That rare opportunity presented itself last week during a visit to Doha by Masood Khan, the 27th president of the semi-autonomous region, also referred to as Azad (or Independent) Kashmir in Pakistan.
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir was divided between Pakistan and India after the end of British colonial rule over the subcontinent in 1947. Both sides have since claimed the territory in full.
In an interview with Al Jazeera against the backdrop of tensions triggered by a deadly suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir’s Pulwama district earlier this month, Khan said a war between India and Pakistan must be avoided. Excerpts:
Al Jazeera: What is your view on the escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan following the Pulwama attack?
Masood Khan: India is playing with fire. It is brutalising the people of Kashmir. This incident is being used to demonise Kashmiris and project them as violent extremists, which they are not.
They’re trying to isolate Pakistan without any shred of evidence. We have said that if India is truthful, we are ready for an international investigation. But that investigation should not stop at the Pulwama incident. There have been brutal killings of Kashmiris.
The remit of the investigation should also include those killings. Those which have taken place in the last 71 years where there has been excessive use of force. Women have been raped and molested.
About 6,000 [Kashmiri] people have been blinded either partially or fully by the use of the pellet-firing shotgun. The problem is that India uses two laws – the Public Safety Act [PSA] and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act [AFSPA] – which empower the occupation forces and foster a culture of impunity.
These laws have been called lawless laws by Amnesty [International]. What we’re saying is that India is a country which won its independence after a long heroic struggle against British imperialism. It should not treat Kashmir as a colony.
This war mongering is not in the interest of India or Pakistan.
Al Jazeera: What impact is the restriction imposed by India on trade and travel having on Pakistan-administered Kashmir where residents have both clients and family on the Indian side?
Masood Khan: The impact of Indian sanctions are negligible. In fact, we have been demanding that there should be boycott, divestment and sanctions against India to hold it responsible for human rights violations. India is acting as the judge, jury and executioner, saying ‘you are bad guys and we will impose trade sanctions against you’.
I agree that the trade between Azad Kashmir [Pakistan-administered Kashmir] and Indian-occupied Kashmir is important beyond just commercial interests. It is part of the confidence measures that we built a decade ago. We, in fact, use the bus service to reach our divided families from both sides. We hope that it will be revived.
What’s really worrying for India, for Pakistan and the people of Kashmir is that ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has whipped up this xenophobic, racist and intolerant frenzy.
They think that using this logic of Hindu majoritarianism they can marginalise Muslims in India, penalise Kashmiris and isolate Pakistan. They’re doing this for electoral gains.
Al Jazeera: What is the atmosphere like in Pakistan-administered Kashmir? Are the people worried about the prospect of a war or violence along the border?
Masood Khan: There’s talk of India conducting surgical strikes or full-blown military strikes. At the level of the people, there’s anger at provocative statements coming out from India. There is also resolve among the people that the government should retaliate if India undertakes some misadventure. The situation can spin out of control. If India has adopted this path of war mongering, we hope that sanity prevails and India steps back.
Al Jazeera: Pakistan’s move to call for an intervention from the United Nations has been described as facile by many observers. What is your view?
Masood Khan: Whenever there’s a crisis such as this, we go to the UN Security Council. It is routine, particularly when there are threats from India. It’s UNSC’s responsibility to maintain peace. That’s the first destination of any country when there’s a threat to peace and security.
You say it is facile but I do not think so. I think they should step forward, broker peace and prevent a war, it’s the least they can do. Both states are nuclear armed and any small-scale conflict can potentially escalate to the nuclear threshold. It has to be averted at all cost.
The situation can spin out of control.
Al Jazeera: What message would you like to send out to the international community?
Masood Khan: Please try to get involved. Try to deescalate the situation and help the people of India and Pakistan. I also think India and Pakistan should reopen diplomatic channels to diffuse the crisis. This warmongering is not in the interest of India or Pakistan.
To the international community, my appeal also is, first, to deescalate the situation and, second, to help us address the root cause of the Kashmir issue which is denial of the right to self-determination of the people. Let the international community get involved and help us find a fair, just and democratic solution to this dispute.
Kashmiris have not accepted India’s rule and that’s why there’s an indigenous and spontaneous movement. It is not sponsored or engineered by Pakistan. Pakistan and Kashmiri freedom fighters believe that we must go back to the UN or we should talk directly to the three parties in the dispute or we should involve a third party evolve a formula.
