Friday, January 9, 2009

Obama's Hope Felt in South Asia

There is no doubt that President-elect Barack Obama has the expectations and hope of not only a country, but the entire world. However, in the troubled region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in the Himalayan region of India can this hope be felt the most. Mr. Obama routinely spoke of the long standing struggle between India and Pakistan which has lasted for longer than sixty years. What Mr. Obama may not have expected was that his speeches would be played over and over again from the summer capital of Srinagar to the mountainous areas of Gujarat and Gumarg.

After sixty years of conflict between the two nuclear armed nation states, and a militant uprising starting in 1989 after the Government of India rigged the elections preventing separatist leaning leadership from taking control and declaring independence, or at least holding the UN Security Council mandated plebiscite, the people of J&K have grown accustomed, yet frustrated by the continued presence of 700,000 military and paramilitary personnel stationed in their cities and committing atrocities without accountability for the duration of the conflict. Despite the widespread battle fatigue of the Indian Kashmiri population, Mr. Obama's election and continued statements of making the Kashmir Issue a priority in his foreign policy agenda, there appears, at least for the time being, a renewed sense of hope in the embattled South Asian crossroad between India and Pakistan.

In a recent discussion with a separatist leader in Srinagar regarding the current rising tensions between India and Pakistan over the Mumbai Tragedy, he stated quite unequivocally, "war between Pakistan and India will never take place, but of course the people of Kashmir keep big hopes on Mr. Obama in connection with the Kashmir Issue as he has promised to us." The importance of this statement rests on the "hope" and "promise" that the people of Kashmir have for Mr. Obama. You see, the people of Kashmir have been "promised" to have the right to decide their own fate, or self-determination, since the partition of the sub-continent from the British Colonial era.   However, this was sabotaged first by the father of Pakistan, Muhammad Jinnah, who responded to the 1948 UN Security Council Resolution to hold a plebiscite allowing the people of J&K to decide their own fate by stating, "to hell with what the people want." On the flip side, the Government of India has rigged many elections to prevent such a referendum from taking place, most notably in 1988 leading to the home grown militant uprising that lasted from 1989-1996. The reality is, neither India nor Pakistan have any interest in allowing the Kashmiri people the right to decide their own fate.

Throughout the region there have been conflicting reports regarding voter turnout. Moreover, that the election results actually dealt a blow to the aspirations of separatist leaders like Jammu-Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) Chairman Yasin Malik, All-Parties Hurryiet Conference (APHC) Chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooqhardline APHC Chairman Syed Ali Geelani and Sajjad Gani Lone, Chairman of People's Conference.  There was an obvious class distinction between the various leaders due to all JKLF members being jailed for two months during which Malik almost died due to refusal of medical treatment from a burst appendix, and Farooq, Geelani and Lone just being placed under "house arrest", yet still able to make statements in the media.  This was due to the ability the JKLF had in getting unarmed, non-violent protests out against the elections throughout the Valley.  However, during the house arrest period, the Indian military also prevented Farooq, a religious leader as well, from conducting Friday prayers at his mosque, and Lone and Geelani were prevented from offering Friday prayers as well. It must be clarified that despite the reporting in the press, the protests conducted by all leaders were non-violent, and in fact all casualties and deaths came at the hands of over zealous Indian Military Personnel, most notably Sheik Abdul Aziz who was shot while conducting a non-violent protest on the Line of Control.  However, like all things Kashmir, the reporting has left the international community blind regarding the realities of the results.  Finally, the results beg the questions whether or not the Government of India has the right to declare this a referendum of legitimacy of their rule over the Kashmiri people? 

The answer to the first question regarding the separatist leadership and being dealt a blow to their legitimacy is a resounding no. The reality is, people need basic public services and must decide on the candidates they are to choose from. The fact that Omar Abdullah, a 38 year-old savvy politician from National Conference (NC) will now have the task of fulfilling his promise to the Kashmiri electorate of greater autonomy from the Government of India. In addition, Mr. Abdullah has declared on numerous occasions on the campaign trail that the separatist leaders are in integral part to any discussions and negotiations with both the Government of India and Pakistan, only furthering the recognition of who really holds the trust of the general public.

Of course, such statements were of no surprise to those who follow the affairs inside Kashmir. The statements were made as the various separatist leaders were being rounded up prior to the two month long election process. Omar Abdullah must be commended for recognizing the schizophrenic atmosphere in the valley region. This must be viewed positively as well by the separatist leadership that the newly elected 'formal' leadership of the once despised NC, who took part in the election rigging of 1988, may turn out to have changed course and shed itself of the image as an agent for the Indian Government. Only time will tell whether or not this truth is realized, but make no mistake, Mr. Abdullah knows quite well the consequences if he should change course from his election promises to the people and once again do the bidding of his Indian benefactors.

The answer to the second question of whether or not the latest election in Kashmir serves as a referendum on the legitimacy of Indian rule inside of Kashmir, especially the valley region, is also a resounding no. The fact remains that at the largest of estimates, roughly 50% of people actually turned out to vote. This includes the Hindu majority Jammu, and the Buddhist majority Ladakh region. In the Valley, where Muslims are greater than a 90% majority, the turnout was less than 40%. Furthermore, in the Capitol of Srinagar, turnout was less than 20% on the high side, with some estimates put at around 12%. More importantly, when voters were questioned exiting the polls in all three regions by either the BBC, Asian Times, Greater Kashmir or Kashmir Times, the most common answers on why people had voted stemmed from the belief that this election had nothing to do with a belief that Kashmir was an integral part of India, but a necessity in terms of public works and basic necessities such as roads, water, sewage and education. Based on Mr. Abdullah's remarks following NC's victory, it was obvious that he understood this reality and would work with many of the separatist leaders to ensure public confidence and trust.

This brings us all back to the hope and promise Kashmiri's feel about the incoming US President Obama. By openly discussing Kashmir in interviews on such programs as Meet the Press, FOX Sunday, Hardball, Fareed Zackaria GPS and The Rachel Maddow Show, all programs viewable in the embattled region, the people have a sense that the US will once and for all look for a solution to the Kashmir Issue. It is a fundamental belief of a majority of people within the region that the prospect of war, let alone nuclear war, between India and Pakistan is minimal at best. This is the one area of concern that Kashmiri's have regarding Mr. Obama. A belief that once he realizes that Kashmir has very little to do with the dispute between India and Pakistan other than the rivers that run through it, that the new President will once again look past that Kashmir Issue as a non-dire situation.

I do believe that Mr. Obama already understands this reality, and has been confirmed by the Indian Government stating that the Mumbai Tragedy had nothing to do with Kashmir. It was obvious that once Kashmir became a central topic in the international community, that the truth would come out regarding the almost zero presence of militants in the valley. The last thing the Indian Government and Pakistani Government for that matter wants is for the US to become fully engaged in the negotiation process. This would require both sides to finally admit their differences being more petty than practical and well intentioned for the citizens at large. Unfortunately for both India and Pakistan, this is a realization beginning to take shape within both the US and newly elected Kashmiri leadership. It is because of this realization, that Obama's hope is being felt in South Asia.

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