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Kashmiri People Struggle For Human Rights And Self-Determination

by Marguerite Helen and Edward Hasbrouck

(Peacework magazine, September 1990)

  • The religious leader of ten million oppressed people is assassinated by a government death squad. Crowds claiming his body outside the hospital and at his funeral are machine-gunned by soldiers. Hundreds are killed. El Salvador? Kashmir.
  • Nonviolent demonstrations by as many as a million people are repeatedly broken up with automatic weapons fire. Thousands are wounded; hundreds killed. Those trying to aid the wounded are fired on, beaten, arrested. Tienanmen Square? Kashmir.
  • Half a million soldiers and paramilitary police seal off the region as a “disturbed area”. They are authorized to shoot to kill at any public gathering of more than four people, to arrest and detain people without charges, and to destroy property without judicial process. Houses, shops, and entire villages are burned on mere suspicion. South Africa? Kashmir.
  • Twenty-four-hour curfew is imposed on entire cities for as long as two weeks without break. The economy shuts down. Food and medicine grow scarce. In house-to-house searches under curfew, “subversives” are beaten, raped, robbed, tortured, disappeared. Some prisoners die under torture, others in staged “encounters” or “escape attempts”. Palestine? Kashmir.

Why have we heard so little of this? Newspapers have been banned, their presses smashed, foreign journalists expelled. One local reporter continued to get his dispatches out; he was arrested, and released only after protests from abroad.

The Red Cross is barred from Kashmir. India’s ban on Amnesty International was lifted only after pressure from the U.S. Congress, and AI has yet actually to get in. A Senator — the only U.S. official to try to visit — was kept out by India.

One Indian human rights group which visited Kashmir “obtained detailed information from a large number of sources” of “an exercise directed against the vast masses of the Kashmiri people, who are being denied the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Indian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights…. These abuses have been carried out by the official law enforcement personnel [as] operative extensions of an official policy.”

Neither India’s reign of terror, nor that a few Kashmiris have begun to respond to it in kind, are as surprising as that the overwhelming majority of Kashmiris — ordinary people and activists alike — remain committed not merely to the goal of freedom but to the tactics of nonviolence. Whenever the curfew is lifted or defied, Kashmiri crowds march on the U.N. offices in Srinagar to present petitions and raise slogans for a plebiscite. Called for by the U.N. Security Council since 1948 (after India referred the “Kashmir question” there) and promised by India, Pakistan, and Britain at Partition in 1947, a plebiscite would allow Kashmiris themselves to decide whether to be a part of India or Pakistan or to be independent.

For nearly half a century, for nearly a billion Indians and Pakistanis, Kashmir has been central to foreign policy, national identity, and wars. South Asia’s cold war is still intense, as was apparent to us at the Indo-Pak border (a crossing reminiscent of the Berlin Wall), and India and Pakistan are the only nuclear powers curently engaged in direct armed conflict.

Any aid by Pakistanis to Kashmir pales beside the military aid India gave Bangladesh in its revolt against Pakistan, but anyone hinting of sympathy for Kashmir is dismissed in India as a Pakistani dupe, a terrorist sympathizer, and/or a traitor. As colonized Central Asia begins to bubble like Central Europe with ideas of freedom, “militant Muslim fundamentalist terrorists” are often falsely blamed for any threat to stability.

Historical and political disputes give India more layers of false excuses for its conduct in Kashmir than we could begin to deal with here. But the bottom line is that there is NO excuse for these increasingly genocidal means of repression, NO excuse for the colonialism they serve. It’s that simple.

The Kashmir Valley is broad and fertile, famed for its beauty, and valuable for agriculture, tourism, and its strategic location. Its national, cultural, linguistic, and religious identity is centuries old. In 1846 Kashmir was sold by the British to a non-Kashmiri feudal lord as part of his autonomous “princely state”. During the 1947 Partition, with the Kashmiris already in revolt against him, he signed over his domains (including Kashmir, Jammu, Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan) to India, which now claims them as the state of “Jammu and Kashmir”. This is India’s “democratic” claim to Kashmir.

After 43 years and three wars, a cease-fire line still divides Jammu and Kashmir between those areas annexed (and occupied) by India and those administered by Pakistan as trust territories pending a U.N. plebiscite. India controls most of Jammu and Kashmir, including the Kashmir valley and most of the population. India would, as was obvious to us, lose any plebiscite, either to Pakistan or to independence. Ergo, India permits no plebiscite and refuses to negotiate with the United Nations or Kashmiris on what it says is either an “internal” matter or a bilateral dispute with Pakistan.

Either characterization, of course, ignores the Kashmiris, and on this we can help. India is a democratic country, and extremely sensitive to its image as such at home and abroad. U.S. pressure in the U.N. Security Council could help bring about a plebiscite in Kashmir, hopefully while something remains of Kashmir and its people. We need to get Congress and the State Department to push India hard, now, to let Kashmiris go free.

Jawaharlal Nehru may have said it best in 1951: “Kashmir has been wrongly looked upon as a prize for India or Pakistan. People seem to forget that Kashmir is not a commodity to be bartered. It has an individual existence, and its people must be the final arbiters of their future.”

[Marguerite Helen was born in Lahore in British India (now Pakistan). Marguerite is a member of the Wellesley, MA, Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and has been a paralegal, administrative staff person, and volunteer for a variety of legal, environmental, peace and justice, and other nongovernmental organizations. Her son Edward Hasbrouck was convicted in Boston in 1982 of refusal to submit to draft registration. Longtime activists, they travelled in Kashmir, India, and Pakistan in the fall of 1989.]

[Originally published by the American Friends Service Committee in Peacework magazine, issue #200, September 1990. The views expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the AFSC.]

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