In response to the speech made by Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, at the 72nd United Nations General Assembly session, Pakistan’s permanent representative Maleeha Lodhi spoke strongly and clearly about New Delhi’s oppressive policies in Occupied Kashmir, as also that country’s sponsoring of terrorist activities in Pakistan.
But while the content was hard-hitting, Lodhi waved a picture of a girl whose face bore the marks of pellet hits from a pellet gun, a device extensively used by Indian security forces against protesting Kashmiris. Its use has been widely condemned not only by rights organizations internationally but also within India. Hundreds of Kashmiri men, women, boys and girls have either been partially or fully blinded, or their faces disfigured by pellets.
There’s no dearth of pictures of Kashmiri victims. The incidents have been painstakingly recorded by journalists and rights activists in Kashmir, as also outside India. Yet, the picture shown by Lodhi apparently was of a girl from Gaza, another land occupied and brutalized by India’s close friend, Israel, and from whose experience of oppressing Palestinians India has learnt a lot.
It was gross incompetence. Since it is unlikely that Lodhi was scouring for pictures when prepping the reply, it was quite likely someone in the mission, as ‘savvy’ digitally as this writer, who picked up the picture without verifying its provenance and turned the occasion into a snafu.
That does not take away from the facts of the case against India but it gave Indian social media trolls, usually right-wingers, a great opportunity at whataboutery. Nothing surprising about that. Barring honorable exceptions, the common Indian’s conscience has been long dead when it comes to Kashmir.
Even so, the incompetence at our end remains inexcusable, not just because our mission couldn’t find one picture when there are literally hundreds available, but because it is symbolic of Pakistan’s shambolic Kashmir policy. It is irony at its deepest when a country that erects its entire foreign policy on the K-pillar cannot get even its basics right about that pillar.
I have written this before but I will say it again: Pakistan, for all its sweat and blood, has done more harm than good to Kashmir and the Kashmiris.
Foremost, the issue has become a dispute between Pakistan and India with Kashmiris pushed to the back. Corollary: international attention has moved away from the central issue, i.e., Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, their movement as an expression of what they want. It matters nothing if Pakistan, pro forma, continues to parrot the line about self-determination. It means zilch until Pakistan recognizes Kashmiris as the central party and allows the movement to take its own course.
Here’s what a Kashmiri wrote me: “Ejaz sb…Pakistan will do [the] Kashmir cause and [the] Kashmiris great favor if it lets them represent themselves at world fora. Poor us. Either it allows terror morons to hold big rallies in our name or has incompetent civil servants [who] in this day and age… can’t get a picture right, that too at the highest debate forum in the U.N. Forgive me for my rant, but can someone stand up and beg Pakistan to do the right thing?”
On Feb. 6 this year, I wrote a piece in this space, titled, Time for Change. It was largely adapted from a presentation I gave at the National Defence University in Islamabad. What I had to say, and did, did not amuse the khakis. Their displeasure of course means nothing for me (to be an equal-opportunity offender one needs to develop thick skin), but it gave me additional insight into how bankrupt our thinking is on the issue of Kashmir and which has in truth, for all our huffing and puffing, left the Kashmiris bereft.
I had (still have) some basic questions: “In order to revisit Pakistan’s policies to get the dispute resolved, we have to ask some basic questions: Where do the Kashmiris stand today? How does India deal with Kashmir? How has Pakistan fared thus far? What must we do going into the future to help the Kashmiris’ cause?
“It’s somewhat easy to answer these questions: Kashmiris are no closer to achieving independence/freedom. Repression and systems of hegemonic control have increased in Kashmir over time. Internationally, the Kashmiri struggle is seen as being caught up in the India-Pakistan conflict, rather than as legitimate in its own right. At worst, the Kashmiris’ struggle has been associated with extremism.”
What should be the policy thrust: focus on Kashmiris and let them take the lead. Frame the question of the future of Jammu & Kashmir in terms of high principles and international norms vis-à-vis self-determination, not as a real estate dispute. Avoid doing anything that shifts attention away from Delhi’s oppression and bad faith. Adopt a strategy whose destination is a solution of Kashmir that is acceptable to all parties and in shaping which the Kashmiris have a primary role. Do not do anything that allows India to shift the focus from self-determination to ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism.’ Make it about Kashmiris, not an India-Pakistan dispute.
The realist framework looks at states and their interactions in terms of relative power. India is managing to hide behind its image. Kashmir is the picture in the cellar. Upstairs resides Dorian Gray, ‘handsome’ and ‘youthful’, his sickness and reality borne by the picture away from the world. The challenge is to get the world down in the cellar, pull the picture upstairs and put it on display.
The current (non)policy has no chance of winning that challenge.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider