September Issue 2019

By | Cover Story | Published 1 month ago

Ershad Mahmud is a keen follower of the Kashmir conflict, and has been actively involved in Track II diplomacy on Kashmir between India and Pakistan since 2001. A native of Rawalakot, Azad Jammu Kashmir, he was recently appointed Secretary Information, Azad-Kashmir, by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Based on his decades of observation of the Kashmir dispute, he speaks to Newsline’s Muhammad Ismail Khan, on the issue. His views on the subject are not necessarily those of his party, he clarifies.

How do you view the recent moves by the Indian government?

On August 5, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 of the Constitution of India that gave special status to the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state. Similarly, the Indian Government also removed Article 35-A of the Constitution that had barred any non-Kashmiri from buying land in held-Jammu and Kashmir.

So essentially, with the removal of these two provisions, Occupied Jammu and Kashmir has lost whatever internal autonomy it had. As of now, it will be ruled directly by the central government of India.

As if this wasn’t enough, the Indian government has bifurcated the Jammu and Kashmir state into two separate union territories (UT): the UT of J&K, and the UT of Ladakh. The UT of J&K will have its own legislature, but the UT of Ladakh won’t; instead, it will be ruled directly by a Lieutenant Governor appointed by New Delhi.

According to the Indian government, J&K was already part of India, though autonomous. Sure, autonomy was taken away, but it was through a proper constitutional process, they say. How do you respond to that?

The August 5 legislation was carried out in a highly undemocratic manner. No consultation was carried out beforehand. Legally too, the way they did it was a constitutional blunder, as Article 370 was invoked first to revoke the same.

Constitutional experts in India have highlighted the legal lacunae in these amendments. A.G. Noorani, a respected constitutional lawyer and writer of Article 370: A Constitutional History of Jammu and Kashmir, termed the move as “unconstitutional,” undertaken by “deceitful means.” Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal questioned the non-consultative manner in which the changes were made, and former Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, said the government committed a “cardinal blunder.”

In any case, the people of Indian-held Kashmir (IHK) were caged. Indian authorities had closed down all media in Kashmir; cell phone and landline services too, were shut down. On the night of August 5, 900 political leaders and 4,000 activists were arrested. These draconian measures speak volumes about how ill-conceived and dictatorial the decision was.

There seems to be an element of surprise in Pakistan about Modi’s move. Was it totally unexpected?

The developments of August 5 were so outlandish and unexpected that barring four or five important ministers in Modi’s cabinet, nobody had an actual idea of what was about to happen. Kashmiris were taken aback, the international community seemed aghast at the way it was done, and Pakistan, I believe, was also taken by surprise.

Prior to these moves, there were some indications of an ‘extraordinary event’ in the offing. Even then, the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir was something that nobody had ever considered.

Although there is some hue and cry in the opposition that the Pakistan government probably knew and was on board about these moves, that seems highly unlikely.

Doing away with Article 370 was something the BJP had been threatening to do since its inception. But how do you explain the bifurcation of J&K?

Other than scrapping state laws that prohibited outsiders from securing jobs and buying land there, bifurcating Jammu and Kashmir, is among the actual issues of concern to the people.

My sense is that bifurcation is an attack on the only Muslim-majority state in India. The people of Kashmir fear that bifurcation is meant to further ghettoise Kashmiris.

Take the UT of Ladakh. While it is a Buddhist majority area, the district of Kargil boasts a Muslim majority. The people of Kargil have always associated themselves with the Kashmir Valley. Even now, Kargil has been in lockdown for 18 days. The bifurcation has ended that association of Kargil, as they will be in a minority in the new UT against a hostile Buddhist majority, with whom they have not been getting along well since 1990.

Actually, the Jammu chapter of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was asking for trifurcation. They want a separate UT status for Jammu, rather than clubbing it with the Kashmir Valley, so that Jammu can become a single Hindu majority state.

How would the scrapping of the two articles impact Pakistan and India’s bilateral relations?

The bilateral relations between India and Pakistan were guided by the Shimla Agreement of 1972. This agreement barred both countries from bringing any major change vis-a-vis the areas of Jammu and Kashmir held by either party. One focus of this agreement was maintaining the sanctity of the Line of Control (LoC). Both parties agreed that no unilateral action would be taken to alter the LoC. India, through its August 5 measures, has not only violated the Shimla agreement, but also opened the gates for internationalisation of the Kashmir conflict.

Are the Indians right in assuming that this move will not affect the LoC?

The ceasefire line of 1949 was given the name ‘Line of Control’ after the Shimla agreement in 1972. Now that the Shimla agreement has been unilaterally violated by India – by, making way for tinkering with the demography of the disputed region – the LoC has just become a ceasefire line which technically cannot stop people from going in and out.

 

Secondly, with the change in the status of J&K under Indian occupation, I cannot say how trade and travel between two divided parts of J&K will be dealt with.

 

This does not mean they are changing the LoC into an international border. Doing so will go against their own assertion that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the Pakistani part, is somehow their integral part. They termed the area under Pakistan’s control as ‘occupied.’ Secondly, the presence of the United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan on the soil of Jammu and Kashmir is another reason why India cannot declare the LoC an international border. That mission is there to observe cross-LoC violations.

