RIYADH: Four months after Delhi stripped autonomy from Indian-administered Kashmir, the region is paralyzed politically and economically, with communication channels closed and independent observers shut out.
It is, according to Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a “hopeless” situation that cannot be remedied until the people “are allowed to speak for themselves.”
In an exclusive interview with Arab News during his official visit to Riyadh on Wednesday, Qureshi said: “Never have people seen such a prolonged curfew — day and night.
It has paralyzed the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. Eight million people are in an open prison. They have been denied their fundamental rights. Their religious freedom has been curtailed. People cannot go to mosques to pray on Fridays. Young girls are being molested. Boys are being picked up and tortured to instill fear among the community.”
Qureshi also claimed that so many people had been detained that Kashmir’s prisons are now full, and prisoners are now being airlifted to other regions.
He added that, aside from imperiling basic human rights and civil liberties, the lockdown has also endangered the state’s economy.
“The economy of Jammu and Kashmir is totally crippled,” he said. “In the last three months, they have suffered a loss of over a billion dollars, according to Indian estimates, on account of the drop in tourist activity. So the situation is horrific.”
India revoked the special status granted under Article 370 of the Indian constitution to Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5. The move was followed by a swift annexation of Kashmir, with tens of thousands of Indian troops deployed, communication networks shut down, and the state’s public figures detained. On Oct. 31, Kashmir was formally placed under direct federal control and split into two federal territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — bringing an end to the semi-autonomous rule sanctioned by the UN in 1948.
While the takeover of Kashmir has been seen by many as an act of oppression against India’s Muslim community, Qureshi said all groups in the region are suffering, whether Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist.
“Obviously, the valley is under pressure because of the dominant Muslim population, but even in Ladakh, Jammu, and Kargil, the situation is not good,” he said. “The (Kashmiri) Hindu Pandits think that the measures taken by India on Aug. 5 have reduced their status from an autonomous state to a union territory. People in Ladakh (mostly Buddhists) feel that they have been deprived of representation. Every section of society is unhappy. Kashmiris have never been so alienated as they are today.”
According to Qureshi, India feels that its prolonged use of force will eventually break the Kashmiris. But in his view this is a miscalculation.
“The Kashmiris have fought in difficult situations in the past. Look at the struggle of the 1990s — under heavy odds, they kept the movement alive, the movement (for the) right to self-determination, which was promised to them by India through Security Council resolutions.”
He said India has to honor that commitment and give Kashmiris the right to choose. “Let them speak. Let them decide for themselves, and whatever they decide will be acceptable to Pakistan,” Qureshi said.
The minister observed that the international community, despite recognizing that human rights have been violated in Kashmir, “has for strategic reasons and for commercial considerations” not been as vocal about the issue as it should be.
He added that many are disappointed in the reaction from Muslim-majority countries.
“Kashmiris — and Pakistanis — feel that the reaction in general, in particular the response of the Muslim world, was somewhat muted,” Quershi said. “We are grateful to all the Muslim counties which have been sympathetic to the Kashmiri point of view, but (that is) not enough.”
The situation in Kashmir requires a more forceful response, he said, suggesting that a meeting of the council of foreign ministers of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should take place “to give the Kashmiri people this message that we are standing with you, and you are not alone.”
Pressure needs to be put on India to lift the curfew, and to restore communications and fundamental rights, he said, adding that international journalists must be allowed into the region, along with the United Nations Military Observers Group in India, to assess the situation.
“The immediate requirement is lifting the curfew. The immediate requirement is restoring fundamental rights. The immediate requirement is allowing children to go to school. The immediate requirement is that if you are sick, you can go to the hospital, or if there is an emergency at night, you can get an ambulance,” Qureshi said. “At the moment, all that is a dream; all that is being denied.”