India confronts a Kashmir Rubicon on September 16 when it commences a four-phase balloting process in the disputed territory to elect members to a Kashmiri Assembly.
If India boldly crosses the Rubicon by conducting free, fair, and transparent elections reflective of the genuine sentiments of the Kashmiri people, then a final peaceful settlement of the 55-year-old Kashmir conflict will be in sight. If India balks at a crossing and continues its old bad habit of election rigging and denying Kashmiri self-determination celebrated in United Nations Security Council resolutions, then Kashmir will remain beleaguered by terrorism, repression, misery, and destitution.
The United States by moral suasion is urging India to opt for boldness, and reap rewards like Egypt's Anwar Sadat for speaking reconciliation in the Israeli Knesset. The international community awaits India's choice with bated breath. Kashmir is the most dangerous nuclear hotspot on the planet and weapons proliferation in South Asia is its byword.
Free and fair elections in Kashmir would be a double blessing for India. They would marginalize extremists and unwanted interlopers who employ indiscriminate brutal violence to oppose India's occupation; and, they would set the stage for negotiating a peaceful and final solution to the Kashmir conflict consistent with United Nations Security Council resolutions.
White-hot tensions would then lessen in South Asia, terrorism would recede, prodigal arms expenditures would end, and economic development would blossom.
History speaks volumes about understanding the forthcoming elections.
In 1948 and 1949, United Nations Security Council resolutions stipulated that Kashmir's political destiny should be decided through a plebiscite conducted by the United Nations. India's flagrant dishonoring of its plebiscite obligation sparked indigenous convulsions and disaffection in Kashmir. India schemed to evade the Security Council's mandates by staged elections to a Constituent Assembly, which it insisted was a plebiscite substitute.
The Security Council instantly denounced the subterfuge in a 1957 resolution. It reminded the concerned governments and authorities "of the principle embodied in its resolution that the final disposition of the State of Jammu and Kashmir will be made in accordance with the will of the people expressed through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the United Nations." The resolution further elaborated that "the convening of a Constituent Assembly...and any action that Assembly may have taken or might attempt to take to determine the future shape and affiliation [of Kashmir]" would be no surrogate for Kashmiri self-determination.
India, however, persisted in its colonial, anti-democratic ways in Kashmir. Jay Parkash Narayan confided to Indira Gandhi in 1960: "We profess democracy but rule by force in Kashmir...We profess secularism but let Hindu nationalism stampede us into trying to establish it by repression...[The Kashmir] problem exists not because Pakistan wants to grab Kashmir, but because there is deep and widespread political discontent among the people."
P.K. Dave, former chief secretary of the Indian Jammu and Kashmir Government, confessed in 1991 that, Elections in Kashmir have been rigged from the beginning."
Fraudulent elections in 1987 extinguished the last flicker of hope among Kashmiris that India would bow to a free and fair plebiscite as ordained by the Security Council. Indigenous protest erupted in the occupied territory reminiscent of American's 1961 Freedom Riders protesting racial discrimination in the South. In 1996, Kashmiris boycotted phony elections en masse despite intimidation by India's military.
The cure for counterfeit elections in Kashmir, however, is not more of the same, but providing the genuine democratic article. Thus, the people of Kashmir are eager to participate in the impending elections if they are conducted with the trappings of free and fair choice.
That means six-fold assurances from India that:
The elections will determine an interim administration pending execution of India's plebiscite obligation.
International monitoring of the entire electoral process, including preparation of voter lists, will be guaranteed.
Candidate oaths to support India's constitution and its claim of sovereignty over Kashmir will be waived.
The elected representatives will be crowned with a mandate to negotiate the final status of Jammu and Kashmir with India and Pakistan.
All political prisoners will be released with freedom to seek elections without fear or harassment, including the leadership of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference.
India's military and paramilitary forces will desist from voter coercion or threats.
The status of East Timor was resolved in 1999 by a free and fair vote of the East Timorese. The same, championed by the United States and the European Union, is in train for Kossovo, Montenegro, and Serbia. The solution to Kashmir's indigenous upheaval is no different. The irrepressible coveting of dignity, liberty, and pride that comes with self-determination knows no territorial or regional boundaries.
In sum, India could make the imminent Kashmir elections its finest democratic hour and win international acclaim. If there are obstacles, they are self-imposed.
Dr. Ghulam Nabi Fai Executive Director, Kashmiri American Council (He has been exiled from Kashmir since 1980)
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