When will Kashmiris be given the right to self-determination?

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The Pakistan Repatriation Council (PRC) recently organized a symposium in Jeddah to mark the occasion of India’s occupation of Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim province that should have joined Pakistan in accordance with the agreements under which the subcontinent was divided.

Speaking on the occasion, a number of prominent figures underscored the importance of Kashmir as a part of Pakistan for which the nation fought several wars with India. They also emphasized that the people of Kashmir must be given the right to self-determination guaranteed by several international resolutions. The speakers requested the Pakistani government to demand the implementation of United Nations resolutions to conduct the referendum which was supposed to take place 70 years ago. They also urged Islamabad to fulfill its duty toward Pakistani citizens who are stranded in Bangladesh since the secession of East Pakistan and the creation of the new state of Bangladesh.

Addressing the gathering, I thanked the PRC for holding a symposium on the topic of Kashmir, which is regarded as one of the oldest problems in the world. This problem originated after the independence of India and Pakistan as a result of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. Independence came after a long struggle and after great sacrifices made by the people of the subcontinent under the leadership of the Indian National Congress Party and the All India Muslim League.

An agreement was reached among the three parties - the British government, the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League – for the partition of the subcontinent into two nations: India and Pakistan. The partition was based on the two-nation theory under which Muslim majority regions would be part of the new nation of Pakistan while Hindu majority regions would continue to remain part of India. As for the princely states, they had the freedom to opt either for India or Pakistan. On the basis of this theory, Kashmir, one of the princely states, should have joined Pakistan in view of the fact that more than 90 percent of the people of the state were Muslims.

But the king, who ruled Kashmir at the time of partition, was a Hindu who wanted to remain independent. He soon realized that independence was not possible and so he preferred to join India. However, this was not acceptable to Pakistan because of the strategic importance of Kashmir for its national security as well as the overwhelming Muslim majority of the population. This resulted in the first war fought between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, immediately after achieving independence. The war came to a halt after the intervention of the United Nations, forcing both sides to observe a ceasefire. The international body adopted a number of resolutions, seeking to hold a plebiscite for the self-determination of the Kashmiri people.

Interestingly, the proposal for such a plebiscite first came from none other than Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India. However, India later declined to hold the plebiscite, citing the elections held in Kashmir after the partition of the subcontinent. In those elections, the winner was Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah who wanted Kashmir to remain a part of the Indian federal state, claiming that the election result was virtually the same as self-determination. However, Pakistan and the majority of the Kashmiri people rejected this claim, and they continued to demand that a plebiscite be held under the supervision of the United Nations.

The Kashmir problem remains a stumbling block in improving bilateral relations between the neighboring states of India and Pakistan. It has triggered a number of wars fought between these two neighbors with massive losses and human casualties on both sides. The two countries have lost human and material resources that otherwise would have been pumped into massive development projects benefitting the people of both countries.

Hence, I emphasized in the symposium that the intervention of the United Nations is a must in order to force both parties to accept the referendum under UN supervision and accept the result of the plebiscite as the solution for this lingering problem.

Concluding my speech, I thanked the Pakistani government for standing by the Kashmiri people in their struggle to secure their legitimate right to self-determination guaranteed by international law. At the same time, I asked the government to resolve the problem of stranded Pakistanis who have been languishing in squalid camps in Bangladesh for 47 years without having even the basic amenities of life. The Pakistan government’s negligence in resolving the problem of these people will not change their status as Pakistani citizens. It is the national, moral and humanitarian responsibility of the government to take care of their affairs.

I also raised the issue of the fate of the Rabita Endowment, which was set up by the Pakistani government, in cooperation with the Makkah-based Muslim World League. The task of the endowment, which is chaired by the Pakistani government, is the repatriation of stranded Pakistanis from Bangladesh and their rehabilitation in Pakistan, a nation they chose at the time of the partition of the subcontinent. These people stood by the Pakistan army during the civil war in 1971 in order to safeguard the unity of the nation and, hence, there should not be any further negligence on the part of the government in addressing this pressing issue.

— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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