A cross-section of the civil society in Canberra condemned human rights violations in the Indian-Held Kashmir (IHK) and warned India that only justice, not brutal force, could restore peace in the disputed territory. It also conveyed to the government of Australia in no uncertain terms that its political positioning on a humanitarian issue had left much to be desired.
The seminar on “Searching for Peace in Kashmir” held at a local restaurant last Tuesday was organized by Forum Australia with active participation of Kashmiri Australians who continue to mobilize public opinion in favour of besieged Kashmiris and agitate the government to break silence over rampant human rights violations in IHK. However, the Liberal government and the Labour opposition, together with the so-called fiercely independent Australian media, having sealed their lips on this burning humanitarian issue, were conspicuous by their absence at the seminar.
The panel of eminent speakers from the Greens, academia and intelligentsia, including of Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri origin, addressed the issue in a comprehensive manner.
Jack Waterford AM, journalist and political commentator, former Editor-at-Large of The Canberra Times, forcefully condemned human rights violations in IHK. Recalling movements for self-determination in different parts of the world, he made specific reference to Palestine and Kashmir. He supported freedom of communication, human rights for all, and self-determination for the people of Kashmir. He rejected status quo in Kashmir as India, being no more sufficiently secular, was moving towards Hindutva. He demanded immediate restoration of normalcy, full human rights, maximum autonomy, and secularism for IHK, adding that the Kashmiris must be granted the right to self-determination. Wondering at the Australian double standards on Hong Kong and IHK respectively, he concluded that there could be no peace in Kashmir without justice for Kashmiris.
Lee Rhiannon, former Greens Senator for NSW, who visited refugee camps and LoC in IHK a year ago, testified to the plight of the Kashmiri people who “wanted peace desperately”. And, to achieve peace, she added, “we need justice that means fighting for their human rights and the right to self-determination”. India must, therefore, lift curfew, restore communications, stop using pallet guns, allow foreign media in IHK, withdraw troops and restore IHK’s autonomous status, she demanded. Reviewing the sub-continent’s history, she said India was no more secular or democratic. It was, in fact, a threat to the stability of the sub-continent. The ruling BJP was a racist off-shoot of the fascist RSS. It had recently de-franchised 1.9 million Muslims in Assam.
Rhiannon lamented that while Kashmiris were languishing in the world’s largest jail, no Australian government representative had made any on-the-record comments on India’s blatant violation of human rights. “That needs to change”. She expressed the hope that during his visit to India in January, PM Morrison would urge Prime Minster Modi to respect the human rights of Kashmiris; withdraw Indian troops from the occupied territory; and restore Kashmir as an autonomous region. Most importantly, she demanded of PM Morrison to be an advocate for holding a UN administered plebiscite to enable Kashmiris to decide their future.
Sunil Gupta, Vice President, Australia-India Business Council, ACT, chose to view the humanitarian issue through the political lense of Indo-Pakistan relations. Reviewing history of Indo-Pakistan conflicts, he hammered in the point that despite several armed confrontations between the two nations, LoC had remained un-changed; implying that LoC was a permanent international border between the two countries and, therefore, India’s treatment of Kashmiris was an internal affair. He stretched this premise to claim that revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution on the 5th August was in order.
Gupta downplayed the magnitude and severity of the clampdown, spanning over two months and denied wide-spread human rights violations in IHK. And, instead of addressing Indian atrocities in IHK, he alleged that Pakistan was also guilty of similar violations in Gilgit, Baltistan and Baluchistan, adding that Hindus in Sind were also being discriminated against. He claimed that India was fully democratic except in IHK. He didn’t stop here and went on to say that India’s refusal to resolve the Kashmir dispute according to the UNSC resolutions or the Simla Accord stemmed from its international clout, based on economic strength. To be heard by India, he suggested haughtily, Pakistan must first develop its economic muscle, and build strength and influence (This was reminiscent of a similar rebuke by Nehru to Jinnah after the 1937 elections, which led to demand and achievement of Pakistan within seven years.) Rejoicing at the moral bankruptcy of the world, witnessed by India’s recent successes on IHK at the UN and Human Rights Commission, he stated that India was going to take action against Turkey and Malaysia for speaking for the hapless people of IHK. In short, he made it abundantly clear that the ‘world’s largest democracy’ believed in ‘Might is Right’, not international law, morality and principles of inter-state relations, enshrined in the UN Charter.
Professor Tahmina Rashid rejected Gupta’s denial of human rights violations in IHK and the claim that the 5th August action was in order. Quoting extensively from the Instrument of Accession of Jammu and Kashmir (1947) and the 1964 White Paper, she established conclusively that revocation of Articles 370 and 35-A constituted a flagrant violation of not only the above instrument but also the Indian constitution itself. New Delhi had unilaterally changed the basic constitutional relationship of the people of Jammu & Kashmir to the Republic of India, inviting instant reaction from the Kashmiris. To suppress the reaction, India had imposed total blackout. As a result, citizens had limited to no access to the outside world through phone or internet. Freedom of movement had been restricted; public meetings banned; democratically elected public representatives locked up; and the state handed over to security forces. And, despite court orders, the use of indiscriminate pellet guns “on stone-throwing civilians” had continued.
Addressing human rights violations in IHK, Prof. Rashid, a diehard human rights activist, built her arguments on original sources like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, international media, proceedings of Kashmir Assembly and even of the Indian parliament. She said India had not ratified the Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Indian troops and paramilitary personnel were enjoying impunity under Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and, without prior sanction from New Delhi, the administration could not take any punitive action against the erring soldiers.
As for sexual violence and rape, Prof. Rashid, a vocal feminist, shared extracts from reports of Support Group for Justice for Mass Rape Survivors; Asia Watch; Physicians for Human Rights; and International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, which confirmed that there was solid evidence of rape by the Indian security forces which were not prosecuted. As if that wasn’t enough, health professionals conducting the medical examinations and assisting rape victims had been tortured by the “decomposed human beings.”
Prof. Rashid wondered at the double standards of the so called civilized international community which is ever-ready, and rightly so, to condemn human rights violations by non-state actors. But “when the largest secular democracy commits the same crimes against Kashmiris – women and men alike, our politics silence our conscience,” she concluded in thundering applause.
Dr. Ejaz Qureshi, Honorary Professor at ANU, an Australian of Kashmiri origin, succinctly encapsulated the history of their struggle for self-determination and the atrocities they had been subjected to since 1948. He reiterated their resolve to remain steadfast and expressed the hope the world would stand by their principled position and force India to fulfil its promises given to them.
Rt. Rev’d Prof. Stephen Pickard, Executive Director, Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture summed up the discussion with the remarks that peace in IHK could be achieved only through negotiations, compromise, humility and teachings of holy prophets; for which political aspirations must be given up. It was a loud and clear message for India, Australia and, in fact, the world at large.
The author, Khizar Niazi, is a Canberra-based former Ambassador. He can be reached at email@example.com.