September 26, 2010

Globalizing Kashmir's Intifada

India’s all-party delegation may have thought the worst case scenario was leaving empty-handed, but they returned to New Delhi with additional weight on their backs. Shadowing India’s political division, Home Minister P Chidambaram possessed no unity when he hit Kashmir's streets last Monday to greet some 800 people. And though India restrained its army after several days of bloody intervention, Kashmiris continued to suffer injury and death as they defied the remaining patchwork of curfews.

Surrounded in a hostile environment, Chidambaram repeatedly fell back on the line, “I’m only hear to listen.” And listen he did.

Protesters hounded Chidambaram’s every stop, chanting pro-Kashmir slogans and demanding to know how he feels when security forces kill innocent Kashmiris. Indian officials all the way up to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have publicly sympathized with Kashmiris’ pain while overseeing their suppression, a natural irritant. Reports indicate that Chidambaram fell silent numerous times.

While Kashmir’s “Quit India” movement for self-determination runs like an oiled machine, one disaster after another flows from New Delhi’s response to the crisis in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir. India believed the status quo could be preserved when a relatively peaceful 2008 election overcame a separatist boycott and installed Omar Abdullah, chief of the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, as state minister. A sense of normality returned the territory.

But the environment gradually reverted to its natural state as economic hopes faded and draconian Indian laws remained.

Underestimation ripened the conditions for Kashmir’s most comprehensive protests in years, and New Delhi had little idea, if any, of the power stored in the “Green Calendar.” Released in June by the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC), Kashmir’s separatist umbrella, the schedule functions as a alarm clock for the masses who strike and protest on command. India's political and military systems were both overwhelmed. Instead of identifying that Kashmir’s movement operates independently of Pakistan and rationally address the situation with urgency, India reacted with suffocating curfews and indiscriminate fire on protesters, many below 18.

Three months of accelerated unrest following 17 year-old Tufail Ahmad Mattoo's death have once more exposed the fragile state of New Delhi’s policy towards Kashmir. Even now India continues to defend its actions, but deploying Home Minister P Chidambaram was the latest sign that its policy hangs on life-support.

Given the jumbled nature of India’s parliament, that its latest move descended into a similar tug-of-war came as no surprise. Kashmiris’ reception of the all-party delegation merely served to increase the pressure on New Delhi’s decision-making process, not bring the two sides closer. Though Chidambaram may have meant well, the situation demanded more action than listening when India already knows Muslim Kashmiris' demands - self-determination and employment. And not one without the other.

India still isn’t prepared to accept this reality.

New Delhi politicians wasted no time in criticizing the all-party delegation for attempting to meet with Hurriyat leaders Mirwaiz Umer Farooq, Yasin Malik, and Syed Ali Shah Geelani; Farooq and Geelani had rejected their invitation. Officials within the delegation responded that their meetings were approved by the government, but the basic act of negotiating with Kashmiri leaders, India’s only political option, remains a borderline taboo.

Many Indian officials believe Kashmiris should restore order before negotiations, even though the point of the latter’s disorder is to force negotiations on their terms.

Rumors also swirl around the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants Indian security forces extensive freedom and shields them from potential punishment. But whether the act is repealed in full, partially lifted from calmer areas, or amended, Indian officials have indicated that, even if watered down, the AFSPA will remain an essential instrument of Indian policy in Kashmir. The same goes for upwards of 600,000 security personnel operating in the territory.

This mindset continues to treat Kashmir’s movement as terroristic rather than a civil disobedience campaign, tactics that occupy separate areas on the spectrum of fourth-generation warfare. Though terrorism has proven effective in destroying the enemy’s political will to fight, civil disobedience presents a superior option for waging a liberation campaign. Cracking down on terrorism is easy compared to quelling mass demonstrations, as India has experienced and should know more about than its actions demonstrate.

Yet India resists major changes to its policy for a simple reason - the fundamentals remain unchanged. Acknowledging Kashmir as a territorial dispute and granting Muslim Kashmiris self-determination remains out of the question for moderate and conservative Indian elements. And they make life hard for those who dare speak the dreaded words of “autonomy” or “independence."

Unimpressed with the delegation's words or actions and aware that it lacked New Delhi’s support, the whole episode left Kashmiri leaders all the more jaded of Indian rule. Farooq and Geelani quickly appealed the international community to “urgently intervene,” and, “stop the use of brutal force and suppression against the people of Kashmir and to address the issue politically.” Geelani’s latest round of protests are scheduled to end with a march on the UN’s office in Srinagar, regional capital of Jammu and Kashmir.

"The Indian government is making no serious attempt to address the (Kashmir) issue,” Farooq wrote in a letter delivered to the US, British, German, French, Canadian, Chinese, Iranian, and Saudi Arabian embassies in New Delhi. “They are not in any serious manner even acknowledging our suffering, but continue to use more and more force and structured repression to suppress our movement... The entire population of Kashmir valley is being subjected to collective punishment for pursuing their just cause for the resolution of Kashmir issue.”

