So I hit the South Asia seminar circuit again yesterday. As so often when it comes to that part of the world, the event was held at The Woodrow Wilson Center, a hugely influential foreign policy think tank located inside the massive Ronald Reagan Center and staffed with analysts with direct access to the highest echelons of power in Washington.
As usual the event attracted a motley crew of Washington regulars: South Asian scholars and lobbyists, conflict managers, Indian and Pakistani Embassy wallahs, a couple of intelligence sleuths pretending to be embassy staffers or aid workers, some State Department types, a journalist or two, and a few know-it-all NRIs.
Most Pakistani expats and journalists avoid these events like the plague, having successfully distanced themselves from all things Kashmir, and anything that may earn them a “nationalist” label or make them look like a thing of the past. After two years of frequenting events that are directly or remotely related to Kashmir, it appears I am finally considered a voice commanding some authority on the subject. Invitations are now pouring in, and I am finally one of the gang.
SMOKE SIGNALS FROM WASHINGTON
SMOKE SIGNALS FROM WASHINGTON
Next to me sat Robin Raphel, an American former diplomat, ambassador, CIA analyst, and expert on Pakistan affairs. Her late husband, Ambassador Arnold Raphel, was killed during his line of duty in Pakistan. He was one of the Americans on the same plane in which Pakistan’s military dictator Gen. Zia Ul Haq was travelling. That plane was sabotaged, and every passenger was killed. Robin is still remembered by many Kashmiris for her exceptional and large hearted mediation efforts during the 90s. Because of her affection for Pakistan and Kashmiris, including the pro-freedom kind, New Delhi always considered her a foe instead of a friend. For me she has always been a real role model.
Yesterday’s event was called “Understanding Secessionist Struggle in South Asia. Secession and Security: Explaining State Strategy against Separatists.” Dr. Ahsan Butt, a young Pakistani professor and recently tenured at George Mason University, presented his new book on the topic, which argues that it is states, rather than separatists, that determine how much violence there is in conflicts. Much of his presentation and the ensuing discussion focused on Kashmir since it best fit his model of a “worst case scenario” as far as state repression is concerned.
Most Pakistani expats and journalists avoid these events like the plague, having successfully distanced themselves from all things Kashmir, and anything that may earn them a “nationalist” label or make them look like a thing of the past
I have often said that Economics is the “science of the obvious,” and yesterday I felt that way about Political Science. There wasn’t much the author explained to the audience that could not have been ascertained from a few editorials in local Kashmiri papers. Placing some facts into boxes and charts for a power point presentation did not make his analysis any more earth shaking. His main argument was that states feeling most insecure about their borders will apply the most repression to stop them from being altered. He also said that states where an outsider supports a secessionist movement will also strike back more forcefully and with more military might than those which are not facing that problem. Does it require a book full of political theory to establish these things?
What was glaringly absent in his analysis were some of the most significant realities when it comes to the conflict in Kashmir: the unique history of the region, the claim by both India and Pakistan over the entire territory, the promise of a plebiscite, and the disputed nature of the LoC, which is hardly accepted as a final border by either India, Pakistan or most Kashmiris. These are the main issues that the dispute has always been about, and I wondered how any of the details could be omitted. Instead, the author kept talking about an ethnic minority trying to break away from the mainland.
What I appreciated was his admission that rarely any conflict anywhere has been as militarised, and that India’s occupation of Kashmir was more akin to fighting a “civil war” than policing a territory or simply maintaining law and order. He did speak of extreme repression which he expects to get worse in the near future, and he also admitted that there was little to no chance that the conflict would be resolved any time soon as all sides had dug in for the duration.
Most disturbing to me was that among a list of recommendations from the closing chapter of his book, there was a suggestion that if the conflict were to escalate and if it came closer to war, the “international community” should offer additional troops to the Indian State, albeit with the caveat that human rights would need to be observed during their deployment. Wow! No mention of shuttle diplomacy, third party mediation or peace keeping troops. And this was coming from a Pakistani scholar. With friends like that who needs enemies, I wondered.
Moving to the Q & A part of the event, it became clear once again that in today’s think tank world there seems to be a never ending supply of Tarek Fatah types to choose from. In the past, I have listened to Kashmiri Muslims dispatched by State agencies to peddle a certain ideology that hardly matches the sentiment shared by the majority of the people.
Or there have been those “young emerging leaders,” obviously seeking permanent and hopefully gainful admission into the think tank world abroad by relentlessly blaming everything on “Islamic Radicalization,” and most recently the “ever growing menace” of ISIS and other such transnational groups.
In the past, I have listened to Kashmiri Muslims dispatched by State agencies to peddle a certain ideology that hardly matches the sentiment shared by the majority of the people.
Yesterday, it was a young Muslim journalist from Hyderabad, a Modi supporter, with some family roots in Kashmir, who in no uncertain terms conveyed to the audience that Indian Muslims did not at all support Kashmiri separatists, and that if a Yaseen Malik lived in Pakistan, he and his cohorts would have been killed by the authorities a long time ago the way secessionists are being slaughtered in Baluchistan. He claimed to have oodles of Kashmiri friends in his home state, all rejecting the so-called freedom movement in toto, craving nothing but full integration, hating the separatists, and just like anybody else appreciating India’s secular ethos and its progress and opportunities.
Moreover, he felt any reports of human rights violations in Kashmir were greatly exaggerated and especially by the local press, and nothing compared in severity to those committed in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan where nobody enjoyed democracy the way only Indians did. And so it went on and on, as it often does when an Indian speaks up, and sadly regardless of his or her cast, colour or religious affiliation.
India is now a “Super Power” and how dare somebody not wanting to be part of it?
When my turn to ask some questions finally came, I think I managed to punch quite a few holes in the author’s interpretation of things, and his obvious failure to collect more detailed information on the ground.
I also spoke about recent events in Jammu, and also how Leh and Kargil should not be stuck into the same box as far as aspirations and identities were concerned. As so often, it had been pointed out both by the author and some in the audience that the problems were primarily Valley specific, while all other areas were perfectly content being with India.
Perhaps what elicited the biggest reaction, though, was my claim that many Kashmiri Muslims, and especially the young and educated, had switched from being pro-Independence to being pro-Pakistan over the past several years. Everybody knew already that more and more youth were picking up arms again as a result of India’s increasingly brutal approach while dealing with dissent. But the growing pro-Pakistan sentiment is a spin not many are prepared to hear, let alone accept. It would require a new kind of “gaming,” I suppose.
But most important for me personally, this time as I introduced myself to the audience, I did it for the first time as someone formally advocating for the Right to Self Determination of the Kashmiri people.
In the past, I had often said that I lived in Kashmir for almost a decade and worked on rural development, among other things. And it was that new designation that actually made many in the audience flock about me to ask questions after the event was over. It feels good to finally be out of the closet, even if it means that now I may really never be able to go back.