From Brisbane to Kashmir

Over the last couple of days there’s been a debate playing out on social media – or at least the small corner of it that I attend to – about the wisdom or otherwise of the tactics adopted by Queensland climate change protesters. “Extinction Rebellion”, as its members call themselves, shut down traffic in Brisbane on Tuesday, attracting considerable criticism but also (as was their goal) a great deal of attention.

I don’t know whether this is a good way to raise awareness of the threat of climate change or not. But it’s a common dilemma faced by protest movements. When they are violent or disruptive, they are attacked for it and told they should pursue their grievances peacefully. When they act peacefully, however, people assume the issue isn’t that serious and so ignore it.

Spare a thought, then, for the people of Kashmir, denied their rights of self-determination for 70 years. When their frustration has periodically boiled over into violence, they have been called terrorists and told that peaceful means are the only way to make progress.

But when the region has been peaceful, as it has for much of the time, the world has simply ignored the issue. Comment dries up, attention moves on to other things, and the Kashmiris remain forsaken until another flare-up puts them back in the headlines.

Instead of dealing with difficult problems, the international community prefers to just keep quiet about them and hope that they go away. Usually they don’t. So it has – we have – no right to be surprised to find that Kashmir is still there, still oppressed, and now firmly back on the front page.

On Monday the Indian government of Narendra Modi, re-elected earlier this year, announced the implementation of one of its nationalist election promises: the abolition of Kashmir’s special constitutional status and the end of the limited autonomy that it enjoyed. As the Independent put it, “Even by his own shameless standards it is an act of outstanding arrogance.”

The furious (but entirely predictable) reaction from both the Kashmiris and neighboring Pakistan now puts the region on track for a catastrophic showdown, with only the diplomatic skills of Donald Trump available for mediation.

Yet most of the media commentary still manages to avoid the critical point: that the Kashmiris do not want to be part of India, and that the only permanent solution to the problem, short of allowing the Indian government to commit genocide, is to let them determine their own future.

Some of us have been saying this for a long time. Here am I in Crikey in July 2006:

[A] more lasting option for peace would be an act of self-determination under international supervision. There’s no chance of it happening soon, but India’s friends (among whom Australia should be more prominent), as well as offering every assistance to fight terrorism, need to quietly insist that self-determination for Kashmir is the only long-term solution.

And again two years later:

But self-determination has few friends in high places. Almost every government regards it as a potential threat, to its allies if not to itself. …

India is a potential economic superpower, a hugely important trading partner and strategic interest for Australia as well as other western countries. None of them want to point to the skeleton in its closet. But our silence is ultimately doing no favors, either for India or for Kashmir.

The Economist put its finger on the problem in 2017:

By conflating the two kinds of unrest, the [Indian] government limits its options for dealing with the less deadly kind. … But the government will not talk to any group that supports independence for Kashmir. That rules out the only one that enjoys broad support in the valley …

The government in Delhi should enter talks with separatist groups before their supporters become too enraged to countenance any discussions.

It was, of course, ignored. As was Arundhati Roy, who sounded the alarm bells just five months ago:

Kashmir is the real theatre of unspeakable violence and moral corrosion that can spin us into violence and nuclear war at any moment. To prevent that from happening, the conflict in Kashmir has to be addressed and resolved. That can only be done if Kashmiris are given a chance to freely and fearlessly tell the world what they are fighting for and what they really want.

It’s a lesson that history has repeated many times: concessions that are refused to peaceful protest will one day have to be made, with interest, to violence. Will we ever learn?

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