Asia Society On Kashmir: Now Serving Foreign Policy Junk

America is addicted to junk food and we're getting fat. Still, we just can't resist sweet, fatty, pretty-packaged edibles that are not only tasty, but convenient too. Unfortunately, this love affair with "quick and easy" isn't just infecting our food choices. Take for example the latest serving of foreign policy-lite by the Asia Society. On Nov. 11, the New York based educational institution hosted a panel entitled Kashmir: The Case for Freedom. Purportedly aimed at shedding light on the long and complicated history of the region, the program with novelists Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra, and a Kashmiri graduate student Mohamad Junaid is emblematic of the manner in which many of America's intellectual elite institutions, including the Asia Society and the New York Times, prefer pretty prose over substance and ideology over actuality when exploring the complexities that rile Southeast Asia.

For those not well versed in the political spectrum of India, for comparison, having Arundhati Roy and Pankaj Mishra speak on Kashmir is akin to having a panel on church reform that includes Christopher Hitchens and no clergy; or a panel on American imperialism where Noam Chomsky is the featured speaker. Not only would such programs provide little in the way of a diversity of views or robust conversation on very complex topics, but they would likely draw only the choir to whom the panelist wanted to preach.

Renowned economist Jagdish Bhagwati from Columbia University said it best last summer in a critique of the New York Times and its op-eds on the Indian economy: "Perhaps the most articulate critics are the 'progressive' novelists of India, chief among them Pankaj Mishra whom the op-ed page editors of the New York Times regularly and almost exclusively invite to write about the Indian economy, a privilege they do not seem to extend symmetrically to American novelists to give us their profound thoughts on the US economy! While economic analysis can often produce a yawning indifference, and Mishra's narrative is by contrast eloquent and captivating, the latter is really fiction masquerading as non-fiction. Whether its exploring the economy or foreign policy, one thing is clear. Asia Society chose this same intellectual diet of platitudes -- one in which the perspective of a Kashmiri Pandit (Hindu) didn't fit its flavor du jour.

Between 1989 and 1991, nearly 99 percent of the Kashmir Valley's Hindus (400,000 Kashmiri Pandits) were systematically and brutally driven from their homes through an orchestrated campaign of massacres, intimidation, pillage, rape and murder. Countless eyewitness accounts recall the sheer terror and loss experienced when they came face to face with de facto eviction notices slapped on their homes, businesses, and temples, and firing guns accompanied by loudspeakers and the slogan, "Raliv, galiv ya chaliv!" (Convert, die, or escape), echoing through the once peaceful Valley.

But it wasn't until 54 minutes into the 75 minute panel that even a mention of Kashmiri Hindus was made. The Government of India, the CIA, members of the U.S. Congress (see H.Res. 387), USCIRF, and nearly every reputable human rights organization have volumes documenting the Pakistani ISI backed insurgency and atrocities committed during the 1990 religio-ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindus. But according to Roy, "... perhaps the most contentious issue of the Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir... there was an exodus from the Valley in 1989, at the time of the uprising, and the reasons for that exodus are seriously contentious."

Adding insult to injury, she also suggested that the 70,000 to 80,000 Pandits who are stuck in squalid refugee camps, somehow remain there by choice. After two decades, these poverty-stricken refugee camps remain overcrowded and lack basic necessities such as drinking water and medicine, education and employment. They do not have adequate facilities for sanitation, and thus have a high incidence of disease, high death rates and low birth rates. There are widespread depression and stress-related problems. Does it seem likely that anyone would really "choose" to stay? Bare mention was made of the 1,300 or so Hindu families remaining in the Valley, who live with some of the same socio-economic pressures as those in the camps, but also in constant fear of terror and violence.

While Pankaj Mishra doubled as a bench warmer, the most questionable claims came from graduate student, Mohamad Junaid (whom the Asia Society has marketed as an anthropologist). According to Junaid, Kashmiris (presumably Kashmiri Muslims) had faced 400 years of foreign, ie. Indian, rule and 1990 was thus "a year of idealism, of resolve, that we will finally throw India out." He held that Kashmir was not a part of South Asia, but more a part of Central Asia through "cultural influences." Indeed Central Asians, namely the Turks, did invade Kashmir, and violently at that, but not until the 1300s. Prior to that, Kashmir was very much an integral part of 3rd century CE Mauryan Empire, which ushered in a politically united continent which looks an awful lot like modern India (and Pakistan). But according to Junaid, "... the borders of India, as a nation-state were first marked out by the British and Kashmir was never a part of India."

As for cultural influences, none of the panelists mentioned that Kashmiri Hindus can trace back their history nearly five millenia. None of them brought up the fact that despite its geographic isolation from the rest of the then Hindu continent, Kashmir "proved outstandingly creative in the domain of religion during most of the centuries in which the dominant faiths of the inhabitants were Buddhism and Hinduism [early centuries of the Common Era through the 14th century]."* There was no discussion of scriptural commentaries, such as the 13th century CE Sarvadarshanasamgraha by Madhavacharya Vidyaranya (as refererenced to me by lay historian Vishal Agarwal) in which the influential saint hailing from what we know now as the southern state of Karnataka included Kashmiri Saivism amongst the 15 significant Hindu schools of thought.

Indeed there are many opinions on an issue as complex as Kashmir, and the Asia Society, as an institution seeking "to increase knowledge and enhance dialogue, encourage creative expression, and generate new ideas across the fields of arts and culture, policy and business, and education," really shouldn't have picked sides. But it did.** It chose to promote a jaundiced, anti-India, ultra-left wing view -- the same view, in fact, of recently convicted Pakistani spy agency lobbyist Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai. I hope the next time the Asia Society decides to serve up Kashmir, that it comes with some sides called balance, new ideas, and dialogue.

For a fact-check on many of the statements made on the Asia Society panel, see "Kashmir Fiction and the Facts."

* Jacobsen, Knut A., Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, and Vasudha Narayanan. Brill's Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 1. Boston: Brill Leiden, 2009. Print.

** In the description of the program itself, Asia Society demonstrates its lack of neutrality:
"The Indo-Pakistani conflict over the former princely states of Jammu and Kashmir has led to three wars and the loss of thousands of lives over almost 65 years. Since 1989 an armed insurgency in Indian-administered areas has contested Indian rule with some groups demanding independence and others union with Pakistan. Under Indian and Pakistani military rule, allegations of severe human rights abuses have been leveled against both sides. The 2008 bombings in Mumbai further postponed hopes of discussion toward resolving the conflict, with the possibility of an independent Kashmir hanging in the balance."