INDIA: Kashmir looks for local lessons in Scottish referendum

Thursday 18 September 2014

Date: 17 September 2014

Type: Commentary

Source: BBC News

Keywords: Kashmir separatism

Several thousand Kashmiris will be voting in a historic and much awaited referendum, this week.

That vote will determine whether a region with a distinct identity can successfully secede from a much larger nation.

Their ballots will be cast, however, in Glasgow - not in Srinagar or Jammu.

Of the 20,000 or more people of Pakistani origin living in Glasgow, many are from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In Kashmir, the first pledge that people there would determine their future by a plebiscite or referendum was made in 1947. At that time, the Scottish National Party (SNP) was in its infancy. It had no members of parliament and any talk of Scotland’s independence would have been regarded as fanciful.

Almost 70 years later, where are we now?

The pro-independence SNP is in power in Scotland’s devolved government and has achieved the landmark success of negotiating with the UK government this binding referendum. The opinion polls suggest the outcome is going to be close.

Remote chance

In Kashmir, however, while demands for a referendum persist, the chances of it happening are remote.

"The Kashmir referendum is probably the most important referendum that never happened," says prominent South Asia historian, Yasmin Khan.

The Scottish government, in its document setting out the case for independence from the UK, asserts that of new states which have become UN members since World War Two, 30 achieved independence after a referendum.

Many of these referendums have followed wars, or separatist insurgencies. In Scotland’s case, of course, there has been no resort to arms, no threat of force.

Much smaller states than Kashmir have become independent after a referendum - East Timor, for example. And there are other regions where a referendum has been talked about, and indeed endorsed by the UN, but not happened, such as Western Sahara.

So how did Kashmir come to be promised a vote on its future, and why didn’t it happen?

Kashmir’s modern history is both complex and deeply contested. But in a nutshell…

When the British governed India, the region of Jammu and Kashmir was ruled by its own maharajah. In 1947, when British India was divided into the independent states of India and Pakistan, Kashmir’s maharajah - a Hindu ruling a mainly Muslim population - ducked deciding which state to join, hoping he may be able to become independent.

An invasion by armed tribesmen from Pakistan forced the maharajah’s hand. He joined India, which sent troops to save his capital from ransack and managed to secure control over most, but not all, of the princely state. Indian troops have been there ever since.

Broken promises

When Lord Mountbatten, India’s first Governor-General, accepted Kashmir’s accession, he said it should eventually be "settled by a reference to the people". India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, also pledged a plebiscite or referendum for Kashmir under international auspices. This was later enshrined in UN Security Council resolutions.

The leading Kashmiri nationalist of that era, Sheikh Abdullah, initially supported Indian rule, and wasn’t keen on a referendum. Over time, he came to argue that there should be a vote… while Nehru became determined not to hold one, because it meant endangering India’s hold on the region.

Omar Abdullah, Sheikh Abdullah’s grandson, is currently the chief minister of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. He supports Indian rule and won an election to achieve office. India says that shows Kashmiris have endorsed being part of India at the ballot box.

But Kashmiri separatists don’t contest Indian elections and they argue voters choosing between a range of pro-India parties are not endorsing the principle of Indian rule.

If there was a referendum in Kashmir, what would the outcome be?

Nobody knows.###

See online : BBC News

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