million people living under the poverty line in India. Both situations are strong indications that war is simply not needed, firstly, because there are alternative ways of reaching decisions and secondly, because the world’s resources are already depleted enough.  India has a clear choice to make; does it want the way of war and devastation or the way of peace and prosperity for South Asia as in the example of the EU?

Should India wish to live up to its claim of democracy and earn its respect on the world stage, it must summon up the courage to take a new direction, a direction of peace and democracy.  India must follow in the footsteps of the recent Scottish referendum and grant the Kashmiri people their right to a Plebiscite. The voice of Kashmir has been silenced for far too long and their basic right to a democratic vote and self-determination must now be realised.  Should it not be, India risks losing everything, from its standing in the world both politically and economically, to the will and good faith of the Kashmiri people themselves and to the very legitimacy it demands right now as the world’s largest functioning democracy.

Mohammed Afzal Khan CBE is a Labour Party politician in Manchester, England and a Member of the European Parliament. He is also Vice Chair, Security and Defence Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee.