Sardar Masood Khan is the 14th President of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. A career diplomat, Masood Khan was Pakistan’s Permanent Representative in the United Nations missions in New York and Geneva. He was also Pakistan’s Chief Negotiator in the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) from 2009 to 2014. While being Pakistan’s Ambassador in China, Masood Khan played a monumental role in fostering Sino-Pak bilateral relations for which he was conferred the highest award by President Xi Jinping in 2015. Pakistan Politico discussed with President Masood Khan the shifting sands of the Kashmir conflict and Pakistan’s response towards it, the implications of COVID-19 on security and diplomacy, and a lot more. 

What are some of the most serious challenges Pakistan is facing right now?

The coronavirus is the most serious challenge for Pakistan and countries all over the world. The pandemic has grounded economic activity to a halt even of the most developed  nations. Pakistan’s economy had just started to turn a corner, while  its fragility still continued. According to the Asian Development Bank’s initial estimates, Pakistan could incur US $ 5 billion in the worst case scenario; but these losses could balloon depending on the full extent of the outbreak and its cumulative impact on the growth rate, livelihoods and the social sector. Pakistan should plan for higher losses of about 10 % of both its nominal and PPP GDP to get proportionate relief from the International Financial Institutions and to determine the size of its stimulus package. Pakistan would need all the  grit, skill and creativity to bring its economy back on track. Most importantly, measures should be taken to ensure that the most vulnerable and poor segments of society do not become restive and desperate. Along with the governments, the philanthropic communities need to step up to the plate. Aftershocks of the pandemic  will be as challenging to handle as the crisis itself.

What would the world look like after the pandemic?

Post-coronavirus, Pakistan should brace itself for a changed world. As the pandemic disrupts economies and erodes confidence in governments, it would also alter international political and economic configurations an alliances,  temporarily or permanently. For many countries, the pandemic could become a quicksand. One could expect a rise in religious and ethic nationalisms, autocracy and isolationism. In the rush for economic survival, existing conflicts could be reassessed and relegated; and thus  suffer from more inattention. There would also be questions raised if the post-World War II order symbolised by the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions is adequate to deal with the emerging challenges. Ideological, trade and technological wars would intensify adversely affecting globalisation as well as the drive for the protection of environment. In the long run, this wear and tear could lead to a more prosperous and cooperative world order; but it will take a heavy toll first.

What is the best strategy for Pakistan to come out of the present pandemic crisis and to revive its economy?

Measures have already been taken. First, continue to follow the guidelines of the World Health Organization – “test, test and test” combined with  “contact tracing”;  and learn from the good practices of countries like China and South Korea which have successfully contained the spread of the toxic pathogen. Second, involve the entire population without triggering panic. This would stem escalation. In addition, more efficient use of smart technology should be made through corona-specific Apps. Finally, the availability of the testing kits, basic  equipment and medicines should be assured. For that we would need to ramp up our current effort.

How has Azad Kashmir dealt with the CoronaVirus? 

The AJK Government swiftly responded to the pandemic and took measures to establish quarantine centres and checking points at the entry-exit points, as well as identified medical centres and hospitals for treatment of suspected patients. District Health Response Teams in all ten districts, called Rapid Response Team (RRTs), headed by District Health Officers, were set up which also comprised representatives of the Revenue Department, Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) and NGOs. After the lockdown, the armed forces and law enforcement agencies have taken measures to save people from infections especially through transmission, while ensuring that they do not suffer from shortage of food or medicines. The Ulema have played their part to create awareness about the size of minimal congregations in the mosques and the protocols for funerals and handling dead bodies. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) too has given immense help. The functions of the RRTs include suspected patient tracking/quarantine, especially of persons who have returned from abroad or have a history of respiratory tract infection. These teams also perform the duties of coordination, prevention and monitoring.  In addition, isolation wards were established in all hospitals. Sampling of suspected patients is being  referred to  the National Institute of Health (NIH), Islamabad, while, in Muzaffarabad, the Virology Department of the Abbas Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) has been  strengthened for testing. A new “Isolation Hospital for COVID-19”, with a capacity of 50 beds, has been established with tremendous speed, which is being co-managed by AIMS and CMH Muzaffarabad. Now testing facilities are available in the three divisions – Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and Poonch. Media campaigns are being run for awareness raising, social distancing and training of the staff of the quarantine centres, including by the armed forces. Special attention is being given to ensure supply of essential foodstuffs and preparation of a special package for the poor sections of society. In this regard, I pay tribute to the philanthropic organizations who are doing a tremendous job in providing relief to the indigent. An assessment has been commissioned for evaluation of financial and economic losses. People are by and large conscious of the grave risks posed by the toxic virus and are following instructions regarding cleanliness, social distancing and self-isolation. AJK has the lowest number of confirmed cases and there have been no fatalities so far, but the crisis is still unfolding. There is no room for complacency; that is why we are not taking any chances and are exercising the highest level vigilance for preparedness and response. All measures and procedures are being constantly upgraded.

