By Arab News
By Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri*
Aug. 5 is a day of solidarity with the people of Kashmir in the internationally contested territory of Jammu and Kashmir. For Pakistan, it is the second anniversary of “Youm-e-Istehsal” (the Day of Exploitation). On this day in 2019, India annexed the erstwhile Muslim majority state after annulling Article 370 of its constitution, which gave it semi-autonomous status. India also divided the region into Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, and made them part of the Union of India.
This unilateral act was a violation of the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions that guarantee the people of Kashmir their right to self-determination and recommend the holding of a UN-mandated plebiscite in the disputed territory. This territory is divided by the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. However, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) in Pakistan continues to retain autonomy and has just been through elections to form a new government.
The self-determination issue is central to the Kashmir question. On the eve of partition in 1947, the fate of Kashmir was to be decided like the rest of several hundred princely states in British India: A referendum in which state subjects were to decide through popular vote whether to join Pakistan or India. However, when Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir unilaterally sought the accession of his state to India, the first fight erupted between India and Pakistan over the suzerainty of Kashmir (it would not be the last). India took the dispute to the UNSC, which resolved to settle the dispute in the same manner as the partition plan had done before.
However, to this day, the UNSC resolutions remain unimplemented, even though they are still intact in the council’s agenda for conflict resolution. It is against this backdrop that India’s unilateral act of abrogating Article 370 and dividing and annexing Jammu and Kashmir constitutes a serious violation of international law. Under the UNSC resolutions, India and Pakistan are obligated to ensure autonomy in their respective parts of the disputed land. And neither of them can change the geographical status or demographical composition of Kashmir.
What India did on Aug. 5, 2019, is not confined to the territorial subjugation of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir alone. Since then, it has also taken several steps to reshape the demography of the region in an apparent attempt to overturn the Muslim majority. This is because Article 35-A, which became part of Article 370 in 1954, was also revoked on that fateful day. This article defined Kashmiri residency, allowing only those who hailed from the region the right to land, jobs and education. A process of demographic re-engineering is now taking place in the disputed land; interestingly, under the plausible cover of the global coronavirus pandemic.
As Australia did in the case of the Aboriginals or Israel has done with the Palestinians, this is purely and simply settler colonialism. Hence, in the past two years, the tragic story of Kashmir has moved beyond the issue of self-determination to the far more serious problem of Kashmiri demography and ethnicity being reshaped at the expense of the majority Muslim population.
In Hindu-majority India, Jammu and Kashmir is the only Muslim-majority region. Its religious composition as per the 2011 census was: 68 percent Muslim, 28 percent Hindu, and the remaining 4 percent largely Sikhs and Buddhists. The Muslim population is concentrated in the Kashmir Valley, including the state capital Srinagar. Ladakh has a Buddhist majority and Jammu is Hindu dominated. Thus, the particular focus of the current demographic re-engineering process is the Kashmir Valley. And a tangible demographic shift may have already occurred there.
In the past two years, India has openly encouraged non-Kashmiris to settle in the disputed land, besides handing over chunks of it to Indian businesses for investment in tourism and other lucrative sectors. The new Domicile Order has already awarded several hundred thousand Indian citizens the status of Kashmiri residents. Most of them are reportedly of Hindu faith and have served for years largely in the security sector. They enjoy all the privileges that Kashmiri residents had under Article 35-A.
Likewise, the new Land Act allows Indian citizens to acquire agricultural land (which forms 90 percent of the total territory) in Jammu and Kashmir and use it to set up non-agricultural business ventures. Efforts are also reportedly underway to recreate political constituencies through territorial delimitation in such a manner that the electoral seats in Jammu will increase and those in the Kashmir Valley will decrease.
Ideally, the Kashmiri people should have long ago exercised their inalienable right to self-determination under the UNSC resolutions. But the UN has not done anything to fulfill its promise of holding a free and fair plebiscite in the disputed territory; nor has the international community forced India to respect the UN verdict.
Realistically, since the 1972 Simla Agreement, India and Pakistan have tried to seek a bilateral settlement on Kashmir, which is yet to deliver any outcome. This year, after both countries agreed to a ceasefire on the Line of Control through the UAE’s mediation, there has been talk of the revival of the peace process. However, there has been no follow up. Under the Musharraf regime in 2004, Pakistan had sought to settle the issue by offering an outside-of-the-box solution, but again to no avail.
Prime Minister Imran Khan recently proposed holding a referendum in AJK after the UN plebiscite, in which the Kashmiri people would be given the choice of independence or joining Pakistan. The problem is that the condition of holding such a referendum — the implementation of UNSC resolutions — is nowhere in sight. Now India has upped the ante by annexing the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then reshaping its demography.
In response to India’s unilateral action of 2019, Pakistan could have made its autonomous regions of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan into two additional provinces. However, this action would have compromised its proclaimed status as a defender of the Kashmiri right to self-determination. Hence, its current Kashmir policy is based on strategic restraint.
Meanwhile, the Kashmir tragedy continues to unfold, with the global conscience still far from realizing its horrible effects on innocent civilians. Will the world ever come to their rescue? Only time will tell. For now, it is important that this tale must be told — and retold.
- Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009 and received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Hilal-e-Pakistan, for his services in promoting the Saudi-Pakistan relationship. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Beirut Arab University and authored the book “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror” (Oxford, 2009).