FEBRUARY 28, 2019, 3:45 PM
KARACHI, Pakistan—“I feel like I am invisible,” the president of Kashmir told me a few months ago. “Wherever I go, no one wants to hear what I have to say.”
On my frequent visits to the Pakistani capital over the last few years, I have often stopped in to see Sardar Masood Khan, whose official title is president of Azad (“Free”) Jammu and Kashmir, as the Pakistani portion of that disputed territory is known. Khan, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United Nations who is Kashmiri, was elected by the Azad Jammu Kashmiri parliament after being nominated by the Pakistani prime minister in 2016. Since then, he has spoken for the government on Kashmir and wandered the world’s corridors of power—from New York to Geneva to Brussels—looking in vain for love or, at least, diplomatic interest.
Kashmir is now at the heart of the military confrontation between India and Pakistan that has pushed the two nuclear-armed countries to the brink of war. It is not the first such violence in the region. Tens of thousands of Kashmiris have died since partition in 1947, particularly after the outbreak of an anti-Indian insurgency in the 1980s. Both sides blame the other for the violence, and they have gone to war three times over the territory. A report last year from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that “experts believe that Pakistan’s military continues to support” the operations of militants and found that human rights violation on the Indian side were “of a different calibre or magnitude” than those in Pakistani-administered Kashmir because of the actions of both the anti-Indian militants and the Indian military.
The present crisis was sparked by a suicide bombing on Feb. 14 that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in the Indian-administered portion of Kashmir. New Delhi identified the bomber as a 22-year old Kashmiri it said was a member of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a Pakistan-based militant group.
In our conversations over the last two years, Khan has bemoaned the fact that neither Western journalists nor diplomats are much interested in what he has to say about the conflict. With this week’s outbreak of hostilities between India and Pakistan, he is suddenly finding an audience. Because Pakistani airspace was closed due to the crisis, I spoke to him by phone from Karachi. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.
Lawrence Pintak: You told me in our previous meetings that as you wandered around the world, no one would pay any attention to you. Has that changed this week?
Masood Khan: Yes, it has. All of the sudden the entire world is interested in South Asia.
LP: Is that a good thing?
MK: I think it’s a very good thing—although now the world is interested in it because they think this deteriorating situation is a threat to regional security, so they are looking at the situation through the prism of nuclear escalation and through the security paradigm. This tends to hide India’s crimes against humanity that have been committed after Feb. 14. There has been a massive crackdown in the region inside the occupied territories. People are not talking about the crimes that are being committed there.
LP: If we go back in history, the world ignored the Palestinians until the Munich Olympics massacre in 1971. Is there an analogy to Kashmir?
MK: Yes, there is, and there’s another analogy. In 2002, Narendra Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, masterminded and supervised a massacre of Muslims. [Modi hasn’t been charged or convicted for these accused crimes.—ed.] And my apprehensions are that a similar kind of atmosphere is being created in Kashmir. My fear is that in the aftermath of this current tension, when the world looks the other way, the Indian government might start a massacre in Jammu and Kashmir, and that must be averted at all costs.
LP: Some experts on the region are concerned that as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, jihadis will turn toward Kashmir, which will become more violent. Does that worry you?
MK: Pakistan has been fighting terrorists for the past 17 or 18 years. And Pakistan has succeeded in breaking the backbone of many terrorist outfits. The whole state of Pakistan is fighting terrorism. We would not like to relocate these terrorist outfits to Jammu and Kashmir. In the past decade or so, the freedom movement in Kashmir has assumed a predominantly political character. Millions of people are participating in it. This is the real face of the freedom movement in Kashmir. According to high-ranking Indian security officials, the number of militants in Kashmir is very small. The statistics that they issued last December said there are about 240 so-called militants there, pitting against 700,000 Indian troops. Nobody wants that the movement should assume a militant character.
LP: The website of Geo TV [a Pakistani channel] ran a link to a TED Talk by an American scientist who warned that fallout from a nuclear war between India and Pakistan would eventually kill between 1 and 2 billion people around the world. Do you think the world really understands that?