In these trying circumstances what should be Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities?

While nations of the world are scrambling for their economic survival and financial vitality, Pakistan too would need to  put its economy’s upturn highest on its strategic desideratum. It already has that centrality, but our Foreign Office, supported by economic ministries and the private sector, will have to make special efforts to avert a meltdown. Pakistan is not immune today as it was during the 2008 financial crisis. This time, its markets, banks, stocks and bonds are all shaken. They all would need stimuli and bailouts. Foreign partners would also be hard pressed and therefore would be able to give only scanty handouts. So a combined strategy of internal stimuli and foreign funding should be devised to salvage the economy.

Has the focus shifted from Kashmir because of other international developments  and the coronavirus?

Yes, definitely, it has, even as the suffering of the Kashmiris has increased. The Kashmiris IOJK are under a double lockdown – a seven-month long siege imposed after the occupation of the territory and new quarantines because of the coronavirus.  Before the outbreak of the virus, world parliaments, including the European Parliament, the UK Parliament and the U.S. Congress had made plans to renew focus on IOJK; and the international media was regularly reporting on the plight of the Kashmiris, made all the more poignant by the BJP-RSS violent extremists’ killings in Delhi and the United Province (UP). The British Parliament planned a debate in the House of Commons on Kashmir following the visit of Debbie Abrahams, MP, and Chairperson of the All-Party Parliamentary  Group for Kashmir in late March. After the full onslaught of the virus, however, the Kashmir story seems to have faded out. One odd story still appears from time to time in the mainstream media, but the vacuum is being used by the embedded Indian-origin  journalists who are re-profiling the Kashmir story as one about terrorism, by raking up old incidents and characters, and not about the right to self-determination.

What is happening in the Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir right now?

This last fall, IOJK’s economy was ruined. Kashmiris declined to sell their produce of apples, apricot and saffron worth billions of dollars. The Indian Parliament announced  package of Rs. 80,000 crores in January 2020, but history has shown that Kashmiris could never be bought out by “pork barrel” politics. Like the rest of the world, the IOJK is also consumed by the fear of the coronavirus but Kashmiris under lockdown are facing a double whammy. The Indian authorities are not testing proactively in the region but just preparing for an emergency. Aljazeera reported that Kashmiris fear that they would “die like cattle”. The bigger worry is that nobody knows about the fate of the 13,000 boys who were abducted by the occupation forces and then put in the so-called “de-radicalisation” camps where they are being tortured. These are in fact Nazi-like concentration camps designed to brainwash Kashmiri youth demanding freedom, break their will and prepare the ground for transfer or extermination of the part of the Muslim population. Thousands of political leaders and activists are under detention who are being subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment. Restrictions on the internet and curbs on freedom of expression are themselves asphyxiating. The overall picture is bleak and irredeemable for the time being. This dire situation ought to be changed by outside intervention as no internal dynamic is mounting any critical opposition to the Indian atrocities.

How do you evaluate Pakistan and Azad Kashmir’s diplomatic outreach on Kashmir?

The diplomatic outreach has been aggressive, extensive and comprehensive. The Kashmir issue has been raised in all relevant multilateral forums and bilateral meetings. Parliaments, the media, think tanks and civil society have all  been engaged. Internal public opinion has been mobilised and consolidated. All this activity has had an impact, notwithstanding a vigorous and offensive campaign launched by the Indian politicians and diplomatic corps. No doubt, Pakistan’s diplomatic and political campaigns and, more importantly, the world’s own reactions have stayed the hand of the occupation forces who, according to a former Governor of the occupied territory, had planned to kill thousands of people after the crackdown on August 5 last year. The international spotlight on Kashmir worked as a deterrent. But there would be an urgent need to reset our strategy to energize and recapture the momentum.