Using unbridled state terrorism against Kashmiris will not resolve the problem. We believe that only a diplomatic solution will work.
Al Jazeera: You have been very vocal about right-wing extremism in India and described the ruling establishment as a group of religious zealots. How then would you describe the Jaish-e-Mohammed [JeM] which has claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack?
Masood Khan: Let there be an international investigation. Let’s have a forensic examination of what JeM has said. It is a banned and outlawed organisation in Pakistan. Would we countenance or tolerate such religious outfits in Pakistan? My answer is no. Pakistan has decided to go against violent extremists. Two major operations – Zarb-i-Azb and Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad – were launched which means as a nation, it is our resolve to go after violent extremists and terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.
The Indian civil society should take cognisance of the evolution of indigenous resistance in Kashmir, which has led to young men – mostly in their teens, mostly educated – dropping out of schools and joining the freedom struggle which is not necessarily inspired from across the border. They have their own ideological footprint.
The movement in Kashmir is not necessarily religious in character. What they want is restoration of their dignity and realisation of their quest for freedom.
Most of the young campaigners for freedom in Kashmir right now are not militant at all. They take pride in the fact that this is an indigenous movement; that they are the leaders of this movement. JeM claiming responsibility, Adil Ahmad Dar [Pulwama suicide bomber] coming up with very well-orchestrated confessions play right into the hands of the Indian government’s narrative.
This is a conundrum and that is why you need a proper investigation. You need some time to establish facts. But even as this event was unfolding the Indian government claimed to have all the answers.
People must travel to the border, they will find that it is the most militarised and fenced border in the world. The fence stretching about 540km has two layers with landmines in the middle. It is electronically surveilled and has thermal imaging and remote sensors. Even birds and animals that try to cross are electrocuted.
Al Jazeera: A week before the Pulwama attack, activists of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), including its president Dr Toqeer Geelani (based in Pakistani-administered Kashmir), were reportedly booked by the Pakistan police under sedition laws for raising the banner of an independent Kashmiri homeland free from both India and Pakistan. Is Kashmir just a pawn between the two countries?
Masood Khan: Kashmir is too big to be a pawn on the chessboard. People forget that the total area of Kashmir is about 220,000 square km. The population is about 20 million, which is not small.
The posture of the JKLF – and I refer to the leadership of Yasin Malik [JKLF chairman based in Indian-administered Kashmir] – has been very responsible and he is part of the joint resistance leadership in India. So there is no problem.
In Azad Kashmir, I can tell you that there is tolerance for dissent. But that tolerance doesn’t brook abusive and seditious language against the state of Pakistan. There are no curbs on freedom of expression otherwise.
Al Jazeera: When you say ‘seditious language’, would you describe as seditious the demand of the JKLF that Kashmir should be independent of both Indian and Pakistan?
Masood Khan: Again, there is tolerance for dissent in Pakistan. For instance, in a press conference in Muzaffarabad [capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir] or Islamabad [Pakistan’s capital], somebody would get up and raise pro-independence slogans. They would not land up in jail. In the case that you mention, I do not know the exact words that were used.
Al Jazeera: The slogans, reported in the media, included ‘Pakistan Army leave our Kashmir, Indian Army leave our Kashmir, we want freedom, leave our Kashmir, we will achieve freedom on both sides of the Line of Control, we will take Ladakh, Gilgit, Baltistan and Srinagar too’.
Masood Khan: This kind of language would not incur the wrath of the state.
Al Jazeera: Ostensibly, it has.
Masood Khan: I do not have the entire details, so, I cannot comment. One has to see. I have to ascertain facts.
Al Jazeera: But you are tolerant of this line?
Masood Khan: Yes, the JKLF operates and exists freely there. Also, let me contrast the stand of Pakistan with India. We call this disputed territory but India says it is an integral part of the country.
Once Yasin Malik was asked this question, he said that the UN Security Council resolution gives only two choices in its proposal for a plebiscite – India or Pakistan.
His position has always been that the UN resolution should be implemented and then Kashmiris will sort it out democratically. Leave it to the Kashmiris. Let me tell you again that there is no persecution in Azad Kashmir. There’s a very high level of tolerance.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.