The fear is that the recent moves are just the beginning of something more sinister. India’s Home Minister Amit Shah has said in parliament that “we will sacrifice our lives” for the Pakistani part of Kashmir.

How has bilateralism on Kashmir affected policies on our side of Kashmir? Will India’s recent moves be seen as a violation of bilateralism by Islamabad?

To be honest, “bilateralism on Kashmir” was an idea that could never strike a chord with the people of Jammu and Kashmir.  They always felt left out. The Prime Minister of AJK and other important leaders of the region have, time and again, publicly said that Kashmiris were not a party to the Shimla Agreement, the oft-quoted bilateral document, but they accepted it because of Pakistan.

But now that India has violated the most successful bilateral agreement, (the Shimla Agreement), people who already had reservations with bilateralism, say that Pakistan should go back to the international forums and let the Kashmiris of AJK take matters in their own hands.

Now that the agreement is violated, the LoC has become a ceasefire line, meaning that all Kashmiris can and should cross because no international law stops them from doing so. As I see it, this opening on the LoC is likely to become another hotbed of conflict, as several political parties are gearing up for marches, protests and vigils at the LoC.

Does Pakistan’s part of Kashmir also come under the spotlight with the recent Indian moves?

The Pakistan part of Kashmir is already in the spotlight. Gilgit-Baltistan, for instance, have strategic importance.

After India announced the changes, their Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said recently that from now on, the only dialogue with Pakistan will be on Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This approach of India, in addition to its attempt to flare up the situation on the LoC, means that they want the spotlight to remain on the Pakistani side of Kashmir.

As for the people of AJK and GB, India was never an option for them. Though there are some issues of governance and autonomy in these regions, largely they present a peaceful picture. It is high time that Pakistan allows the United Nations Human Rights Commission to visit these areas to reflect a positive image of these areas.

What fallout do you foresee for India from this decision?

The law and order situation inside Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir is likely to worsen. As of now, there is a complete lockdown and curfew in Kashmir. It has become a sort of battle of nerves as to which party blinks first. The Indian government is caught in a quagmire where it claims normalcy, but cannot [afford to] lift the curfew, fearing the people’s reaction.

Complete lockdown in Kashmir.

It is almost certain that another cycle of intense public agitation will grip the Kashmir Valley. It’s only a matter of time before it begins. What cannot be ruled out is an increase in the number of youngsters joining the militant ranks.

 

On a broader level, from now on, you will hardly find anyone in Kashmir talking about Indian democracy and its secular credentials. The space for the mainstream parties of Kashmir, like National Conference and Peoples Democratic Party, has shrunk to almost zero. The mainstream leaders of Kashmir are under arrest. It would be impossible for New Delhi to hold a genuine election in Kashmir anytime soon and, even if it does, the participation levels are likely to go extinct.

There are rumours that extremist groups like Al-Qaeda and Daesh (IS) are making their presence felt in the valley. Are these reports true? And will they play into what’s happening in IoK?

Al-Qaeda chief Ayman-al-Zawahiri released a video a few months back in which he encouraged Kashmiri “mujahideen (freedom fighters)” to take up arms “to inflict an unrelenting blow” on India. He asked them not to rely on Pakistan for any support. This is a serious development in Kashmir.

Earlier, in 2017, a local Al-Qaeda group by the name of Ansar-Ghazwat-ul-Hind had already started to spread its tentacles among the Kashmiri youth. This group was led by Zakir Musa, who disassociated from Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the largest indigenous militant outfit in Kashmir, and was subsequently killed in an encounter with Indian security forces. According to some reports, his fighters had also switched allegiance to Daesh. If true, it might open a new chapter in Kashmir.

All in all, there’s this fear among Kashmiris that youth like Zakir Musa, who are disillusioned with politics and political methods of resistance, are likely to be radicalised, and attracted by global jihadist outfits.

Recently, the former chief of Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), A.S. Dulat, said in an interview aired by an Indian TV channel, that he fears an unprecedented rise in the violence not only in (Muslim-majority) Kashmir but in (Hindu-majority) Jammu as well, because the nature of polarisation in society has fast changed from political to religious.

 

I also feel the same way. If no conflict resolution takes place in the near future, Kashmir is likely to go down the abyss of radicalisation.

 

Besides, there is a strong fear among Kashmiri Muslims that the recent abrogation of Article 35-A will lead to the demographic change of Kashmir from a Muslim-majority state to a Hindu-majority one. This process could entail ghettoisation of the Muslim community, which can instil fears of ethnic cleansing. We have seen how some sections of Indian Muslims were marginalised and sidelined in recent years.

What options do you see for Pakistan?

The options exercised by Pakistan in the last three weeks show that the leadership here is finally waking up to the fact that we are faced with an unprecedented situation.

Pakistan needs to completely overhaul its Kashmir policy: empower the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government as the official representative of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir, because my sense is that in the near future New Delhi will not allow Kashmiri political or civil society representatives to go abroad and talk about Kashmir.

