Comment Editor Rebecca Spencer discusses the recent talk made by President Masood Khan at the University of Sussex on the Kashmir dispute and the persecution of minorities.
On 5 February I was presented with the unique opportunity of meeting President Masood Khan of Azad Kashmir at a talk organised by the Politics Society. Having studied the Kashmir dispute and the anthropology of Islam, I saw this as a chance to investigate first-hand Pakistani diplomacy and attitudes towards Kashmir, India and China.
The room was tense with anticipation as we waited on the grand entrance of President Khan; a small man with a groomed moustache who was constantly flanked by his military secretary. I wondered how we, the enthusiastic students of Sussex, could be privileged with the presence of such an esteemed speaker on what was in fact Kashmir Solidarity Day. I thought he might perhaps show his solidarity for Kashmir in the place he so dearly loves rather than in our lecture theatre.
Nevertheless, his devotion to the Kashmiri cause was later amplified by his deflection of questions regarding Uyghur Muslim persecution in Xinjiang and persecution of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs in Pakistan. The President seemed to take offence, that we inquisitive students dare ask about anything that did not directly relate to the suffering of Kashmiri people at the hands of India. I was perplexed by his attitude, considering he had exclaimed the talk to be an ‘open conversation’.
The President compared the kidnap of 13,000 Islamic Kashmiri men who have been forced into ‘de-radicalisation’ camps to ‘the recreation of Auschwitz’.
Although many felt his introductory speech had been very informative, the President’s deflection of these questions left a sour aftertaste in some of the conversations of audience members afterwards. Some felt patronised by the dismissal of their questions and many felt he did not actually answer any questions at all. Umer Khawaja, a student audience member, commented that ‘he did not want us to ask any questions which might prove a contradiction to what he had educated us about’. Another anonymous source stated that what was ‘missing from the talk was his stance about what Pakistan should or should not do for the people of Kashmir’. Like a true politician he always managed to link the ‘discussion’ back to his preferred narrative – condemnation of Hindutva India.
Before I proceed perhaps some background on the Kashmir dispute is necessary. Bear with me whilst I try to provide a synopsis of what has been the most disputed country in history.
When British rule of India was dissolved in 1947, the partition between Pakistan and India as self-governing countries was drawn up. Their divide was organised by establishing where a Muslim majority and a Hindu majority were located. Pakistan became an Islamic state and India a Hindu state, gradually the minorities of each were pushed towards migrating to wherever their majority lie. Whereas during the time of British rule many religions lived along-side each other in peace as one country.
The ruling monarch of Kashmir (situated between Pakistan, India and China) was Hindu but ruled over a Muslim majority, so he decided to stay neutral and not join Pakistan or India. Instead a vote was supposed to be held amongst the Kashmiri people to decide who would govern their homeland. But just two months after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain they went to war over Kashmir. This war finally came to a ceasefire in 1949 and a Line of Control was established by the United Nations, giving Pakistan control of the western half of Kashmir and India control of the eastern half of Kashmir. However, since 1947 Pakistan and India have been continuously locked in conflict, using the land of Kashmir as their battlefield – leaving millions dead and refusing the right of citizens to vote on their governance.
President Khan of Azad Kashmir has recently been visiting a series of universities and parliaments to draw attention to the crimes being committed against the Kashmiri people in the Indian occupied territory. He describes these atrocities as ‘blindings, killings, rape of women, use of sexual violence as an instrument of war, enforced disappearances, staged encounters, detentions and torture, the worst kind of torture’.
The President went on to describe how these horrors are ‘being driven by a philosophy called Hindutva – Hindutva is a puritanical doctrine; it says that India will be impure if there are people other than Hindus living there’. Later comparing the kidnap of 13,000 Islamic Kashmiri men who have been forced into ‘de-radicalisation’ camps as ‘the recreation of Auschwitz’.
He implored us students to mobilise towards the cause of the Kashmiri people, just as he has done with parliamentarians because he believes that ‘universities like these are the nurseries for future leaders’ and that Sussex ‘represents and projects a culture of tolerance’. His introductory speech was passionate, engaging and communicated a clear picture of the violence being inflicted upon the Kashmiri people. My heart was, as I’m sure was everyone else’s, beating fast and heavily as he described this unthinkable situation.
However, President Khan of Azad Kashmir (since 2016) was also employed at the foreign service of Pakistan in 1980, served as Spokesperson for the Pakistani Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2003-2005) and as Pakistan’s Ambassador to China (2008-2012) and to the United Nations (2012-2015). Thus, many of the audience members had prepared questions that were related to his views of international affairs as a Pakistani diplomat, not only regarding the Kashmir dispute directly.
In reaction to questions regarding Uyghur Muslim persecution in Xinjiang and persecution of Hindus, Christians and Sikhs in Pakistan, the President claimed that the audience were ‘deadcatfishing’ him. He went on to explain, ‘whenever I go around the world talking about Kashmir somebody puts a dead cat on the table, whether it’s the persecution of other minorities because they want to change the subject’. This gave the impression that he thought the audience did not care enough about the Kashmiri struggle because some (not all) questions were related to other minorities. His annoyance continued, ‘don’t deadcatfish me anymore, Uyghurs, Christians’ he even joked ‘in the next round women too’.
Although his deflection of questions and somewhat condescending tone was a bitter pill to swallow for many audience members, his gratitude for the University and the inquisitive nature of the students shone through. He ended his talk an hour early for unclarified reasons, and although the event felt a little rushed and many questions were left unanswered the President’s key message rang strong; ‘we need your support and your empathy and your understanding and your solidarity’.
It is an honour to host such an esteemed speaker at our University and we have heard his message loud and clear. I hope to see the study body mobilise towards supporting the Kashmiri cause in whatever way we can.
Image credit: University of Sussex Politics Society & Planemad