As Imran Khan and Narendra Modi addressed the General Assembly on the same day, but didn’t talk to each other, the People’s Assembly, keeping with tradition, became the inclusive space for conversations on Kashmir and beyond
"It is the 21st century and they have no cell phones," says Jami, out of breath from shouting slogans and singing Kashmiri folk songs for the past hour. For her and her family, what happened on August 5 in Indian-occupied Kashmir was unimaginable. Jami had been visiting her family at the time in Srinagar. "You know how they did it. They made it seem like there was a security threat and so they were shutting down everything," she says. They eventually had to find out through the radio that Article 370 had been repealed.
She was eventually able to leave, she says, because she already had a plane ticket and lived close to the airport. "If you already have a ticket then you can go to the airport," she says.
This rally was the largest that had gathered here during this UNGA session. Made up of several activist groups, it came together on the day that both Imran Khan and Narendra Modi addressed the General Assembly. The crowd was large and difficult to manage for the New York Police Department officials as there was no way to enter the protest ground, and yet people kept pouring in. Area residents or those passing by to get to work muttered under their breath, annoyed by the presence of this seemingly unprecedented crowd on their street corner. The politics of South Asia seemed to be spilling into New York, a politics most of them are unaware of as they ask seemingly mundane questions about the protestors.
The crowd was a mix of Pakistani flags, Kashmiri flags, Khalistan Movement flags and red shirts with the words ‘Free Kashmir’ all over them. The rally had been organised to send a message to world leaders.
Throughout the disparate slogans though, an amalgamation of the different ideologies these movements come from, there was one common thread - the communication blockade in Kashmir is unjust and India must declare void the repeal of Article 370.
"This is the problem here, the process of the General Assembly is not inclusive. The heads of states talk amongst themselves, and there is no discussion with other stakeholders," says Zia ur Rehman. He points out that the leaders are insulated from the protestors outside, they are simply ignored.
These slogans, no matter how loud, were still far away from the General Assembly, where important meetings determining the fate of the world took place every day. The protestors kept meeting at Dag Hammarskjold, the designated spot for protestors during the high-level week.
The protest coincided almost perfectly with Narendra Modi’s speech; wherein there was no mention of Kashmir. Instead, he chose to speak about India’s achievements as a developing country saying: "All its achievements and outcomes are an inspirational message for the developing world."
It is as if the world outside did not exist in the hall, where the heads of states delivered their speeches to a nearly empty house. The theme of the Assembly this year was ‘Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty eradication, quality educations, climate action and inclusion’ and every leader addressed these issues. So, when Imran Khan took the podium, he started off by discussing climate change. In a speech that lasted close to 40 minutes, a good 20 minutes above the allotted time, Kashmir was mentioned last. It was the fourth and final point Khan made to an almost empty room. In the gallery, a large number of Pakistani supporters sat in one corner. They clapped and cheered when Khan asked the empty Assembly, "What is the world community going to do: support a market of 1.2 billion or stand up for justice or humanity?"
Outside of the audience back home and supporters sitting in the gallery to cheer on their own leaders it doesn’t seem like anyone has paid any attention to the General Debate itself. This is one of the main criticisms of the Assembly itself - that the people who need to speak to each other don’t really. For instance, Modi and Khan, both had their speeches on the same day, just two countries apart, but neither was present for the other’s speech. They walked in, entourage in tow, delivered their address and walked out of the Assembly.
As the heads of states move around the building, insulated from everything else by a cohort of security, ministers and their own delegation - the conversations become almost one-dimensional. And this is the purpose of the People’s Assembly, just a minutes’ walk away from the United Headquarters. Taking place in a modest building called the Church Center, the meeting is vastly different from the cordoned-off corridors of the United Nations, with security at every step. There is also free coffee; and before they start the speeches, one person goes around asking if anyone present in the room can translate from French to English or Spanish to English, until someone volunteers for the task.
"This is the problem here, the process of the General Assembly is not inclusive. The heads of states talk amongst themselves, and there is no discussion with other stakeholders," says Zia ur Rehman, the Founder and Chief Executive of AWAZ Foundation Pakistan: Centre for Development Services (AWAZCDS-Pakistan). He points out that the leaders are insulated from the protestors outside, they are simply ignored. He also expresses discontent with the way civil society organisations are included in the process.
"We have a meeting but it is between civil society organisations, we don’t get to put our concerns to the leaders," he says. "We can’t even stand outside on the balcony and take a picture," says Rehman to bring home the point of how protected the building is.
As the protest outside on Kashmir builds up and Modi leaves without acknowledging any of it, Rehman’s criticism seems to ring true. The question is: do the protestors know that none of their songs, chants and slogans can be heard by anyone in the building itself? To them, it seems, that this doesn’t matter.
"We are sending a message through you, the media," say Jami. She says that is enough to have an impact on policy.
These criticisms of the Assembly are quite common. Speaking to the press, the President of the General Assembly is asked about this.
"It is an intergovernmental body," he says, adding, "That cannot be changed unless we change the Charter. You will not say that everyone has an equal right to talk."
The president, like all other officers of the United Nations is clear that the organisation and the Assembly can be just as effective as member states want them to be. That said, he says that many civil society organisations are part of the process of the United Nations. He points to the Universal Health Coverage forum that was organised by a civil society organisation amongst other things.
He also says that while he understands that leaders can’t be present throughout the debate, it is ultimately the job of the permanent missions to keep the diplomacy going. The representatives sit in the hall and listen, ultimately using their right of reply to other countries, which in a way is a conversation.
Sometimes though, as on Kashmir issue, it does feel like the United Nations is not doing much. While there are assurances that behind closed doors, both countries have been told to deescalate tensions, there are no concrete actions. Or maybe there has been some impact after all, because the US congressional subcommittee on human rights will focus on Kashmir in a discussion to take place on October 22. Maybe this is the international momentum the protestors and the prime minister of Pakistan wanted from the General Assembly.
On the sidelines of UNGA