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Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Britain's responsibilities in Kashmir

The notion of Britain having any kind of responsibility in solving the 'Kashmir Issue' would alarm much of the right-wing in Westminster as it would the Indian State, never lax in confronting the advocacy of successive British Foreign Secretaries in the 'labour years', from the late Robin Cook to the most recent David Milliband. Those who do urge and encourage Britain's involvement have traditionally been prospective members of the UK parliament, from constituencies with a heavy weightage of voters originating from Pakistan or Kashmir. There also happen to be various parliamentary committees and what could be loosely described as lobby groups that highlight the right of self-determination, UN resolutions and Indian atrocities in the Kashmir Valley.

Before one looks at certain aspects of Britain's historic role in Kashmir, it is important to recognise that most activity that has solicited or rebuffed Britain's role has invariably – either directly or indirectly – alluded to the 'Kashmir Issue' as being a territorial dispute  between India and Pakistan. The rebuffers generally support India's position while the  solicitors endorse Pakistan's position. 

The concluding stalemate on each occasion can be reasoned by the sanctity of the right to self-determination of Kashmiris being diluted into the national interest of Pakistan and as an 'unfinished agenda of partition'. The UN resolutions (of which no Kashmiri representing Kashmiris was consulted on) despite the sterling efforts of Owen Dixon, Frank Porter Graham and others; could not fit Kashmir into  either of two boxes named India and Pakistan. Pakistan's agreement in Simla to confine the issue to bilateral discourse is constantly cited by India as reason to refrain from the UN as well as international mediation in general. The concept of Indian atrocities is also pushed into bilateralism by India's repeated assertions of cross-border militancy fuelled by Pakistan. The stalemate in one's opinion is further compounded when certain interests in AJK (which includes the ruling class) and amongst the migrants of the Valley, stand resolutely behind Pakistan and parrot the same old rhyme.

Though India detests outside interference, never mind a colonial sense of responsibility on the part of Britain, it also happens to be far more integrated with the world. India is  Britain's second largest foreign investor after the United States. The widely held perception that Pakistan is on the wrong side of the (global) fence of terrorism and has not developed institutions for governance and economy, make the country's stance to solicit international mediation on Kashmir rather remarkable. It can be clearly seen what prompted Thomas Pickering, a former ambassador to New Delhi to treat "The US role in the Kashmir conflict to be as subliminal as possible."

Given that Kashmiris have not been allowed to determine their own fate and understanding that governments (including Britain), tend to cloak the defence of their national interest in altruistic rhetoric, it becomes imperative for people in Kashmir to dis-engage from the prism of Indo-Pak politics. If they remain within that prism, their aspirations will remain a distant tertiary ideal to wider political and strategic imperatives exercised by global and regional powers. 

Coming to Britain's historic role and it's provision of tutelage and suzerainty, which gave it paramountcy over the Dogra State. It had monitored from close quarters how the first Dogra Maharajah (Ghulab Singh) (with his taking of Rajouri in 1821) had carefully linked disparate territories into what later emerged as an interwoven whole when the final piece of the puzzle, namely the Poonch Jagir was integrated into the Dogra State by his great grand-son Hari Singh in 1936. Making a nation state out of a diverse ethnic, regional, linguistic and religious mix from a plethora of 'Rajwaaras' (principalities) was a major achievement. A sort of feat that many modern nation states find challenging. 

The British despite their visible frustration (with Pratap Singh in particular – devolving his powers by installing a British Resident from 1889 to 1905) at the weak standard of governance in the State, also witnessed the formation of separate electorates based on religious identity, imported by Hari Singh (one of his numerous titles was interestingly Sipar-i-Saltanat-i-Inglishia – a soldier of the British Crown) from British India in 1934. This concept is what some historians perceive as fueling the seeds of partition in the Indian sub-continent. While some consider the 3rd of June 1947 Indian Independence Act to have given the option of staying independent, for princely states upon lapse of British paramountcy and outside of the two dominions of India and Pakistan, it is hard to imagine how the Maharajah could have done much more than delay the inevitable. Immunity from the communal yet internecine conflict that engulfed Hindus and Muslims in India and Pakistan were bound to affect the diversity of Kashmir. It was just a matter of when rather than if.

While some go as far as suggesting that Kashmir was divided by design, it could be argued that if the British willed, they could have navigated the Dogra State away from the messy prospect of joining one or the other dominion, knowing full well that either choice would invite the ire of one of the religious communities whose fate was at stake. The British could have certainly refrained from pressurising the Maharajah to accede to one or the other. They could even have maintained paramountcy over the State and further immunised it from India's partition. There are even suggestions that the British had something similar in mind much before partition viz. maintaining the independence of the Dogra State. Whether that idea changed during a game of polo between Hari Singh and his English playmates? was a result of a supposed outburst by Hari Singh whilst speaking at the 1930 Round Table Conference in London - in favour of Indian Independence – or some other reason? is yet to be clearly established.

Britain understands as much as anybody that the 'Kashmir Issue' is unlikely to be solved bilaterally and the role of the international community is at best going to remain marginal. It equally understands that an increasingly aware public in Kashmir will not tolerate the prevailing stalemate and it's genuine desire for de-militarisation and to carve out a future of it's own doing. The Kashmiri public is no longer silent when it hears of yet another Indo-Pak parley, that promises to find a political settlement to Kashmir which the people of Kashmir will find acceptable. Indeed, at a recent Jamaat-e-Islami convened Kashmir Conference in Islamabad, one was witness to a barrage of criticism directed at Pakistani state policy on Kashmir, not least the concern that Pakistan has always pursued Kashmir within the context of it's own interest and has consistently failed to acknowledge the interests of the Kashmiri public. More than an indication was given that Kashmiris will pursue their own path to salvation, distinct from Pakistani interference.

Britain's responsibility lies partly by way of it's historic involvement in the region. It can do much to help open up civil space in Kashmir and assist the public in developing the tools necessary for adopting transparent and accountable governance. It would understand that the major reason why there are as much as 600,000 British citizens of AJK origin in Britain is because they are deprived of those very opportunities that they ventured out for from their homeland. The idea that what matters 'there' matters 'here' gains increasing momentum in a globally interconnected world. Input into matters as far-ranging as money laundering to protecting the environment are where Britain can play an important role.

On the home front, Britain could assist in conflict resolution by recognising the need for a separate identity for Kashmiris as opposed to Pakistanis. One of the many dangers of not doing so will prompt statements like the following by Adaalat Ali (A prominent activist for the Kashmir National identity Campaign in Britain), “British foreign secretaries can’t really justify their questions because it seems that they are speaking on behalf of Pakistan rather than their Kashmiri voters.”

Recognising that Kashmir's strategic importance makes it unthinkable for the nuclear powers of India, Pakistan and China to give up territory and the international community's unwillingness to contest that: there is obviously a limit to what Britain's responsibilities could be. The bulk of that responsibility remains with the people of Kashmir to creatively and constructively re-build their existence that will gradually make a neutral, independent Kashmir an indispensable utility for the world. 

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com. 

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 9th of Feb 2011.

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