The WhatsApp message came an hour after I landed in Islamabad. Sardar Masood Khan, the president of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, wanted to know if I was available to meet. I had interviewed him for Foreign Policy during the February 2019 India-Pakistan military confrontation over Kashmir, and he was eager for another conversation.
His outreach was part of a carefully coordinated PR offensive by Pakistan to seize the global narrative over India’s early August annexation of the semi-autonomous territory of Jammu and Kashmir. It included an op-ed by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in The New York Times, interviews by Pakistani diplomats in Washington and New York, and a meeting with Pakistani-Americans by Raja Farooq Haider, the prime minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, as the Pakistani portion of the divided territory is officially known (“Azad” means “free”).
What is striking about the campaign is the carefully coordinated use of key talking points that effectively position Pakistan as a voice of rationality in the face of rising Indian extremism. They include:
- The threat of ethnic cleansing and “genocide” of Indian Muslims
- Analogies between the fascist tendencies of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Nazis, including shared symbolism and language
- The need for UN intervention to create a humanitarian aid corridor for Kashmiris in the Indian-administered portion of the territory
- International arbitration to avoid a new military confrontation between the two nuclear powers
- Multilateral talks to achieve a long-term solution to Kashmir
All of this follows Imran Khan’s deft handling of the February military clash, in which he quickly released the pilot of a downed Indian fighter jet without conditions and immediately, and repeatedly, called for negotiations with India, which were ignored.
The Kashmir annexation is at least as much about demographics as it is territory. According to Indian data, 68% of Jammu and Kashmir is Muslim. The Indian annexation creates India’s only Muslim-majority state. But the Pakistanis are convinced Muslims will soon be relegated to a minority. The annexation involves the revocation of two articles of the Indian Constitution, 370 and 35A. The latter bars outsiders from owning land. This is central to the Pakistani messaging.
The following are portions of my conversation with Pres. Masood Khan, condensed and edited for publication.
Khan: I call this colonization, because what they're saying is that they would bring Hindus from all over India and settle them in the occupied territory to alter the demographic composition of the state.
This tragedy is really gigantic. India has bifurcated the state and taken away the recognized rights of the Kashmiris related to their permanent residence, employment, property. Before this act by India, [Jammu and Kashmir] had a semblance of autonomy: it had a flag, it had a constitution. And India guaranteed some form of autonomy because it was a disputed land and the people of Jammu Kashmir had yet to exercise their right to self-determination.
Pintak: You just said the key word. It had a semblance. Was it real?
Khan: No, it wasn’t real. The bigger reality, the more bitter reality for the Kashmiris for the past 72 years, was occupation. Occupation, brutalization, marginalization, deceit, deceptions, dissemination. And this is what was happening.
Pintak: But some Kashmiris would say much the same about the Pakistani-administered side of Kashmir: occupation, brutalization, marginalization.
Khan: On our side, we tolerate dissent. There are no gun-toting soldiers there. There are no steel barricades in the urban settings. You would not see all those symbols of occupation, incarceration or a siege that you find on the Indian side. So, yes, some may say that [but] let me tell you that we have attached [the] highest importance to promotion, protection of civil liberties and fundamental freedoms in Azad Kashmir. And we are still striving. I don't want to say that we are perfect because…
Pintak: The human rights reports certainly say you’re not perfect.
Khan: On some points we would disagree and on others we would agree that more work needs to be done. We are ready to work with the international human rights organizations — international human rights, that's not a problem. But the situation on the other side is horrendous, and now they have moved a step further and they have colonized the territory. So, there is — and we have chosen these legal terms very carefully — there's genocide going on there. There is ethnic cleansing. Thousands of people have been detained and these detainees include children.
The annexation of Kashmir comes less than three months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a landslide victory, fueled in part by the increasingly vitriolic Hindu nationalist rhetoric of his ruling BJP party. During the campaign, the BJP president labeled Muslim immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh “termites” and promised to “throw” them “in the Bay of Bengal.” Last week, a member of the Modi government questioned the loyalty of Indian Muslims. And at the weekend, India stripped the citizenship of almost two million Bangladeshi immigrants, most of them Muslim. The message from the Pakistani government is that the annexation is an extension of this anti-Muslim agenda.
Khan: You have a hostile doctrine driving this invasion. [Modi] won with [a] majority of the Indians and now they've been advocating majoritarianism. They [have] given this message through speeches and through sermons, songs, and movies that if you want to live in India, you have to be a Hindu. And if you do not agree with this way of life that we are imposing on you, you may as well migrate. They usually say migrate to Pakistan.
In his New York Times op-ed, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan raised the specter of Nazism, noting that “Mr. Modi’s guru wrote admiringly about the Final Solution.” Pres. Khan was much more specific about what he claimed are the parallels.
Khan: We are seeing something similar to what happened last century. In the interwar period you saw the rise of these fascist or Nazi demagogues. Then after winning loyalties and confidence of the people, they [turned on] the minority, the Jews. They sent them to gas chambers and just eliminated them, and then they moved into their neighborhoods and started killing people there. And what was the rest of the world doing at that time? They were appeasing these dictators. So what I'm say is that there should not be a repetition of the appeasement because this extremist philosophy is targeting the Muslims in India, targeting Kashmiris and the state of Pakistan. [The Indians] think that the state of Pakistan committed a cardinal sin back in 1947 by destroying the unity of India. These zealots — all the leaders of the BJP — they are saying that we will undo Pakistan to reestablish and restore the purity of the sub-continent. [The Hindu nationalists] even use the Nazi swastika.
