Iftikhar Ahmed is an exile from the land his ancestors once ruled. A descendent of the last Muslim maharajas, his family ceded control of Kashmir to Hari Singh’s forebears in the early eighteen-hundreds. During partition, Singh’s disastrous bid for independence caused the absorption of the predominantly Muslim region into Hindu India. The ongoing factional violence that resulted has killed thousands, displaced millions, and sparked three wars. Amnesty International estimate 100 civilians die each month, but only the threat of nuclear action attracts sporadic international attention.
Banned from Indian occupied territory, Iftikhar has been working for Kashmiri independence for decades. He frequently returns to Azad (Urdu for ‘free’) Kashmir to visit family. The area has its own legislative assembly, but remains administered by Pakistan and under threat from India. ‘In 1998, eight of my relatives died in an Indian mortar attack. On the same day, a sniper shot dead a cousin of mine, a teacher, as she crossed the courtyard of her house. She was 27, the breadwinner for her family. The papers didn’t even mention it.’
He is dismissive of the token UN observation group. ‘I served in the Royal Navy for eight years, including the first Gulf War, and have seen Indian shells coming into the towns. The UN say it was “small arms fire”.’ UNMOGIP (UN Military Observer Group India and Pakistan) was set up to monitor the 1949 ceasefire, not promote diplomacy. The Kashmiri conflict, he continues, could showcase the strengths of the UN, but the organisation is unwilling to commit the resources.
In turn, India accuses the Pakistani army and groups of mujaheddin of engaging in covert cross-border operations. Iftikhar admits that three Kashmiri women were executed in December (allegedly by the obscure Islamic group Lashkar Jabbar) for not wearing burqas. Acid throwing and rape have been carried out in the name of Islam and the ‘liberation’ of Kashmir. However, he believes the widespread, state-sanctioned rape of thousands of Kashmiri women by the Indian army is not comparable to the actions of a few militants. He vehemently denies that the majority of Muslims support groups like Lashkar-e-Toiba, made up exclusively of foreign veterans of the Afghan wars.
‘The splinter groups are unpredictable and uncoordinated, and responsible for many abuses. Attacks like these alienate most Muslims; so who really gains? Fiqh (the jurisprudence of Islam) states Islamic penal law does not apply in occupied territories, so these executions are not sanctioned by our creed, if indeed Muslims are responsible.
‘The international community must support moderate negotiators, or fundamentalists on both sides will benefit. In south east Asia, the West was indifferent to the suffering of the Afghan people, so the war against foreign occupation was led by Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar.’ He stresses that an armed struggle cannot succeed without political focus, but does not condemn the guerrillas. Members of his own family have died fighting for Kashmir. Iftikhar cites South Africa as an example of a country transformed by a successful armed struggle, ‘but sucess was through forcing the involvement of the international community, and not through bombs.’ Islamabad has also expressed interest in negotiations hosted by a third party, using the American-led Northern-Ireland peace initiative as a model.
Iftikhar welcomes the recent London meeting between the All-Parties Huriyat Conference (APHC, the collection of Kashmiri separatist groups) and delegates from India’s opposition group (The Congress Party, led by Sonia Ghandi). However, travel restrictions, lack of parliamentary representation and the threat of an Indian army crackdown all hobble the APHC. India will not soften its stance under Prime Minister Vajpayee’s current right wing government. Unless the UN brings its power to bear, negotiations will fail.
Can the APHC control violent splinter groups? Although he does not doubt their commitment to peace, Iftikhar thinks true progress towards Kashmiri self-determination would achieve more than APHC decrees. ‘The UN must not forget its resolutions of August 1948 and January 1949. As the former colonial power, and home to the largest expatriate community of Kashmiris in the world, Britain bears particular responsibility for fostering negotiations between India and Pakistan.’
The lack of core values and inaction by British Kashmiri organisations frustrates him. ‘Fifty years have elapsed; yet Kashmir remains in the shadows. Because we don’t have passports of our own, we are classed as Pakistanis, but for Kashmir the ideal is independence, not Pakistani or Indian domination.’
As I have been writing this interview, at least 30 more civilians have died. The largest massacre, allegedly by Islamic militants, was squeezed between headlines on the Iraqi war and rising council tax. While attention is focused on Iraq, Muslim and Hindu extremists in south Asia flourish. Every bomb that hit Baghdad shook the foundations of the UN. Rather than sulking on the sidelines, the UN should rebuild its authority by spearheading peace initiatives between the Muslims and Hindus of Kashmir.