Senator Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s former information minister, ambassador to the US and leader of the opposition, has long been an outspoken voice on Kashmir.
Rehman had a twenty-year career as a journalist and was the Editor in Chief of the renowned monthly magazine, Herald, for ten of those years. She is a member of the Pakistan People's Party founded by the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Last week she joined other dignitaries and experts from around the world to attend a large conference in Ankara on the issue, where she also spoke to TRT World in between sessions.
“Pakistan has a lot more to do for amplifying Kashmiri voices,” Rehman said, and conferences such as this help raise awareness.
“We’re seeing an outpouring of support here today in Ankara.”
The event was attended by the Pakistani and Iranian ambassadors to Turkey and featured an address by Turkish Vice President, Fuat Oktay, along with speeches by Rehman, Lord Nazir Ahmed and officials from the MHP and AK Party, among others.
Kashmir has been in the headlines recently due to India’s controversial decision in August to revoke the autonomy of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and create two Union territories ruled directly from Delhi.
The dispute emerged from the dying days of the British Empire in India when the rulers of so-called princely states such as Kashmir were given a choice to accede either to India or to the new Muslim-majority state of Pakistan.
The Hindu ruler of Muslim-majority Kashmir delayed his decision, leading to a war between India and Pakistan over the area in 1947-8. The territory has been divided ever since along the so-called Line of Control, initially a ceasefire line, with China seizing a small portion of the area in 1962 and receiving another segment from Pakistan in 1963.
India and Pakistan fought two subsequent wars over Kashmir in 1965 and 1999.
The UN has called for the withdrawal of forces and a plebiscite to determine the fate of Kashmir. Pakistan has long advocated implementing the UN resolutions and holding a referendum, while India has rejected any effort to “internationalise” the dispute, insisting the issue be handled bilaterally in line with the 1972 Simla Agreement and 1999 Lahore Declaration.
Rehman accuses the Indians of hypocrisy.
“They keep saying it’s a bilateral issue,” she said, but when Pakistan attempts to negotiate, “they turn around, and they say it’s an internal matter.”
She is adamant that Islamabad must bring the issue back to the UN and other multilateral forums. The UN Security Council held an extraordinary session at China’s request on Kashmir in August, but the meeting did not result in a formal statement.
Kashmiris are “denied the right to decide who governs them,” Rehman said.
Pakistan has long advocated self-determination for the people of Kashmir, through a referendum. But it is unclear that Islamabad would tolerate independence for all Kashmiris, including those who reside in Pakistan.
Rehman said those people “chose to come to Pakistan,” although there has not been a referendum on the issue. When asked to clarify, she acknowledged there had been no referendum, but said the situation in Pakistani Kashmir was different from the state of affairs in Indian Kashmir.
Pakistan has recently lost international support on Kashmir. Its old allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE declined to criticise India’s revocation of the region’s autonomy. Malaysia’s president condemned the move, and faced sanctions in return, while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke out at the UN, leading to the cancellation of a trip by prime minister Modi to Ankara. Iran’s supreme leader has also voiced his dismay.
“If one set of international actors have stood down,” Rehman said, “others have rightly stood up.”
She noted that 45 parliamentarians in the UK have written to the UN Secretary-General and that, even in the US, a close ally of India, Congress has held two hearings on Kashmir since August.
The Ankara conference was also “very successful” with support from across the political spectrum in Turkey.
From 2004, negotiations between India and Pakistan offered some hope of resolving the Kashmir crisis, but they broke down due to domestic politics in Pakistan and the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. Since then, tensions have gradually escalated, as successive terror attacks by groups allegedly linked to Pakistan prompted retaliatory strikes from India.
Now, with its revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy, India is tightening its grip on the disputed region. Many more troops have been sent to the area, adding to the hundreds of thousands already there, while communications have been cut and a curfew imposed. There have been allegations of widespread abuses, including arbitrary arrests, maiming of civilians, and mistreatment of prisoners.
Rehman described India’s human rights violations as “egregious” and said its conduct would backfire.
“The curfew, the lockdown, the torture, the oppression, that is not sustainable strategically or politically for India.”
The Kashmiris “will hit back” given the oppression they are being subjected to, and, when they do, India will blame Pakistan unfairly, leading to a further escalation.
“This kind of conflict poses a great hazard to both regional and global stability,” Rehman said, with “two nuclear, heavily-armed countries facing each other.”
The page has to be turned
Pakistan has long been accused of supporting militant groups in Kashmir, and India insists it continues to do so, an allegation rejected by Rehman.
“If there was militant activity from Pakistan, everyone would know about it,” she said, “this is not the age of opacity.”
It is also risky for Islamabad to back militant proxies, as it faces scrutiny from the Financial Action Task Force, which monitors terror financing.
Rehman insists that Pakistan is fighting “long, protracted battles against militant extremism and terrorism.” There has been a “significant investment” in “moving away from terrorism”.
“It has been a threat to Pakistan,” she said, noting the huge cost to Pakistan’s economy and society. “Why would we invest in something that would come back and hit us?” she asked.
“The page has to be turned.”
Islamabad is also under enormous pressure from the US to crack down on any militant groups operating in its territory. Last year President Trump suspended all security assistance to Pakistan over its alleged support for terrorism.
However, bilateral relations with Washington have improved in the past year due to Islamabad’s help in facilitating peace talks with the Taliban to end America’s war in Afghanistan.
Rehman was ambassador to the US from 2011-2013 when ties between the two countries had nosedived. She describes that time as a “very tough low” for US-Pakistan relations, but says things are now “picking up” due to Washington’s desire for an honourable exit from Afghanistan.
The relationship is one of “terrible lows and highs,” she said.
“That’s just something we’ve learned to work with and accept.”