Pintak: The swastika was being used in India thousands of years before the Nazis came along.
Khan: Absolutely. But these extremist organizations in Germany, and Italy, and India were born during the same period, the 1920s. They conceptualized the same kind of supremacy. In this case it was religious supremacy; in Europe it was racist supremacy. So, this was the difference, but they have copied each other's symbols [and] now India is using Hitler's language: which is they have gone to Kashmir for “a final solution.”
Before the February 2019 military confrontation between Indian and Pakistan, which was sparked by a suicide bombing against Indian troops in Kashmir, I had been considering doing a magazine profile of Khan, which I had tentative titled, “The World’s Loneliest President.” A former Pakistani ambassador to the UN and China, he had haunted the corridors of power since being elected to his post by the Jammu and Kashmir parliament in August 2016, trying to get the world to pay attention to his tiny enclave, over which nuclear-armed India and Pakistan had fought three major wars. In mid-August, the UN Security Council met on Kashmir for the first time in decades and Kashmir has moved to page one in media around the world. The Pakistanis want to ensure Kashmir’s moment in the spotlight is not squandered.
Khan: This is amazing because Kashmiris were striving very hard to get the attention of the international community and they were not getting it. [Now India has] internationalized the Jammu Kashmir dispute. They have got the attention of the entire world. But we are challenged to break the eerie silence of official Washington, Brussels, and the United Kingdom. Let me also add that I'm surprised [at] international humanitarian organizations. When there was a crisis in Yemen or Iraq or Syria or sometimes in Palestine, North Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, they get mobilized. They're all silent. Occupied Kashmir is on this planet, very much on this planet, and they should be here. There should be a humanitarian corridor. At least they should make calls to India, for God's sake.
Pintak: President Trump said Modi is doing a good job on Kashmir.
Khan: The impression that people got was that he was endorsing or acquiescing in what Modi had done. Or he was at least if not acquiescing, he was looking the other way. So, our appeal to the world is not to look at Kashmir through the prism of Delhi, but through the prism of humanity. We're all human beings, we all are inhabitants of this planet, and we want to appeal to [the] international conscience to wake up.
Pintak: Elements in Pakistan have long supported directly, financially, militarily, militants within Kashmir. Ultimately how much responsibility for what has happened lies with Pakistan?
Khan: It's a widely known fact that we sent mujahideen across the line of control because this was a popular demand from the people of Kashmir. They were being brutalized, they migrated. We have 40,000 refugees from that time in Azad Kashmir camps. They wanted to train and go back and fight. But that's a closed chapter. The line of control is heavily fortified. It's fenced by India. It has tall fences, two layers of land mines in between, remote sensing, thermal imaging, electronic surveillance, electrification, right? And the Indian commandos boast that not a bird nor any animal can dare cross that barrier.
“Free Kashmir” has become a rallying cry in Pakistan in the past few weeks. Billboards dot the city. Newspapers were recently ordered to print black borders on their front page in mourning for the Kashmiris. At noon on Friday, the nation stopped work to mark “Kashmir hour” to “express solidarity” with the Kashmiris. Though the government has repeatedly called for “conditional” direct talks with India, Pakistan’s railway minister strayed from the messaging and predicted “full-blown war” by November. A day later, he was ordered to appear again before reporters and reiterate the government’s commitment to peaceful negotiation. To Khan, war is out of the question.
Khan: Everybody is saying that we must fight … that we should shed the last drop of our blood for Kashmir. I tell these people it's not just diplomacy that we have been pursuing. We have fought six wars [counting smaller conflicts and insurgency] and these wars have produced no solution. That's why, particularly after 2004, we started saying no more infiltration as asymmetrical warfare. What we want is diplomacy. What we want is peace statements. What we want is negotiations. Direct negotiations between India and Pakistan or let's say, between India, Pakistan, and people of Kashmir, or third-party mediation or [the] United Nations getting involved again.
At least on the surface, there are parallels between Kashmir and Baluchistan, Pakistan’s rebellious eastern province. Both were princely states before the British partition of India. Indian troops entered Kashmir at partition. Pakistani troops entered Baluchistan, which was initially independent, a year later. I asked Khan why India’s annexation of Kashmir last month was any different from Pakistan’s absorption of Baluchistan in 1948, which occurred with the acquiescence of the traditional ruler, the Khan of Kalat.
Khan: Baluchistan is a legally constituted [part] of Pakistan.
Pintak: By whom? It was never ratified by the Baluchi parliament or a referendum.
Khan: This was the consent given by the Baluchis. It has never been on the UN Security Council agenda. Princely states were given a choice to join either India or Pakistan. Baluchistan has been a victim of India's subversion or proxy war of subversive activity. So, they want to equate it with Kashmir. Absolutely separate.
Pintak: What happens next?
Khan: We must go multilateral. We must go back to the United Nations and we must assemble a cast of influential countries to intercede. The Security Council, in accordance with the article 1, article 33, article 35, article 41 and article 42, 43, and article 103, of the charter, should act. It should not have a hands-off policy, because it is undercutting its own role by being silent and passive.
Lawrence Pintak is an MEI non-resident scholar. His latest book is America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs, and the Road to Donald Trump. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images