On 28th September, a day after, PM Imran Khan’s speech at UNGA, I was at a dinner in Islamabad’s posh F-6/3 sector. The host was a corporate leader, and most guests were CEOs and CFOs of major companies or heads of private business entities. The subject inevitably was PM Khan’s speech of 27th, and the mood was depressing.
“Does he want a war with India or what? He has tried doing nuclear blackmail and the west will react. Are we going to sacrifice Pakistan for Kashmir? Modi has settled Kashmir for all of us, why don’t we realize, and so on. It sounded like the “End of the world”. There was one lone voice of a top hotelier who reminded other participants that Khan may have been speaking to several audiences at the same time – including the followers of Maulana Fazal ur Rehman, who was then threatening a million march on Islamabad and who keeps on repeating “Namoos-e-Risalat” in his medley of words.
Years in the media have trained me to understand that opinions vary across different segments of society depending upon social strata, income bracket, nature of work, access to information, world view, and so on. And top corporate executives, especially in Pakistan, may have never reflected the national sentiment.
The mood in my television program and countless others across 32 news channels on 27th September, immediately after the speech was altogether different. A potpourri combination of diplomats, journalists, and politicians was unanimous in thinking that Khan’s speech was excellent – and was exactly what was needed at this point. Most in the workplace around me felt the same.
I made several phone calls to TV executives, columnists, lawyers, normal businessmen, and retired pensioners and being a journalist, I did not stop there; I asked everyone on the street, and that included beggars I paid, shopkeepers I bought from, customers who were purchasing wares, men who were with me in bank teller’s queue and so on – and there was a universal excitement around Khan’s UNGA speech.
Imran Khan conducted 27 or 28 interactions that consisted of one on one meetings, institutional talks, press conferences, and so on. This was a sharp contrast to previous lackluster visits by Pakistani leaders over the past ten years.
Unfortunately, such was the exaggerated interest in Imran Khan’s UNGA speech that somehow the dynamics of his whole trip were overshadowed by it. Many opposition leaders and political commentators asked on TV channels, “so what came out of this speech?” with such vehemence that it suggested as if the speech itself marked Fukuyama’s end of history; as if it would have settled things forever.
These sentiments would make one believe that the UNGA speech was a do or die debating competition – a kind of scene from Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games – after which the Security Council would have declared war against one or the other side. Khan’s personal statements, “I will keep Kashmir’s case in front of the world,” helped create a hype around a speech that in the ordinary course of events should have been of 20 or 25 minutes.
In reality, Khan’s 50 or so minutes long – and at times unwieldy – speech was directed towards several audiences. He may have been standing in the halls of the United Nations General Assembly, but his primary audience was watching on TV screens in Punjab, KP, Karachi, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit Baltistan.
He had to reassure the Kashmiris in Indian occupied state that Pakistan stands with them, he was sending a message to Muslims across the world, to the Arab street and their monarchs; he was informing the UN, global leadership and International media that there is grave danger in Kashmir, and he was talking to Narendra Modi to ward him off from any further adventurism in Kashmir.
But, as I said above, this fiery political speech overshadowed the real dynamics of PM Imran Khan’s feverish activity at the UN. In his five days in New York, Pakistan’s prime minister was busy every moment; he met US President Donald Trump, British PM Boris Johnson, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Malaysian PM Mahatir Mohammad, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern, Italian PM Guiseppe Conte, Norwegian PM Erna Solberg, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Founder of Microsoft Bill Gates, Kashmiri delegation with founder of Kashmir Study Group, Farooq Kathwari, influential senators like Lindsay Graham and host of investors.
Imran Khan spoke at the Council of Foreign Relations, at Asia Society, met with the New York Times Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal Editorial Board, held a joint press conferences with Erdogan and Mahatir, announced the idea of an English TV channel to be jointly launched by Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia and was part of deliberations of Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Altogether, in his five days in New York, Imran Khan conducted 27 or 28 interactions that consisted of one on one meetings, institutional talks, press conferences, and so on.
This was a sharp contrast to previous lackluster visits by Pakistani leaders over the past ten years. Zardari and Nawaz, in their trips to New York, were often seen taking a select group of accompanying Pakistani journalists in small hotel rooms filled with their own ministers, advisers, and embassy officials.