MK: The world has not seen a nuclear holocaust since World War II. Citizens and decision-makers all around the world do not understand the gravity of the threat. We need to raise consciousness about the unintended consequences of a conflagration between Pakistan and India.
LP: What needs to be done in Kashmir? What do you want?
MK: This attention should not be like a flash in the pan. The U.N. and international community should try to avert a war between the two countries, but at the same time they must realize that the core issue is the nonresolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. They should activate multilateral diplomacy for the implementation of the U.N. Security Council resolution on the dispute or find new ways to explore common ground for a win-win solution. As far as the people of Jammu and Kashmir are concerned, they want their aspirations to be respected and to be given a choice in determining their own political future.
LP: As I understand it, Pakistan wants the plebiscite, but in the interim, the plan is that India and Pakistan each administers its own side, with the Line of Control open and Kashmiris given the ability to move back and forth. Is that a fair summary?
MK: The resolutions are already there, and they have described the methodologies for assessing the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The other scenarios—joint administration, soft borders, and so on—these have to be fleshed out. So, while on the one hand we have our solid solution for the resolution of the dispute, the buck doesn’t stop there. We have many options. Some people say we should experiment with some out-of-the-box solutions. My answer to that is that inside the box are the Kashmiris. Without their participation, any solution would not work. The crux of the matter must be respecting the right of self-determination.
LP: Can you honestly say that either side, India or Pakistan, holds the moral high ground on Kashmir?
MK: I think we have the moral high ground—the people of Jammu and Kashmir. And Pakistan also. For the past 71 years, the people of Jammu and Kashmir have been making sacrifices to win their right to self-determination. India believes in coercion or state terrorism to subjugate the Kashmiri people. It has tried coercion, brute force, investing in economic development projects. But the hard fact is that even after these efforts, it has not been able to win the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris. Contrast that to Pakistan’s stance. We say that it is a political issue. This must be resolved through political and diplomatic means. War or militaristic means would not help us to solve this issue. That’s why we have the moral high ground.
LP: You’ve called for a boycott, disinvestment, and sanctions against India. Isn’t that pretty unlikely given India’s economic power and relationships?
MK: It is, I recognize, an uphill task, but at least conversations should start about it. It has been done in other instances—why not for the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Our argument is that the Western countries have been custodians and promoters of human rights. It is their responsibility to look at Kashmir through the prism of human rights, self-determination, and international humanitarian law and not through the prism of realpolitik or their economic interests tied with India. Easier said than done. I know that, but we are in a very tight spot. Kashmiris are being run down every day. So that’s why the international community must mount pressure against India. Moral pressure, political, diplomatic. And they must use their economic tools to amplify this kind of pressure.
LP: Should the Americans get involved? Do they have any credibility?
MK: They can play a very important role in diffusing the situation. We welcome an American initiative because the region doesn’t need a war. President Donald Trump, after he was elected, had mentioned that he would play the role of a mediator on Kashmir. Then he did not follow up. I believe that if the Americans and North Koreans can talk face to face, and if America is ready to talk to the Taliban, why can’t America also make a good faith effort to diffuse the tensions between India and Pakistan and nudge—not Pakistan, particularly India—to come to the negotiating table to discuss the issue of Jammu and Kashmir?
LP: Assuming that this crisis passes, will the world go back to ignoring you?
MK: Yes, that’s possible. This high level of attention might subside. But I think that the world would have registered that Kashmir is a very sensitive issue. Let me tell you a dilemma we are facing. International civil society, the media, even parliaments are increasingly getting interested in the situation. The irony is that all the governments are tight-lipped. Brussels, London, Washington—they are silent. Sometimes there will be some bland statements just to artificially balance their relationship with India. Otherwise they won’t open their lips. That’s the challenge that we have.
Correction, March 3, 2019: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Sardar Masood Khan was appointed, rather than elected, to his current position.
Lawrence Pintak is an award-winning journalist and scholar who was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. A former CBS News Middle East correspondent, Pintak has covered dozens of wars, conflicts, coups, and revolutions on three continents. His latest book is America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump.