Prime Minister Imran Khan finds himself in a situation which must have been one of his worst nightmares when he envisaged graduating to this post. The state of India has now committed the most drastic non-military act it could possibly commit with regards to Kashmir since the time of Partition and the creation of what is known today as ‘the Kashmir issue’. It is an interesting irony of fate that at this very moment, the state of Pakistan should be helmed by a profound pacifist. Perhaps one of the most profound and committed pacifists that number among today’s world leaders.
Having risen to this position through an atypical political journey, Mr Khan occupies the rare position of a celebrity world leader, with his formative professional years having been spent in an atmosphere of showbiz, sports, literati and elite philanthropic patronage of social causes relating to apartheid, refugees, landmines, health, education, etc. Though not an obvious representative of the ‘flower child’ era, he is most certainly the product of a milieu influenced by the discourse and culture of the student peace movements in the West in the 1960s and 70s.
Though bitterly vocal in his denunciation of the bias displayed by many Western countries and societies’ attitudes and policies towards Muslims (particularly since the onset of the ‘War on Terror’), and despite his fervent calls for empathy and understanding of the root causes of Muslim militancy in various parts of the world, he has continued to display an almost touching degree of belief and enthusiasm for fostering a dialogue between Muslims and the West instead of opting for the kind of pessimistic indignation that has understandably come to mark the public discourse of a wide section of the global Muslim intelligentsia today. Nothing in his politics so far suggests that his taste for athletic or political competition translates into a testosterone-driven desire to compete with any group or country in the military stakes.
But politics is a strange animal. There is no telling what sort of statement any kind of politician can be enticed into making when war and aggression come knocking at the door and there is a significant temptation to take up a rabble-rousing, populist stance, even if only verbally. Hence, at the historic occasion of his speech in reaction to the Modi government’s dangerous action in Kashmir, Prime Minister Khan’s words were tensely awaited. He did not react like the average world leader. He did not disappoint.
Despite domestic political pressure, he did not allow himself to be betrayed into making a hurried statement. His speech, when it came, was restrained and responsible. Moreover, it was realistic.
We have cause to be glad that Prime Minister Khan did not resort to empty, incendiary statements and supposedly clever and witty rhetorical flourishes. He steered away from false bravado. He chose neither to go the road of the stale old fuddy-duddy politician, nor that of the young whippersnapper. This task was left to the Opposition Leader Shehbaz Sharif who waxed lyrical about the tattered hems [aanchals] of the Kashmiri women’s veils and Pakistani men’s aversion to feminine items of adornment [ham ne chooriaan naheen pahni hooeen]. Any remaining lack was taken care of by Bilawal Zardari’s avowal of the intention of these same men (presumably) to fight for 10,000 years and to make sure that drops of Pakistani blood kept close company with drops of Kashmiri sweat.
We have cause to be grateful that Prime Minister Khan did not breathe fire and brimstone and hide behind plaintive clichés. The reason is that this is not about one man’s ego or a nation’s ego. It’s about the fate of millions of innocent people. Restraint must be admired. The Pakistani state has tried war many times. Our options now are limited. We are aware that the exercise of all our energy and brain power is likely to result with only limited impact in a world which chooses to turn the other way. However, Pakistan must still persist, with all its imagination and energies, hoping and striving for a breakthrough.
The real source of hope in this situation, though, are the resources that Kashmiri civil society and politicians can themselves muster in this age of social media, or those that broader Indian civil society can muster (given that they are themselves in a state of siege) to combat this move by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government which is a brazen moral legal infringement even by the Indian constitution’s own standard. And these hopes are unlikely to be answered anytime soon, either. What the Pakistani state can logically do is try to highlight and bolster Kashmiri efforts at all the relevant forums. This would be more constructive than making brave speeches from inside our own borders and pandering to the militaristic delusions of a section of our citizenry.
It is important to note that Prime Minister Khan, in his speech, steered clear of the trap of religious prejudice that too many of our seasoned politicians have fallen into in the past. He spoke about the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and the BJP government. He spoke about the ideology of Hindu supremacism. He did not make derogatory remarks about Hindus and Indians in general, as traditional Pakistani politicians have been wont to do at times of tension. He avoided fanning chauvinistic prejudice and religious hatred. We are grateful for that. It is important for us in Pakistan to keep on distinguishing between the Indian people and the Modi government in our official and national discourse. It is important for us for the sake of our own nation and for the sake of regional peace to remain persistent in this even when a distressingly large number of nationalist and liberal forces in India seem to be displaying a level of acceptance, indifference, or active support for the BJP government’s illegal action in Kashmir.
There is another unusual and noteworthy political aspect to Prime Minister Khan’s speech. As Pakistanis, we are indebted to him for not telling us that something of ours has been snatched away from us. For not reiterating for the umpteenth time, without any real proof, that the Kashmiris belong to us or that, given the choice, they would want to belong to us. It is enough that the Kashmiris have a long-standing moral claim on our support in their quest for self-determination.
