Guns and bullets cannot extinguish the spark of freedom that is lit in the hearts of people. Both Palestine and Kashmir represent this reality although the struggle of the Palestinian people is far better known — and now increasingly supported — worldwide while the suffering of the Kashmiris barely registers anywhere. There is no hierarchy of suffering; each people suffer in their own peculiar way: the Kashmiris under Indian occupation forces while the Palestinians under Zionist military forces. Both occupiers are alien to the land they occupy and covet under false pretences.
In an ironic twist, both tragedies can be traced to British intrigue 70 years ago. The Palestinians faced the added burden of a powerful, well-healed Zionist lobby that rubbed shoulders with powerful figures in the corridors of power in London and Washington. The Kashmiris were not burdened with this handicap. India was seen as a poor, backward country. Winston Churchill contemptuously referred to Gandhi as the “naked fakir”. The British bulldog had a way with words but British hatred of “Muslim” Pakistan was even more intense, hence they left the nascent state burdened with the unresolved issue of Kashmir.
A little detour into history is necessary to understand the six-decade Indian occupation of Kashmir. While India’s borders throughout history have been flexible, Kashmir was never a part of it. During British colonial rule, it had autonomous status with its own maharaja (princely ruler) but in typical British colonial style, a Hindu was appointed to rule the overwhelmingly Muslim majority in Jammu and Kashmir. This served the interests of the British raj well. A Hindu ruler nursing a historical grudge of a 1,000-year Muslim rule had little sympathy for his Muslim subjects. But he would need British help to keep them in check. The British did this to other “princely” states as well. Muslim rulers were appointed in states with Hindu majorities though Muslim rulers were far more benign than their Hindu counterparts.
At the time of the partition of India in August 1947, the state of Jammu and Kashmir should automatically have become part of Pakistan. This is what the rulers of Pakistan as well as the people of Kashmir expected. Yet, the Hindu maharaja prevaricated leading to a people’s uprising. The maharaja fled Srinagar, the state capital, and on the way was persuaded by the Indians as well as Lord Mountbatten, the last governor general of India, to accede to India. This was an illegal act but using this fraudulent instrument of accession, Indian troops were dispatched to Kashmir occupying two-thirds of the state. The other third fell under Pakistani control after a brief skirmish with Pakistani forces.
With minor exceptions, the physical geography of the state has remained virtually unchanged since then but the social and political costs to the people of Kashmir have been immense. The first war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in 1948 led to a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a referendum to ascertain the wishes of the people. Interestingly, it was India that approached the UN when its forces were in retreat. It was followed by another Security Council resolution in January 1949 reaffirming the right of the Kashmiri people to determine their own future: whether they wished to join Pakistan or India. Initially, Indian leaders, especially, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru pledged to the world that India would respect the wishes of the people of Jammu and Kashmir but as India intensified its grip on the state, Nehru started to backtrack.
At the political and diplomatic levels, the issue of Kashmir remains deadlocked. India is unwilling to address it in earnest; Pakistan is too weak to wrest control by force. Even the Muslim world, including the toothless body called the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) issues meaningless resolutions that nobody takes seriously. The people of Kashmir have been virtually abandoned. Some Kashmiris have set up lobby groups in Britain, the US and elsewhere hoping to attract some international attention and sympathy. While sincere, such efforts will achieve little.
The future of Kashmir will not be decided in London, Washington or New York; it will be determined by the struggle of the Kashmiri people and how much they are willing to sacrifice. They have paid a heavy price in life and blood already: more than 100,000 dead in the last 20 years. Rivers of blood now separate the people of Kashmir and India. No amount of sweet talk from Delhi can hoodwink the Kashmiris into surrendering their rights. An unlikely figure — 80-year-old Syed Ali Shah Geelani — has emerged as the voice of the freedom struggle primarily because of his refusal to compromise on fundamental principles.
The Kashmiris must learn from the struggles of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The India-doting West will do everything to frustrate their aspirations, just as it did in Lebanon and is now doing in Palestine. The outcome of freedom struggles is not determined at the negotiating table; it is determined in the battlefield. Hizbullah drove the Zionists out of Lebanon not because of UN resolutions but because of their determination to resist and confront the invaders. Kashmiris will have to repeat this feat. They should also know that India, Israel and the US have established a nexus whose strategic and financial interests will clash with the aspirations of the Kashmiris. They must be prepared to confront this challenge with courage and determination.