In 2016, Nawaz Sharif barely had 4 or 5 meetings and mostly stayed in his hotel room. So what has Khan achieved? PPP and PML-N, two political parties that can be credited for creating the most dysfunctional era in Pakistan’s foreign policy (2008-2018) with direct implications for the country’s position on Kashmir, argue that India’s million-strong army is still in Kashmir.
One can only be amused by this abject hypocrisy. Reality is more close to what a European diplomat commented off the record, “Imran Khan made the best use of the United Nations given the limitations involved.”
Another added that Khan has, for the first time, after many years given a voice to Pakistan on the International arena, has reached out to International media, academia, and human rights organizations, has put India’s powerful establishment on defensive and has rattled Modi.
No doubt, India controls ground reality in the occupied Jammu and Kashmir, where it has placed the world’s largest possible concentration of troops upon a civilian population, that has ever been witnessed in mankind’s history. With reinforcements of regular troops and paramilitaries, almost a million-plus trained, armed soldiers, create the highest ever ratio of combatants assembled to control an unarmed civilian population that at best numbers around 8 million including children, women, aged, infirm, sick and dying.
There is incontrovertible evidence flowing out from diplomatic circles that Modi is stressed because of Khan’s unremitting rhetoric directed towards him.
If one remembers the thousands of mass graves, that started to come to light after the 2005 earthquake, and that too in only three districts of the valley (Kupwara, Baramulla, and Bandipora) dug up till 2012, it had thrown up more than 3,000 bodies, then one can estimate the empire of fear Modi has imposed upon Kashmir.
Human Right workers till 2012, working through two more districts, Rajouri and Poonch, mapped another 3,844 unmarked single and mass graves, taking the total number to more than 6,000. There were still another 16 districts to be surveyed – leaving human right workers to wonder how many violent deaths and surreptitious burials have been concealed across Kashmir – and then nothing more was heard.
Indian governments have enjoyed the international clout to suppress and distort information at all levels. Could another government lock up 8 million people in this day and age? What will be the reaction of the international community if 6000 mass graves are discovered in only three districts of Balochistan or FATA?
Under the circumstances, Modi’s physical hold on Kashmir is apparently un-shakeable; Kashmiris are suppressed and terrified, global leadership cares little for Muslim suffering, and Modi, for the time being, is secure in his actions. Yet, there is incontrovertible evidence flowing out from diplomatic circles that Modi is stressed because of Khan’s unremitting rhetoric directed towards him.
The world had mostly forgotten about Modi’s past; the impressive title of the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy is powerful enough, seductive enough, to let you forget that the man who occupies this office has an unusually dark past.
Over the past few years, at least since 2014, few had remembered that Modi is the same man who was instrumental during Sangh Parivar‘s marches (1989-91) to demolish Babri Mosque – a grotesque event that led to the death of thousands of Indians in riots, mostly from the subjugated Muslim minority. And that he was seriously accused of orchestrating or letting the massacres of Muslims in Gujarat (for letting the Muslims know their place) when more than 2000 died in pogroms.
And that he was a life long member of RSS, the organization that assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. To Modi’s great misfortune, Imran Khan has started to remind the world about Modi’s past. Along with Modi, this stresses the Indian establishment that has worked assiduously to create a brand around Modi, but now Modi is fast becoming a liability for the Indian brand managers.
For Imran Khan facing a seriously troubled economy, divided political house, weak national institutions Kashmir is a challenge he did not need. But given that Modi’s irresponsible actions – rooted not in pragmatism but his ideological commitments to a Hindutva political base – have thrust this upon him, he has accepted this as a long haul struggle.
His goal is to deny Modi the ease of turning Kashmir into ether “terrorism” or “India-Pakistan war.” Instead, Imran is focused on letting the world understand the fascist nature of the Hindutva regime in India.
Modi would have expected that given his hold on the ground and tacit support of many key international players, it would be over soon, and Pakistan, too, will accept the inevitable. He didn’t understand that Imran Khan sitting across the borders in a Pakistan – for which Indians only express contempt – may prove to be his political nemesis. The battle has just begun.