In the late 1980s, when the armed insurgency broke out in Kashmir Valley, Kashmiris celebrated what they saw as a signal of the imminent achievement of their self-determination as a people. As the government in New Delhi responded with escalated counterinsurgency policies, hoping to stamp out the rebellion spreading across the region, the people’s jubilation soon gave way to protests, with unarmed Kashmiris from all walks of life thronging the streets in solidarity with the insurgents, demanding the release of political prisoners and denouncing alleged human rights abuses.
This was when Kashmir saw the first ‘UNO Chalo’ marches, which would typically begin from any place in the Valley and conclude at the headquarters of the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP; UNO in popular parlance) near Dal Lake. Right across the blue-gated landmark is Srinagar’s popular Syed Sahab sufi shrine. When UNO Chalo demonstrators overshadowed shrine worshippers in the 1990s, Kashmiris nicknamed the UN headquarters “UNO Sahab”. The UNO had become a figure of veneration and respect, with the protesters—lawyers and doctors, teachers and students, resistance leaders and other civilians—as supplicants delivering written memoranda as prayers for their aspiration of self-determination, reiterating the popular demand for a UN-mandated plebiscite.
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UNO Chalo marches articulated popular support for the freedom movement and re-established the UN’s relevance in the people’s political subjectivity at a key historical moment. Its popularity then, as now, demonstrates how Kashmiri collective identity has been formed over the past 70 years through reference to the UN and its promise of intervention.
Kashmiris often invoke the UN’s name to express the international community’s support for their collective political will. Since the 1990s, Kashmiri protesters have been chanting “Hum kya chahtey? Azadi! (What do we want? Freedom!)”, followed by a call for “Haq-e-Khodiradiyat!”—self-determination mandated by the “Aqwam-e-Muttahida”, the UN. Clearly, in Kashmiri political imagination, the UN is a powerful interlocutor committed to enacting their aspirations and delivering their long-awaited justice. That’s the context in which the recent Kashmir report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR) must be understood.
In January 1948, shortly after its foundation after World War II, the UN entered Kashmir’s legal and political scene by setting up the UN Commission for Indian and Pakistan (UNCIP) to investigate and mediate the divergent claims on Kashmir. The UN Security Council (UNSC) issued a series of resolutions, the first in April 1948, and supported by both India and Pakistan, establishing the conditions for a plebiscite to resolve the dispute. The first unarmed military advisors arrived in January 1949 to supervise the ceasefire under UNCIP auspices, later forming the UNMOGIP. The UN supervised the fixing of the ceasefire line, now known as the Line of Control (LoC), in July that year, and Kashmiris looked to the UN to guarantee their right to self-determination in the following decades.
In the 1960s and ’70s, however, India tried to redefine the legal and political narrative establishing the UN’s relationship to Kashmir by blocking the international body’s influence. Following the 1971 war, India and Pakistan agreed in Shimla to frame Kashmir as a bilateral dispute between the two nation-states. Ever since, India has maintained that this Shimla Agreement overrides all prior UN resolutions on Kashmir even though the agreement states no such intent, while Kashmiris insist this argument has no legal basis, that the UNSC resolutions continue to be legally binding, and that the UN has a responsibility to play a proactive role.
The beginning of armed insurgency also shone a light on the UN as an active symbol of Kashmiri political aspirations, which were validated when a mission of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) visited both sides of the LoC in 1993 and examined human rights in the context of the right to self-determination. “A right of self-determination arose at the time of Partition and is still exercisable,” the ICJ report concludes. The Indian government rejected the report in language presaging recent statements on the UNHCHR report, arguing that it “comes through as a document of patent and pronounced bias, lacking in objectivity, historical perspective and accuracy”.
Following the Amarnath land-transfer row in the summer of 2008, UNO Chalo marches returned to prominence as a critical component of the Kashmiri ‘tehreek’ (movement). That August, a huge procession marched to ‘UNO Sahab’ with a memorandum reminding the UN of its promises, and thousands gathered in Srinagar’s Eidgah for a referendum rally to offer Friday prayers for freedom. These massive demonstrations—some of the biggest since 1989—marked the resurgence of huge public marches appealing to the UN and demanding the right to self-determination. And since the summer of 2016, when Kashmir was rocked by massive protests following the killing of popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the government has been forcibly curbing UNO Chalo calls.
Two summers later, Kashmiris are celebrating what seems to be the UN’s response to the memoranda, appeals and prayers they have presented over decades. On June 14, the UNHCHR published its historic report on human rights in Kashmir and called on the governments of India and Pakistan “to fully respect the right to self-determination of the people of Kashmir as protected under international law”. The report marks the beginning of a potentially momentous shift in the international human rights community’s recognition of people’s aspirations in this longstanding and under-reported ‘war zone’.
The report is the culmination of a decade of commentary by various UN Special Rapporteurs who have urged the two countries to seek a lasting solution to the dispute. Two Special Rapporteurs visited Kashmir as part of their country visits—Margaret Sekaggya in 2011 and Christof Heyns in 2012—and issued reports calling for, among other recommendations, the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). In 2013, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, visited India, though not Kashmir, and issued a report denouncing AFSPA.
This long history of UN intervention on Kashmir provides the context for the more recent series of events that led to the current report. In the summer of 2016, Zeid Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, took note of India’s crackdown on Kashmiri civilians and began seeking access for a team to visit both sides of the LoC. He publicly requested unconditional access in his opening statement to the Human Rights Council in September 2016, noting that although Pakistan had formally invited a UNHCHR team in tandem with India, the Indian government had failed to respond. In 2017, he indicated that the only option available to his office under such conditions would be to complete their reports based on remote monitoring.
While Kashmiris have celebrated the report as a rare victory, spokespersons of the Indian government and most mainstream media outlets have widely condemned it as politically motivated and filled with inconsistencies. Such condemnations ignore the fact that the UN mandate has applied to Kashmir since 1949. Rather than a blanket denouncement of the report, media analysts could have taken this opportunity to engage with the terminology, which underline the historical foundations of the Kashmir dispute as a movement for self-determination led by its people, and grasp the historic and legal contours of Kashmir as a dispute under the mandate of UN resolutions.
Kashmiris have been fighting for independence from the moment of British India’s Partition. The enduring presence of the UN mandate has critically informed Kashmiri political subjectivity, their tehreek and its goals. It has also challenged the Indian government’s attempts to fold a longstanding political movement of the Kashmiri people into the categories of terrorism or ‘proxy war’ by Pakistan. The report is an important reminder for Indian analysts to understand Kashmir, not through the lens of the present, but in the context of historic realities shaped by its people’s longstanding expectations.
(Ather Zia is assistant professor of anthropology and gender studies at Northern Colorado University, and Haley Duschinski is associate professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Law, Justice & Culture at Ohio University)