What about Kashmir and Palestine?

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Last week, the UN welcomed South Sudan as its latest member. For nearly half a century the Christian missionaries have championed the cause of the south Sudanese, mostly animist and Christian, to break into pieces the largest African republic. Their efforts paid off when President George W. Bush elevated Sudan to the top of his foreign policy agenda after coming to office in 2000. In 2005, the American government pushed the southern rebels and the central government to sign a comprehensive peace agreement that guaranteed the southerners the right to secede. An American-backed treaty set the stage for a referendum in January in which more than 98 percent of southerners voted for independence. Last Saturday the southerners officially proclaimed their independence.

For the last 63 years, the Palestinians have also been seeking independence –” much like the south Sudanese. So have the Kashmiri people for the last 64 years. And their plight continues, in spite of the repeated promises made by India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to hold a plebiscite on the question of Kashmir’s accession to either India or Pakistan!

Jammu and Kashmir, the northwestern region of the Indian sub-continent, has a population that is predominantly Muslim. For nearly five hundred years since 1349, Kashmir was ruled by Muslim rulers. In 1819, however, the region came under the oppressive rule of a Sikh ruler who imposed unbearable taxes and many anti-Islamic laws, including banning of cow slaughter, closing down of mosques and stopping the call to prayer (adhan).

With the collapse of the Mughal and Afghan rule, and after the First Anglo-Sikh War of 1845, Kashmir was first ceded by the Treaty of Lahore to the East India Company, and shortly after sold by the Treaty of Amritsar to Gulab Singh (a Dogra Hindu), Raja of Jammu, who thereafter was given the title Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. The Dogras administered the region under the British tutelage, a process that was to continue until 1947 when India and Pakistan were partitioned off from British India.

In the British census of India of 1941, Kashmir registered a Muslim majority population of 77%, a Hindu population of 20% and a sparse population of Buddhists and Sikhs comprising the remaining 3%. In the 1901 Census of the British India the population of the princely state of Kashmir and Jammu was 2,905,578. Of these 2,154,695 were Muslims (74.16%), 689,073 Hindus (23.72%), 25,828 Sikhs, and 35,047 Buddhists.

For almost a century a small Hindu elite had ruled over a vast and impoverished Muslim peasantry, who were abused like slaves. Much like East Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), these Hindu absentee landowners (of Jammu and Kashmir) extracted unbearable taxes and revenues from the Muslim peasantry. Driven into docility by chronic indebtedness to Hindu landlords and loan-sharks or moneylenders, the Muslim peasants had no political rights. Prem Nath Bazaz, a Kashmiri Hindu journalist, wrote in 1941: “The poverty of the Muslim masses is appalling. … Most are landless laborers, working as serfs for absentee [Hindu] landlords … Almost the whole brunt of official corruption is borne by the Muslim masses.” [Kashmir: roots of conflict, paths to peace by Sumantra Bose]

When the British Raj decided on partitioning its crown jewel into Pakistan and India it left the status of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (similar to the Muslim ruled Hyderabad) unresolved in spite of its overwhelming Muslim population.  After rumors spread that the Maharaja supported the annexation of Kashmir by India, in October 1947 Muslim revolutionaries in western Kashmir and Pakistani tribals from Dir entered Kashmir, intending to liberate it from Dogra rule. Unable to withstand the invasion, the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 25 October 1947 that was accepted by the government of India on 27 October 1947.

According to Burton Stein, a scholar on India, “"Kashmir was neither as large nor as old an independent state as Hyderabad; it had been created rather off-handedly by the British after the first defeat of the Sikhs in 1846, as a reward to a former official who had sided with the British. The Himalayan kingdom was connected to India through a district of the Punjab, but its population was 77 per cent Muslim and it shared a boundary with Pakistan. Hence, it was anticipated that the maharaja would accede to Pakistan when the British paramountcy ended on 14–”15 August [1947]. When he hesitated to do this, Pakistan launched a guerrilla onslaught meant to frighten its ruler into submission. Instead the Maharaja appealed to Mountbatten for assistance, and the governor-general agreed on the condition that the ruler accede to India. Indian soldiers entered Kashmir and drove the Pakistani-sponsored irregulars from all but a small section of the state. The United Nations was then invited to mediate the quarrel. The UN mission insisted that the opinion of Kashmiris must be ascertained, while India insisted that no referendum could occur until all of the state had been cleared of irregulars." [History of India]

In the last days of 1948, a ceasefire was agreed under UN auspices, but since the plebiscite demanded by the UN was never conducted by India, relations between India and Pakistan soured. The rest is history!