How are the Indian citizenship act and other discriminatory laws against Muslims affecting India and the situation in IOJK?

It helped and it hurt. After the biased decision on the Babri mosque, isolation of 1.9 million Assamese in concentration camps, the passage of the discriminatory citizenship act, and the ensuing BJP-RSS sponsored violence, the world saw the true face of Hindutva. To some extent, the world saw the horrors in mainland India to which the Kashmiris have been subjected for the past 72 years and especially after August 5, 2019. These included lockdowns, brutal killings, lynchings, cordon and search operations, police brutalities, and denial of fundamental freedoms. But these events in India also pushed Kashmir to the margins. India’s fascism, its slowing economy, and its viability as a federal, pluralist state  became the main topics. For the first time, however, the enlightened citizens of India became aware of the subjugation and suffering of the Kashmiris.

Is India getting away with its illegal steps taken on August 5 last year?

In a way, yes, but only for the time being. India’s former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju had rightly pointed out that Kashmir would become India’s Vietnam. Other prominent BJP and Congress leaders have warned the BJP that its “muscular” policy will not succeed. You can’t walk into a  vast centuries-old homeland   of 14 million people, occupy it  and trample all their rights. Kashmiris are no less brave and resilient than the Viet Kong; nor any less intelligent. Time is on their side. But the UN Security Council, its permanent members, and other powerful nations are not playing their part in protecting the Kashmiris from the Indian carnage or saving the region from a possible lethal war. They give three reasons for their inaction: their intervention or “partisan” statements may trigger a nuclear war; their economic interests tied with India; and India’s role as a strategic counterpoise against China. But this inaction, whatever its rationale, emboldens India and enables it to complete its occupational activities in IOJK. Keep the political and diplomatic pot on Kashmir struggle boiling; otherwise the culture of impunity in IOJK  and international  acquiescence, deliberate or not, will help the BJP swallow Kashmir and parade it as a  trophy to its political opponents.

 What should be our response strategy?

This will depend on how soon we come out of the coronavirus crisis. While the Kashmiris continue to suffer, the rest of the world is in the grip of this chilling, murderous pandemic. At this moment, the disease is spreading and populations around the globe are scared and feel helpless. Once the depredations of the disease are controlled, we will need to go back to the international community, without loss of time. The crimes against humanity in IOJK cannot be plastered over or consigned to the pages of history. The ground gained in the aftermath of August 5 should be recaptured and the momentum restored. At the same time, Pakistan should be fully prepared, both at the level of the armed forces and the people,  for a possible military attack by the BJP-RSS regime against Azad Kashmir and Pakistan.

What does Farooq Abdullah’s release from detention signify?

The real motives of both the BJP and Farooq Abdullah are murky. One thing is clear: the BJP-RSS regime needs loyal figures who would indemnify their unlawful steps. There is no doubt about Farooq Abdullah’s loyalty to India, but he does not fit the bill when it comes to his credibility with the Kashmiris.

Is Delhi rethinking its strategy in IOJK?

No, the BJP will stay the course. It is, however, trying to create a new political class in Kashmir that would do its bidding, tyrannize people and pressure the population to go along with the Indian decisions. This class is likely to be venal, mendacious and ruthless.

Is India preparing for the execution of some Kashmiri leaders in Tihar jail?

Yes, there is a strong probability. A bevy of fake cases involving murder, terrorist funding and ‘separatism”  has been slapped against Yasin Malik who has been kept in the Tihar jail. Other prominent prisoners of conscience at risk are Asiya Andrabi and Shabir Shah. What is more, a malicious media campaign has been unleashed by Hindu zealots  for the execution of Yasin Malik. The OIC and other international forums should intervene before it is too late.

Have Kashmiris hunkered down for the time being?

Yes, to some extent. But they are in a civil disobedience mode. They knew that the Indian soldiers had come with the evil intent of massacring thousands. Despite that the Kashmiris have resisted, and thousands of protests and demonstration, of various scale and intensity, have gone unreported because of the communication blackout. Thousands of children and teenagers have been picked up to stop spontaneous uprisings. Kashmir is seething with anger. The repression has not worked, once again.

