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Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to allow the people of Kashmir the right to independence if residents of the disputed Himalayan territory were to vote for joining Pakistan in a United Nations-mandated plebiscite that has been delayed for decades.
Since gaining independence from the British in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, with both sides claiming the territory in full but administering separate portions of it that are divided by the Line of Control (LoC).
Addressing thousands at a Kashmir Solidarity Day rally in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir town of Kotli on Friday, Khan asserted he was willing to allow citizens of the territory the full right to self-determination.
“When you decide on your future, and when the people of Kashmir, God willing, decide in Pakistan’s favour, I want to say that after that Pakistan will give Kashmiris the right that if you want to be independent or a part of Pakistan,” said Khan. “This will be your right.”
In 1948, a UN Security Council resolution mandated the holding of a plebiscite in the territory, giving residents a choice between joining India or Pakistan.
Independence was not stated to be an option for that referendum.
India has rejected holding such a plebiscite until Pakistan withdraws its troops from the territory, including from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
In 2019, New Delhi altered the constitutional status of Indian-administered Kashmir, removing a provision that allowed the region its autonomy and absorbing it into the country’s administrative mainstream.
The move was rejected by Pakistan, which has demanded India reverse the decision as a precondition for any talks.
India’s move was also met with anger within Kashmir, where a months-long curfew was enforced by hundreds of thousands of security forces.
If India demonstrates sincerity in seeking a just solution to the Kashmir issue, in accordance with UNSC resolutions, we are ready to take two steps forward for peace. But let no one mistake our desire for stability & peace as a sign of weakness.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) February 5, 2021
Many restrictions on Kashmiris’ movement and communication remain in place in Indian-administered Kashmir, where an armed separatist movement has been fighting Indian forces since the 1990s.
Rights groups have documented human rights abuses by Indian security forces, including the use of pellet guns to target protesters, extrajudicial killings and the intimidation of journalists.
Speaking on Friday, Khan reiterated that his government was prepared to engage in dialogue with India, but only if it revoked its removal of Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
At the UN, Pakistan’s foreign minister presented a letter to the secretary-general and head of the Security Council on Friday, asking the body to urge India to remove restrictions on Kashmiris and to reverse new laws aimed at easing the settlement of non-Kashmiris in the territory.
Rallies in solidarity with Kashmiris were also held across Pakistan, with at least 16 people wounded in a hand grenade attack on one such gathering in the southwestern province of Balochistan.
The attack took place in the district of Sibi, about 110km (68 miles) east of the provincial capital Quetta.
“There were 16 people injured, out of them, one is in critical condition and is being shifted to Quetta by air,” said local official Yasir Bazai.
Three of the wounded were policemen providing security to the rally.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility for that attack, the province has been the site of an armed separatist movement by ethnic Baloch, who accuse the Pakistani state of extracting resources without providing rights or governance to locals.