Except they face a strategic dilemma.

While Indian politics lie in disarray, its strongest area happens to be Kashmir’s main deficiency. New Delhi’s vast domestic media, connections to Western governments and organizations, and comfy US media blanket have limited coverage of Kashmir’s struggle in the West, reducing India's urgency and incentive to act. The list of reasons goes on why Kashmir’s dispute requires international mediation. A destabilizing force in its own right, Kashmir is visibly linked by Pakistan's stability and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to the US war in Afghanistan.

Yet the moral imperative has become even more twisted. Imagine the uproar in the UN and international media if India was Israel, if over 100 dead Kashmiri protesters and innocents were Palestinians. Consider the international crisis that was the Freedom flotilla. Aiding the Palestinians and abandoning Muslim Kashmiris in their quest for independence represents world justice at its most perverse.

US officials aren’t oblivious to Kashmir’s events, their silence tells all. Ignoring Farooq’s mayday throughout the week, President Barack Obama culminated US policy by simultaneously championing human rights and shunning Kashmiris’ independence movement. Obama finished his speech to the UN General Assembly without uttering the word “Kashmir,” although not before praising India, "which peacefully threw off colonialism and established a thriving democracy of over a billion people.”

Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a remark “regretting the loss of life” only after being cornered by reporters on his “no comment” position. Ki-Moon released a similar statement in early August that, upon Indian criticism, was withdrawn under the excuse of being a media advisory and not an official statement.

The disproportionate media gap between India and Kashmir has come to mirror their battle in the streets. Currently Muslim Kashmiris only enjoy Pakistani support; the dispute never resonated with Muslims or the international media like a free Palestine. On Tuesday, as India’s delegation left the valley and Farooq issued his international call, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani deemed Kashmir as Pakistan’s “core issue.”

In town for the UN General Assembly, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi later implored the Council on Foreign Relations to halt Indian “oppression” in Kashmir.

"The occupation cannot continue,” he argued. “The rights of the Kashmiri people cannot continue to be denied. We call upon the United States particularly, which is pressing so responsibly for peace in the Middle East, to also invest its political capital in trying to help seek an accommodation on Kashmir. Such an accommodation would not only be just for the people of Kashmir but would be critical for peace in the region.”

Pakistan’s unheeded distress call once more highlighted Washington and the UN’s intentional blindness. S M Krishna, India's External Affairs Minister, promptly responded, “Kashmir is an internal matter of India,” while presenting an upbeat account of the all-party delegation. No one bothered to correct him.

It’s admittedly hard for Kashmiris to spread their message when numerous leaders periodically suffer house arrest. Indian security forces obstruct, harass, and beat journalists, while local media sources are gagged by cutting their electricity. Penetrating the US media’s curfew on Kashmir is equally daunting so long as India remains vital to US policy in Asia, particularly China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. And Kashmiri leaders are trying to seize the world’s attention at an inopportune time, with UN side-meetings gripped by Israel, Palestine, Iran, and Sudan.

Consequently, Kashmiris must alter this strategic balance to have any hope of pushing the issue to an international tipping point.
A lone government won’t generate the necessary international light, nor will a growing collection of sympathetic Muslim states, although these may supply the initial thrust for a wider assault. The Palestinians eventually turned the tables on Israel during the First Intifada by transforming it into a murderous occupier, but only after six tireless years of mass demonstration and media campaigning reversed their shady image as "terrorists."

They never would have produced the desired effect without a vigorous media presence.

In fact, the Palestinians induce many of their strategic gains against Israel through their heightened media exposure, and only through a massive shift in public awareness will Kashmiris succeed in their struggle. Kashmiri leaders are shouting West, but they must amplify their message by infiltrating the Western media. Propaganda must sprout from the grass roots level and bloom across the world, seeded by sympathetic officials, journalists, and academics who can lead the charge. From there Kashmir's dispute will reverberate internationally.

To be fair, solving multiple conflicts exceeds the abilities of America and the international community. That’s why Kashmiris are wise to depend on themselves. If the West leaves Kashmir in India’s hands and New Delhi remains divided, no one is left to control Kashmir’s future except Kashmiris. New protests will yield perpetual violence, an unsustainable cycle that digs India into a deepening hole. At some point the international community will cave, be it in five months or five years.

Though India has promised “concessions” and a dialogue in the next week, its options have been significantly reduced by past miscalculation. The “hard reality” as Geelani says, is that Kashmir’s status quo is coming to an end, and Muslim Kashmiris would “rather die” than “surrender” to India.

And if the West doesn’t want to hear about their struggle for self-determination, Kashmiris must make themselves heard.

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