How aggressively is India moving on with its land grab policy in IOJK?

Very aggressively. Many methods are being used to expropriate and confiscate Kashmiri land. Some 6,000 acres of land have been grabbed for a so-called businesses summit/complex and BPJ-RSS backed entrepreneurs. According to some media reports, another 6,000 kanals of land have been commandeered for allotment to RSS operatives who have arrived in hordes to act as a paramilitary arm of the  occupation forces. Some 100,000 temples would be built in the Valley of Kashmir. In addition, Pandit and Sainak (ex army personnel) colonies are being constructed that replicate the Israeli model in the Palestinian West Bank. The purpose of all of this? Choreograph organised inflows of Hindus from India to change the demography of the state in order to reduce Muslims to a minority.

Do you think the world will be able to refocus its attention on Kashmir especially  in the international media and multilateral forums?

We would need to make a Herculean effort to make that happen. Post-Covid 19, the world economy may plunge into a recession, plagued by a sharp downturn in economic activity and job losses. In that kind of atmosphere, while Pakistan itself will be preoccupied with economic resuscitation and rejuvenation, we will require tremendous political will and a resolute agenda to re-engage the world on Kashmir. It would be imperative to do so, because India would be constantly taking steps to consolidate  its annexation of the territory and brutalisation of its people. India’s posture would not be static; ours cannot be either.

In the past, you have served as the President of the Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. Do you think the coronavirus is a bioweapon? Do you think that the virus was deliberately released to slow down the economy of one country or the other?

At the moment, what is established is that it is a virus that has caused a pandemic. Allegations have been made back and forth that it could be or could not be a biological weapon. A bioweapon is not like a nuclear weapon whose sole purpose is mass destruction. From any laboratory working on life sciences, if a pathogen, not essentially designed as a weapon, is released accidentally or for malign purposes, it can wreak havoc. The  impact in both cases could be catastrophic: a pandemic, national and global heath crises, and cutting the ground beneath the feet of the economies and governance structures. We do not know exactly how Covid-19 was formed or released. There is a lot of speculation about the origin of its strains or whether it can mutate. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has tried to debunk “conspiracy theories”, while admitting such theories are getting a second wind despite denials. The whole phenomenon that has shook the entire world, however, underlines the overarching importance of bio-lab safety, biosecurity, biodefense, and preparedness of our health systems for pandemics, as a whole.

What are the implications of the new domicile rules of IOJK announced by India?

Plainly speaking, it is a nefarious and vicious BJP-RSS agenda to alter demographic composition of the occupied territory and turn its Muslim majority into a minority. The intent is to colonize IOJK and to perpetuate Indian occupation. These rules, unlawful as they are, have been promulgated without the consent of the people of IOJK; it is an edict from Delhi. These domicile laws are lawless because they violate the Fourth Convention and other international laws that clearly ban implantation or transfer of population in disputed territory. You would recall that, on August 5, 2019, India had rescinded Article 35-A along with Article 370 of its Constitution. The latter only gave cosmetic autonomy to the occupied state but by repealing 35-A India took away the recognised rights of Kashmiris’ to permanent residence, acquisition of property, education and employment. Now these domicile rules open doors to Hindus from India to grab top jobs, land and seats in educational Institutions. The rules say that anyone who has lived in IOJK for 15 years, studied for 7 years there or has appeared in the 10th and 12th class examinations will qualify for domicile. This is an outrage because it would open floodgates of settlers comprising former military officials, civil servants and their families; as well as migrant workers and the so-called West Pakistan refugees. Nothing, including forests, agricultural land and Kashmiri properties, would be safe from forcible requisition and expropriation as the occupiers who would dole them out as spoils of war to the Hindu settlers. These rules are reminiscent of the laws that were enforced by the Nazi Party in the 1930s to disenfranchise, segregate and exterminate German Jews. Driven by the Hindutva agenda, these new rules are the beginning of the systematic ethnic cleansing of Kashmiris. India committed this crime against humanity stealthily in the dead of the night while the world was focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Except for the OIC, no other world forum has denounced Indian action. India is getting away with murder and the silence of the international community is a serious dereliction of responsibility.