On May 5, 2020, the Center for Security, Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR), University of Lahore, organized a webinar titled Kashmiris in the Age of Detention: What Changes for the Kashmiris Pre and Post-Pandemic? The webinar was moderated by Dr Rabia Akhtar, Director of the CSSPR and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the South Asia Center, Atlantic Council, and featured Sardar Masood Khan, President of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK); Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan’s former envoy to the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations; Victoria Schofield, a historian of South Asia; and Awais Raoof of the University of Lahore.
The session began with Dr Akhtar welcoming the panelists and introducing the webinar. In her opening remarks, she stated that the discussion sought to highlight the plight of Kashmiris in Indian-administered Kashmir. She noted that COVID-19 has exposed existing social injustice issues and inequalities in South Asian society, arguing that while the world is suffering from voluntary lockdown and isolation, there is nothing voluntary about the suffering of the Kashmiri people. Following her introduction, Dr Akhtar invited AJK President Sardar Masood Khan to give his opening remarks, which she framed with a question: where might the Kashmir conflict be headed and how is it affected by the COVID-19 lockdown?
AJK President Sardar Masood Khan outlined a six-point agenda on Kashmir. This includes engagement with the international community; mobilizing the Pakistani diaspora to advocate on the issue; strengthening Pakistan and AJK’s military, economic, and political capabilities; and engaging civil society in India to pressurize the Indian government to work towards a resolution on Kashmir. He argued that even before the pandemic, Kashmiris faced genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, torture, and kidnapping by Indian security forces, suffering largely unnoticed by global superpowers. President Khan noted that COVID-19 has brought a second lockdown on Kashmiris and argued that it has given the BJP government in India an opportunity to solidify its political agenda. He argued that the post-COVID world will see a rise in nationalism and Islamophobia which risks deflecting attention from the Kashmir conflict, concluding by arguing that it is Pakistan’s historic responsibility to help Kashmiris in their struggle for freedom.
Following Mr Khan’s remarks, Dr Akhtar invited Dr Maleeha Lodhi to discuss the need for a multilateral organization to address the issue of Kashmir, as well as how COVID-19 has impacted that need. Dr Lodhi argued that Kashmiris are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic due to poor healthcare infrastructure. She claimed that the government of India has denied Kashmiris medical supplies, and noted that journalists reporting on the conflict have been arrested, political leaders have been detained, and multiple lines of communication have been shut down. Dr Lodhi called on the international community to pay attention to the ongoing situation in Indian-administered Kashmir and advised politicians in Pakistan to go beyond tweets in their advocacy for Kashmiris. She also argued that diplomatic initiatives were necessary to return India to the negotiating table to find a solution.
In her statement, Victoria Schofield argued that the pandemic has worsened the human rights situation in Kashmir. She suggested that the problem be examined historically to identify what led to the failure of previous peace agreements and how an international mediator might benefit the negotiations. Bilateralism has failed, argued Ms Schofield, expressing pessimism about India and Pakistan coming together to overcome the regional challenges of COVID-19.
Awais Raoof of the University of Lahore described the potential psychological impact of a prolonged lockdown on Kashmiri youth. He argued that alleged human rights abuses committed by Indian security forces will only embolden the forces of radicalization rather than supporting the integration of these elements back into society. Mr Raoof shared the experiences of several Kashmiri students who have been directly affected by the lockdown and human rights abuses by Indian security forces.
The session then moved to answering questions submitted by the audience. Asked about suggestions for raising awareness on Kashmir despite media censorship, Dr Lodhi responded by calling for a continued diplomatic campaign between the governments of Pakistan and India. She claimed that Pakistan’s position is backed by laws and morals and argued that Pakistan must stand its ground and continue to push for a dialogue internationally. Dr Akhtar asked President Khan to comment on the allegation of human rights violations in AJK. Mr Khan claimed that, while AJK is not perfect, there is no torture, repression of political voices, and communication blackouts. He argued that his government has a high degree of tolerance for pro-independence elements in Kashmir and they are free to express political opinions as they wish. Asked about Pakistan’s credibility to speak on the Kashmir issue, Ms Schofield stated that she believes it is still important for Pakistan to continue advocating for Kashmir because the conflict is too dangerous to ignore, adding that civil society is the biggest victim of this conflict. In her opinion, India and Pakistan should be natural allies instead of wasting vital resources fighting disputes. Rather, they should be using these resources to invest in their citizens and work towards peace.
The discussion concluded with Dr Lodhi calling on Pakistani leadership to use diplomatic and political tools to continue to advocate for Kashmiris, stressing the need to ignore impressions that Pakistan can pursue any options other than diplomacy. She concluded by arguing that the next steps should be to advocate for the Kashmir conflict’s prioritization on the agenda of international organizations and forums, as well as with the civil society of India and Pakistan. These steps, she argued, could energize a renewed diplomatic commitment to resolving the Kashmir conflict.
Watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WITd2qGtdvk