The argument that Kashmiris are one with us in creed and soul, and that’s why they must be with us holds little water. All along Pakistan’s western borders lie communities and countries that have much in common in creed and culture with Pakistan’s citizens. Borders our born. History moves on. People learn to live with borders dividing ethnic and religious brethren from each other. Our support to the cause of Kashmiri self-determination should not be conditional to the expectation that Kashmir must ultimately come to us. Prime Minister Khan’s speech at the parliamentary joint session (and his remarks during his US tour) indicate a recognition of this. It indicates a willingness to look for flexible solutions. And this is what makes it a sound and carefully considered speech, rather than an insincere and opportunistic attempt to raise further his domestic political profile. The latter would have been in poor taste, considering the very real sufferings and uncertain situation of the Kashmiri people at this time.
The prime minister’s speech has been criticised for not presenting sufficient options before us, and thus being ‘powerless’ and ‘helpless’. Would it have been preferred if he had insulted both us and the Kashmiri people by resorting to flashy words and empty showmanship? To outline options [launching a first strike against India] that would clearly suit neither our conscience nor our common sense? That would have been immoral and contemptible, indeed. This is a long struggle, not a short skirmish, and the only thing we can do at present is to try to lobby international forums more effectively than we have been able to do in the past.
The prime minister’s speech also proved useful in clarifying to us the moral bases of the arguments that will underlie and guide the government’s representations of the Kashmiri people’s plight before the international community. Contrary to what the Opposition snidely indicated in their response in parliament, it was no vague and meandering history lesson that the prime minister was engaged in giving to the people through his speech. He was laying out the structure of the narrative that the Foreign Office will now follow in highlighting the current crisis in Kashmir.
The prime minister took the line that the BJP’s violation of the rights of the Kashmiri people was based on an ideology of racial supremacism that lies at the core of the wave of Hindu nationalism that currently engulfs India and threatens that country’s institutions as well as the stability of the region. He compared and equated its dangers to other examples of dangerous racist regimes that the modern world has learned to fear through experience, prime amongst which is Adolf Hitler’s expansionist Nazi Germany. He explained his reluctance to go to war, but his readiness to do so if driven to it. Above all, he stressed his preference to focus on developmental goals, which is the driving factor behind his pacifism and desire to seek peace with all of Pakistan’s neighbours. He also stressed how his government’s policy of pacifism is linked with the inspirations and aspirations of Muslim spiritual life.
These are not random points, but ones which are interconnected to form a cogent narrative. It is clear that these points were carefully thought through, probably even discussed with official policy advisors. Yet it would be rash of us to dismiss them as conveniently useful historical references marshalled by government officials for this present political cause. This is because, if we look closely, these arguments bear the discernible personal stamp of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s long-standing political views and preoccupations.
As far back as 1983, in the autobiography that he wrote as a 30-year-old international cricketer, he had stressed his political views on racism and war:
“I will remain serious-minded on important issues like South Africa… I had no qualms about declining to play cricket in a country where a man is considered inferior because of the colour of his skin. That will always remain my viewpoint on South Africa. On politics, I’m very interested yet remain fairly neutral. I do feel very strongly about underdeveloped countries like India and Pakistan spending a great part of their budgets on defence, when the need to organise their home economies is much more pressing. I am also very concerned that the countries of the Third World are getting poorer with no immediate sign of help. Issues like South Africa and defence budgets are in the long run far more important than the press cuttings about a man lucky enough to be captain of Pakistan at cricket.” (Imran: The Autobiography of Imran Khan, 1983)
The views presented by the prime minister on Aug 6, 2019, in his historic speech on the Kashmir crisis represent his personal political ideology as it has evolved over decades of activism and political struggle. The provocation from the Modi government has been intense. It is clear that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s personal preference would always be to avoid war and warlike words, even in the face of the most intense domestic political pressure. However, as his speech in parliament makes clear, there are situations where war becomes unavoidable, even inevitable. It goes without saying that his personal preferences would not always dictate the agenda at hand.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has already been placed in an invidious position by these latest events in Kashmir. Depending on how the situation develops, he may find himself obliged to take warlike positions that he had absolutely no desire to do. That he absolutely did not aspire for when aspiring for this office. We, as Pakistanis, should be glad that he does not show more eagerness for war while he may still avoid it. Not very many politicians would resist the desire to score personal political points.
As Pakistan finds itself standing on the edge of nuclear war yet again, it is led by a leader who has earned a reputation for humanitarian work. For devoting himself to the cause of saving human life. For privileging peace and dialogue over violence and military action. Prime Minister Imran Khan is clearly not a narrow nationalist. No loss of life, even if it were Indian, is likely to bring him a modicum of satisfaction. Let’s hope that he isn’t called on to make some hard choices in this regard.
Zahra Sabri is a doctoral student in Indo-Muslim History and Literatures at McGill University, Canada. She has taught History and Urdu literature at the Aga Khan University and the University of Karachi’s Pakistan Study Centre.