In a broadcast to the nation on 3 November 1947, Nehru said, "We have declared that the fate of Kashmir is ultimately to be decided by the people.  That pledge we have given not only to the people of Kashmir and to the world.  We will not and cannot back out of it." That statement was later collaborated by his letter No. 368, dated 21 November 1947, addressed to the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaquat Ali Khan, in which Nehru said, "I have repeatedly stated that as soon as peace and order have been established, Kashmir should decide of accession by Plebiscite or referendum under international auspices such as those of United Nations."

In his statement in the Indian Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1947, Nehru said, "In order to establish our bonafide, we have suggested that when the people are given the chance to decide their future, this should be done under the supervision of an impartial tribunal such as the United Nations Organisation.  The issue in Kashmir is whether violence and naked force should decide the future or the will of the people."

In his many letters and declarations, Nehru often cited the “request” of Kashmir’s Hindu Maharaja’s government towards “Kashmir’s accession to India,” which was accepted by his government. However, later, Nehru did send Indian army to occupy princely states of Hyderabad and Junagarh against the wishes of their Muslim rulers who had decided to join Pakistan. So much for the empty promises and wishes or requests of the ruled and rulers! As we all know by now, none of those promises made by Nehru or those who came to power after him honored the international obligations promised to the Kashmiri people and the rest of the world.

Over time the Indian government has increasingly relied on military presence and a curtailment of civil liberties to achieve its aims in Indian Occupied Kashmir, which is to prolong its illegitimate occupation of the territory by hook or crook. People there have no political rights. Sham and rigged elections are held to support the ongoing occupation by the Indian government. It is not difficult to understand, how people’s agony and frustration have given rise to armed insurgency movements against India, which has stationed nearly 700,000 of its troops in the disputed territory. These troops have engaged in widespread humanitarian abuses and have engaged in extra-judicial killings – often for entertainment against boredom. The "Armed Forces Special Powers Act" grants the military, wide powers of arrest, the right to shoot to kill, and to occupy or destroy property in counterinsurgency operations. Published reports suggest that at least 40,000 Kashmiri Muslims were murdered by the Indian occupation forces. A 2005 study conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières also found that Kashmiri women are among the worst sufferers of sexual violence in the world, with 11.6% of respondents reporting that they had been victims of sexual abuse by Indian forces.

Since 2000 the ‘insurgency’ has become far less violent and has instead taken on the form of peaceful protests and marches. Certain groups have also chosen to lay down their arms and look for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And yet such Gandhian non-violence movement has not generated any kind of change of heart from the Indian government. Even peaceful activists like Arundhati Roy are harassed by the government on sedition charges for so-called anti-Indian speeches and writings on this matter. In her speech, Roy rightfully claimed that Jammu & Kashmir valley had never been integral part of India and that it is a historical fact. She pleaded with Indian government to abide by the wishes of Kashmiri people.

There is no alternative to resolving this most agonizing of conflicts of our time without allowing the people of the disputed territory to decide their fate in conformity with the original pledges made by the Indian government, under the UN supervision, much like what has happened with South Sudan. Unfortunately, like the other ‘democracy’ – Israel, after 64 years the Indian government is much stronger today both economically and militarily, thanks to the billions of dollars poured from outside. And with the support it enjoys within the ‘Amen Corner’ of the Capitol House, the Pentagon and the White House, it is in no hurry to do what is right.  Like Israel, with America’s foreign and defense policy so much skewed in its favor, it fancies that time is on its side and it can use every trick to delay holding the plebiscite in the occupied territories.

The poor Kashmiris, unfortunately, don’t have a powerful partner that the south Sudanese had to redress their grievances and must learn the ugly truth that there is too much hypocrisy in our world and the difference between a democracy and an autocracy is often an elusive one.  It is easy to get rid of an undemocratic monster than a ‘democratic’ demon that uses the veneer of democracy to oppress a minority and confuse others.

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