A familiar refrain often heard when the burgeoning crisis in Kashmir rises to the top of the news is that this is an old story from long ago; we have moved on. The United Nations is discovering, however, that there is less tolerance for indifference since India’s decrees on Aug. 5-6 to singlehandedly remake the politics and geography of a region still disputed internationally.
Attitudes have changed as the world has changed. For the first time in more than seven decades, the issue has returned to the UN emphatically.
In 1947, when independent India and Pakistan were created out of colonial British India, China was on the verge of an earth-shaking Communist victory. Russia was emerging from a catastrophic war that killed an estimated 26 million soldiers and civilians. The UN was just two years old, still debating and writing the international rules.
In South Asia, the towering leaders of the Indian independence movement were beginning to frame a democratic constitution committed to secularism and equality under the law, while Pakistan was struggling to build a nation on the military frontier of the disintegrating British empire.
In 2019, more than 70 years later, the Eurasian landscape is very different: China, holding immense international power and influence, is facing a pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong that has brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.
In Russia, where Vladimir Putin has been attempting to re-create an imperial age, the government has been arresting hundreds of protesting citizens who have a different vision for their future.
Despite these challenges, China and Russia have entered the UN debates over Kashmir but on divergent sides of the issue.
The two largest South Asian nations, India and Pakistan, have moved in new political directions that have not been fully tested or judged. The crisis in Kashmir, where at least four million people, mostly Muslims and some Sikhs, have been living under a suffocating Indian military occupation, has turned an international spotlight on a Hindu nationalist government willing to defy constitutional law and respect for civil rights.
The aim of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to finally wrest for India a region that has been in contention with Pakistan since the end of British rule, irreversibly changing its religious and ethnic composition. As Kashmir’s limited autonomy has been abolished, hundreds of Kashmiri politicians have been arrested.
Modi’s recent action not only overturned constitutional protections for Muslim Kashmiris but also opened their reserved lands and properties to Hindu ownership. Until now, Jammu and Kashmir was the Indian “state” (not recognized as such internationally) with a majority Muslim population. At the same time that Kashmir is being reconstructed — in an entirely separate case — several million Muslims of Bangladeshi origin or ancestry are facing deportation from Assam, a state in the remote Indian northeast. In North India, there have been occasional documented or witnessed lynching of Muslims.
The fate of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the semiautonomous Azad (“free”) Kashmir region across a still-temporary “line of control” in Pakistan — there is no formal border — has rested on Security Council resolutions dating to 1948, one of which (Resolution 38) forbids either country from changing the status of these regions unilaterally.
These resolutions still stand, as UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement on Aug. 8.
“The position of the United Nations on this region is governed by the Charter of the United Nations and applicable Security Council resolutions,” the statement said.
It added: “The Secretary-General is also concerned over reports of restrictions on the Indian-side of Kashmir, which could exacerbate the human rights situation in the region. The Secretary-General calls on all parties to refrain from taking steps that could affect the status of Jammu and Kashmir.”
Guterres also clarified that the UN’s position on a 1972 agreement between Pakistan and India to negotiate the issue did not end the UN’s role, but only took note of it and hoped that “the final status of Jammu and Kashmir is to be settled by peaceful means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”
In mid-August, India’s long-held view that it could ignore and evade the UN, specifically the Security Council, was proved to be at best dubious.
For decades, India, backed by the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation, kept the unfinished business of Kashmir off the Security Council’s agenda. But Pakistan, with Chinese diplomatic support, succeeded in reversing that stranglehold on Aug. 16.
Russia tried to stop a breakthrough Council session from taking place, particularly in an open forum, but agreed to a closed-door informal session, which would not produce an official document. (See the UN video above, with Russia’s deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy.)
The Council meeting, the Pakistanis said, was “the first step.”
“The voice of the Kashmiri people — the voice of the people of occupied Kashmir — has been heard today in the highest diplomatic forum of the world,” Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, said after the Council session ended in an hour or so on Aug. 16.
In brief remarks to reporters, below, she thanked China not only for help in convening the meeting but also for the Chinese ambassador’s willingness to bring India’s “abysmal” human rights situation in Kashmir to the Council’s attention.
“I think today this meeting nullified India’s claim that Jammu and Kashmir is an internal matter for India,” Lodhi said.
China has an interest in this dispute; it claims portions of Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian side, which were apparently not mentioned in the Modi government’s decrees altering the map of Jammu and Kashmir and putting it under direct rule of the central government in Delhi. The position of those Chinese areas, amounting to about 15 percent of the original Jammu and Kashmir state, remains the same, according to the Chinese government.
Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the UN, told reporters, below, after the Council session: “We wish to emphasize that such unilateral practice by India is not valid in relation to China and will not change China’s exercise of sovereignty and effective administrative jurisdiction over the territory.”
The Chinese ambassador also said that his government’s policy is to regard the Kashmir question as “an internationally recognized dispute.”
“It is obvious that the constitutional amendment has changed the status quo in Kashmir, causing tensions in the region,” he added. He described the situation as “very dangerous” and expressed “serious concern” about the human-rights situation in the area.
Comments by Pakistan and China after the Council session were immediately challenged by the Indian ambassador in bombastic comments to reporters and a brief question-and-answer exchange with them, below.
The ambassador, Syed Akbaruddin, reiterated India’s position that Kashmir was an internal Indian matter and that his country did not need the intervention of “international busybodies.”
He accused the “other” country, without naming Pakistan, of employing a “jihadist” policy and encouraging the use of terrorism in the region.
As for human-rights issues, he made the startling claim, “No intergovernmental organization in the world has ever said anything about India’s . . . commitment to human rights.”
Just last year, however, a strongly worded report from the departing UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, who chose not to seek a second term in office, laid out a well-documented indictment of India’s policies and practices in Kashmir.
That report focused on what it called the severe repression used by hundreds of thousands of Indian troops and other security forces against the Muslim population in the Kashmir Valley.
One major player who is not getting much media attention beyond South Asia, where tense and possibly violent days lie ahead, is Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan. He and the party he created, Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) upset the political order when it came to power in August 2018.
Khan, 67, a graduate of the best private schools in Pakistan and Oxford University, was a world-famous cricket star and philanthropist who built the first specialist cancer hospital in the country before turning to politics. It was the only way to make an impact and get anything done to develop a country like his, he told a group of experts at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington on July 23.
He called the existing political parties — dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party of the Bhutto family and the Pakistan Muslim League of the Sharif clan — a collective, corrupt “mafia.” He had also led protests against the Pakistani military president Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Khan said that his development program for Pakistan rested on three areas: “scientific” education, industrialization and improving agriculture. In Washington, he met with President Trump and left thinking that the worst days of acrimonious Pakistani-American relations were over. Khan spoke of extending a hand to India but being rebuffed by the Modi government. And then the dangerous Kashmir crisis erupted.
Khan must now deal with the huge challenge of keeping Pakistani hotheads and the military under control, no matter what India may do to provoke them in Kashmir. His leadership of Pakistan will be severely tested.
That includes by the UN, where he is scheduled to speak during the General Assembly opening session on Sept. 27. Modi is scheduled to speak the next day. According to the Indian mission to the UN, the president is expected to discuss development issues and that there are no current plans for him to meet with Khan during the week.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.