United Nations and the Kashmir Struggle: What does the recent UN report mean for Kashmir?

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In this brief piece, the author takes a cursory look at the OHCHR report on Kashmir and tries to find out what it means for the freedom struggle in Kashmir. He asks whether the reactions coming out of Kashmir are proportionate to what the report holds for Kashmiris or are these reactions just misplaced underdog enthusiasm?

The United Nations (UN), and its resolutions, have been referred to by the people of Kashmir very often while running robust defences of Kashmiri freedom or trying to make a case for why Kashmir does not belong to its “occupier”, India and reasonably so. The geopolitical jigsaw that the world sees itself in, has the nation-state as its dominant form of political and economic organization, and nation-states across the world have agreed to the UN as a global arbitrator and regulator of affairs between them.

With all the rightful disappointments of people seeking justice around the world with the United Nations, it may still be what Carlo Azeglio Ciampi called it: “the best instrument for making the world less fragile”. Whenever there is a group of people calling for a large-scale global change, involving global powers, the UN will more often than not come into play. All these conditions are accentuated in the problem of Kashmir. It’s not any change that the resisting Kashmiris seek, but an end to a rule that they see as an occupation. These are not any ordinary parties that are involved, but two full-fledged nation-states (that have eventually come to become nuclear-armed) and people of a territory they both lay claim to. The timing of the outbreak of this conflict which is generally taken to be 1947 is also quite vital as this happens to be just two years after the post-war world agreed to peace and a global peacemaker - the United Nations. Kashmir was UN bound, it had to be. The Indians formally took it there, but even if they hadn’t, one way or the other it would have reached New York.

Recently a report from the chief Human Rights agency of United Nations, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or OHCHR was published on Kashmir. Extensive lobbying with the UN on part of rights defenders, heightened tensions and a large-scale worsening of the Human Rights situation in Kashmir since 2016, lead to the near tight-lipped attitude of the UN on Kashmir seeing a major change. The report which is the first from the UN exclusively on Kashmir came down heavily upon India and not so much on Pakistan, and criticized it for excesses in Kashmir. Regret was expressed therein for both countries not unconditionally allowing the world body’s inspectors access to the Kashmiri mainland for the first-hand inspection of the rights situation. The sanctity of the right to self-determination for Kashmiris was reaffirmed along with 17 bold recommendations that were laid out for the Indian state. There was a furor on the Kashmiri side; newspapers, local media, rights organizations, and the resistance leadership all talked about the report in a positive light. Kashmiri social media, in particular, went berserk in its chatter over the report, reflecting emotions ranging from plain optimism to outright victory. But what does such a report really mean for the freedom struggle of Kashmir? Are the reactions coming out of Kashmir proportionate to what the report holds for Kashmiris or are these reactions just misplaced underdog enthusiasm?

The attitude of the UN towards the Kashmir problem has been oscillatory when one looks down the annals of history. It has shifted from an enthusiastic early stand of passing Security Council resolutions in favour of a referendum in Kashmir (which has since been the central axis of the resistance movement’s political campaign) to a shying away from impressing it upon the parties to actually hold a plebiscite, particularly in the post-Cold War era, with shifting political loyalties and the growing stature of India at the global level. All this while we have not had a comprehensive document by the world body detailing with credibility the wrongs that the Indian State was committing in Kashmir and naturally, therefore, every voice, be it that of Kashmiris, the friends of Kashmir or the UN itself, calling for an end to rights abuses was hitherto feebler than what it will now be with a credible document backing it. Therefore, first and foremost, with a comprehensive document (even though focusing admittedly on just the abuses committed since July 2016) prepared by the ‘global arbitrator par excellence’, the UN, it will become increasingly difficult to brush aside claims of rights abuse coming out from Kashmir as propaganda or as is the fashion nowadays, ‘fake news’. This is not to suggest that it will be a cakewalk getting easy concessions from global powers or from the Indian state on rights abuses in Kashmir but as precedent points out things that prevail at UN meetings (like the recent Palestine resolutions and condemnations of Israel) or on a UN document (like the October 2017 report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Palestinian human rights)  do hold sway in terms of influencing global powers to side with the oppressed or at least make it difficult to blatantly stand against them. The small strides that the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has taken since the recent resolutions against Israel at the UN are a great point in case. Secondly and very importantly, the report has shifted back attention to the centrality of the demand of right to self-determination for Kashmiris. In recent years people of responsibility at the UN have only commented on Kashmir when tensions have soared between India and Pakistan. Even the language of what they have said at these instances has been very guarded. These statements have never gone further than ‘urging’ both countries to resolve the issue through dialogue or in some cases offering to play the role of a mediator if requested by both countries.

Kashmiri social media, in particular, went berserk in its chatter over the report, reflecting emotions ranging from plain optimism to outright victory. But what does such a report really mean for the freedom struggle of Kashmir? Are the reactions coming out of Kashmir proportionate to what the report holds for Kashmiris or are these reactions just misplaced underdog enthusiasm?