Doing so will lead to a series of possibilities. The objective of internationalising Kashmir will also be achieved. My personal experience tells me that world opinion wants to listen to the story of Kashmir from the horse’s mouth, not from a secondary party.

Another option that Pakistan must consider is the opening of offices of the AJK government in the key world capitals, where Kashmiris representing the AJK government can lobby and advocate for the Kashmiris’ right of – and fight for – self-determination. At the minimum, it can open offices in key capitals, akin to Taliban offices in Doha. It will have huge symbolic significance.

As to what Pakistan should avoid, it must desist from giving the impression to the outside world that there’s no consensus inside Pakistan on Kashmir.

The options we exercise must be of a political and diplomatic nature. Discussion on Kashmir has resumed after a long time, particularly in the international media, in part because of the high-level of repression in the Kashmir Valley. This opportunity should be seized.

But mind you, any incident of violence, which has even a remote connection with Pakistan or the Kashmiris, can turn the tables and reduce international sympathy quite quickly. Any violence at this point in time will not favour Kashmiris. Authorities must keep on tightening the screws on those sections, who have a violent approach on Kashmir.

Additionally, Pakistan should not be championing a particular option for Kashmir. Prime Minister Imran Khan rightly stated at the United Stated Institute for Peace (USIP) event that it is not for Pakistanis to decide what the Kashmiris want, it is for the Kashmiri to decide that. It was well received by  the Kashmiris.

That is why, in my view, Pakistan should only emphasise the Kashmiris’ right of self-determination, instead of raising the slogan of “Kashmir Banega Pakistan” at the official level. If Kashmiris raise this slogan on their own, that is fine, but Pakistani officials should refrain from it – at least those at the highest level. The principle of self-determination is stipulated by the UN charter and is applicable under the UNSC resolutions on Kashmir.

But why a separate AJK government office, given that the Pakistani government already represents them? Why not a Kashmiri leadership through national parliamentary bodies?

I admit that the AJK government may not be considered a sovereign state. All I’m saying is that it should be allowed to run a small foreign office, for external affairs. Hong Kong, for example, runs some of its external relations under a special law, while the government of China is responsible for its defence. Additionally, Hong Kong is member of several international organisations such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and it participates on its own in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals forums.

As far as parliamentary bodies are concerned, yes, they do have a role, but there is no alternative to the local voices and the affected party. Besides, Kashmiris across the LoC consider the August 5 move of the Indian government a turning point in their contemporary history and view it as a watershed moment, just as the US views 9/11.

How do you view the international response to India’s August 6 move on Kashmir?

The fact that the United Nation’s Security Council discussed Kashmir after 50 years is, in itself, an extraordinary event. That it happened, despite maximum pressure from India and its allies to scuttle the initiative, just shows that the international community at least feels the intensity and gravity of the situation, and realises how dangerous the Kashmir conflict is for world peace.

Very recently, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh hinted that India can change its policy of ‘no first use of nuclear weapons policy’ against an adversary. That this came amid an extremely volatile situation, implies that India is attempting to further pave the way for international mediation. Such rhetoric of nuclear threat makes Kashmir a nuclear flashpoint, which deserves urgent international attention.

While attempts are being made to involve international players, we must also realise that the solution to the Kashmir problem will have to be an indigenous one. Internationalisation of the Kashmir issue should be geared towards a solution that is indigenous. Or else, it may further complicate the conflict. Kashmiris may feel even more excluded from the solution, and that must be avoided.

What precautions need to be taken to avoid that?

The level of sensitisation on Kashmir today is high. Civil society youth groups, in particular, are coming out for Kashmir in all the world capitals. Pakistan must engage these groups, in terms of sensitising them or internationalising the issue. This is a better approach.

 

Contrast it with the 1990s, when we weren’t careful, and ended up escalating the violent conflict inside Kashmir. Such mistakes must not be repeated.

 

How do the Kashmiris in Pakistan view the present situation in IoK?

The Kashmiris in Pakistan are very concerned and there is this feeling too that India, by scrapping the two articles, has hit the basis of the so-called ‘Accession Treaty’ of Occupied Jammu and Kashmir with India. And by hitting at the basis, India has done a huge favour to the cause of the Kashmiri people. This is one aspect of the current scenario.

But more immediately, what is a cause for concern for Kashmiris at this critical juncture, is the total communication blackout across the LoC. Almost 60 per cent of the Kashmiri families living in Pakistan or along the LoC are divided, and they have not been able to communicate with their relatives stranded on the other side. This has taken its toll on the people, especially those whose relatives are living in vulnerable areas like Srinagar and South Kashmir.

Another opinion among some nationalist Kashmiris is that Pakistan, by revoking the state subject laws in Gilgit-Baltistan in the 1970s, made a big mistake. They are of the view that these laws must be reinstated to restore the confidence of the local population.

Overall, Kashmiris in Pakistan have never dissociated themselves from their Kashmiri identity, while retaining their Pakistani identity. This was primarily because Kashmiris living on the Pakistani side had their lands and property protected and their human rights upheld to a great extent.

However, the Indian move has instilled in them the fear that, should the conflict not be resolved, the same could happen to them some day. Several lobbies in Pakistan have been advocating the merger of AJK or making Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan.