A refusal Tuesday on the part of the US Department of State to view the situation in Kashmir as similar to that in East Timor has drawn the ire of the Pakistani government. Speaking at a daily press briefing, State Department spokesman James Rubin said India demonstrated in recent elections a commitment to democratic principles that rendered inappropriate recent calls made by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for an internationally backed independence referendum in Kashmir like the one held in East Timor.
Rubin, whose answer came in response to a question from a reporter, urged the audience "not to get trapped into facile analogies that don't apply. Kashmir is not East Timor," he said.
But Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman, Tariq Altaf, vehemently objected to Rubin's comments: "To deny the Kashmiris the same rights as the East Timorese" he said "is a travesty of democratic rights and ideals," as quoted by a September 9 BBC report from Islamabad, Pakistan. Altaf said the recent Kashmiri boycott of Indian election demonstrates that Kashmiri people are not content under Indian rule. Further, he reportedly said, India has more responsibility than Indonesia to hold a referendum vote because of a 1948 UN resolution calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir.
The controversy raises questions as to the nature of Indian-brokered democracy in Kashmir. The issue of India's supposed commitment to democratic principles in Kashmir is central to Rubin's implicit defense of India's right to maintain control over Kashmir.
Responding to a separate question posed during the September 7 press conference, Rubin said that the US stance in East Timor was motivated by issues of democracy and human rights, which "are always a concern of ours." While Rubin admitted voter turnout in recent elections in Kashmir has been low, he said this has always been the case in the predominately Muslim state of Kashmir and did not give reason for the US "to comment on the legitimacy of elections in any part of Kashmir."
But the widespread boycott of the elections in Kashmir, beginning September 5, seems to reveal a serious dissatisfaction with Indian rule on the part of Kashmiris. As in elections in years past, violence has plagued the polls, with 18 killed in shootout between Indian forces and militants on Wednesday.
Organizations involved in peaceful protest have also been targeted by Indian security forces. According to a September 8 AFP report, police disrupted anti-election rallies staged by the Freedom Conference and seized senior leaders. Freedom Conference chairman Umar Farooq is quoted by AFP as saying, ""Following the success of our boycott campaign, the government has become frustrated and is trying to crush us."
Voter turnout is reportedly the lowest ever, with a mere 12 percent of registered voters turning out for polls down from 41 percent in 1996, according to an official government estimate reported by the Kashmir Times on September 7. The Kashmir Times says the real number of voters could be much lower.
The Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) says voter turnout was actually as low as 0.5 percent in many places. Pamela Constable, writing for the Washington Post from Srinagar, India, on September 4, said voter turnout is low because Kashmiri people feel "alienated from India and have long sought independence." Constable based her analysis on extensive interviews and quoted one man as saying, "Elections can serve no purpose here. For 52 years, we have seen only suppression and corruption from India. What the Kashmiri people want is justice and freedom."
According to Constable, many believe the elections are a screen to show "to the world that India is a democracy and that Kashmir is a happy participant in it."
While the emptiness of democracy in Kashmir is well evident in the recent polls, India's lack of commitment to democratic principles extends beyond the forced elections. Constable's report from Kashmir says that there are few people who have not had a relative killed by Indian security forces. According to a 1999 report by Human Rights Watch, Indian forces in Kashmir continue to carry out summary executions, abductions, rape and torture.
Rubin's refusal to acknowledge India's shortcomings in regards to democratic principals, especially in the context of the independence referendum in East Timor, represents an implicit US support for India's right to continue its occupation of Kashmir despite UN resolutions calling for the Kashmiri right of self determination to be respected. Rubin's comments about US policy being driven by respect for human rights and democracy seem to be empty words as long as the same standards are not applied in places such as Kashmir.