The recent OHCHR report has talked a lot about rights abuse, the importance of which can never be understated but at the risk of sounding rhetorical one can rightly state that human rights abuses are just ‘symptoms’ of an underlying ‘disease’: India’s continuous denial of the right to self-determination to Kashmiris. Thankfully, people who have time and again pointed out to the sacrosanct nature of the right to self-determination for the resolution of the K-problem, stand vindicated by a recommendation in the report asking not only India but also Pakistan to respect the right to self-determination of the Kashmiri people. While it is expected for India to rubbish all 17 recommendations including this one, it is still an encouraging development as the popular theory of “much has changed since the UNSC resolutions, and the plebiscite is now not relevant’’ that India likes to float, has now been poked a big hole in. While the recommendation does not make use of the word plebiscite directly, in the event of ‘self-determination of Kashmiris being respected’ plebiscite would be its practical manifestation. Kashmiri voices that seek to refocus the world’s attention to the ‘disease’ and not merely its ‘symptoms’ stand bolstered.

A very important takeaway from the report is what and how much has been said to/about India and Pakistan. While calling the Pakistani state holy when it comes to Kashmir or implying that the grass is absolutely green on the other side of the border is a gross exercise of intellectual and historical dishonesty, the cruel balancing act of laying the blame of everything wrong in Kashmir equally at the doors of Pakistan and India, is even more dishonest and inaccurate. Many quarters that pretend to be concerned about Kashmir exercise the same dishonesty not even asking themselves the simple question, that if the parallel they are seeking to draw actually stood on the ground, why would Pakistan enjoy the kind of support that it does in Kashmir? Such an attitude by the Left Liberal’s of India and those of other countries is damaging and steers the pressure away from the party at whose door the blame can and should be squarely laid: the Indian state. Sharing on an equal footing the blame with another party (falsely) does only one thing: it lessens the blame on the real culprit. Lesser the blame, lesser the will to mend ways.

The pressing need is to recognize how on certain fundamental grounds Pakistan is not only on the right side of history but also of geopolitical morality. Pakistan officially recognizes Kashmir as a dispute and does not claim it to be Pakistan’s integral part, unlike India. Pakistan has laws affirming the special stature of Azad Kashmir as opposed to other provinces, since Azad Kashmir’s (and all of Kashmir’s) future according to the official state policy of Pakistan, is yet to be decided. The regional autonomy that Azad Kashmir enjoys, however symbolic as many might argue, stands testimony to a higher commitment of Pakistan to officially hold Kashmir as an issue awaiting resolution and not already resolved. Go by India, and the only dispute is about the part of Kashmir that Pakistan holds, which of course according to India, belongs to the Indian Union.

While the OHCHR report does not reflect the India-Pakistan dividend on all these tangents, what it does make clear to the reader in even a cursory reading is that as far as human rights are concerned, the grass is considerably greener on the Pakistani side. The fourteenth point of the executive summary in the report reads out: “While the main focus of the report is on the situation of human rights in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir from July 2016 to April 2018, the report examines the situation in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir within that timeframe. However, the human rights violations in this area are of a different caliber or magnitude and of a more structural nature.” The India-Pakistan differential that the report ends up drawing becomes even clearer when one looks at the sheer number of recommendations for each side: 7 for Pakistan and 17 for India. Good thing for the Kashmiri activists is that the senseless whataboutery hinged on Pakistan, which India extensively uses, has been dealt a major blow.

Having said so, the wrongs committed on the Pakistani side (even if different in magnitude and of a nature) highlighted in the report are worth pointing out and stressing upon, so that efforts are made to set the Pakistani house which is ‘not inherently tyrannical or occupational’ in nature when it comes to Kashmir, further in order. Pakistan needs to take a proactive initiative regarding the bettering of it's human rights credentials in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, not only because these are Human Rights at stake (so obviously), but also because it will go a long way in ensuring that the moral stature of Pakistan as an advocate of Kashmiri freedom gets naturally bolstered at the global level. This would be a great mutual benefit for both Kashmiris and Pakistan.

In their panic and frustration at the publication of the report, some Indian analysts and media persons attempted their hand at trying to reduce the report to a resultant of the bias (read proactive nature) of the UN Human Rights Commissioner for the human rights situation in Kashmir. It was pointed out that since the commissioner does not have much time left in office, the report will hardly matter in the long run. But is that how institutions at this level function? Even if a part of the reason for the coming out of the report is a special interest in Kashmir taken by Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, will his successor simply disagree with whatever is mentioned therein? It is the institution that has come out with the report, an institution whose findings are bound to be upheld in varying degrees of aggressiveness by anyone who is at the helm in the future. What has been said in the report, again at the risk of sounding rhetorical, is pretty much a ‘word carved in stone’.

To conclude, the OHCHR report is definitely a point of no return for India as far as documentation of abuse and factuality are concerned. This will bear its fruits for the freedom movement of Kashmir. How much and how rapidly this happens depends entirely on how well and how vigorously do the Kashmiri activists, resistance leaders and the friends of Kashmir spread globally, steer this movement at the international level with the backing of a UN report now. Learning from the hard-work of Kashmiri activists in lobbying with the United Nations for the publication of this report can be a great starting point. ♦

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