In an exclusive interview with DW Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan talks about the Iran crisis and the international community’s “lukewarm” response to the Kashmir dispute.
Ines Pohl: Mr. Khan, you probably have one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Your country has to balance ties with the United States and China. Beijing wants to invest in Pakistan, but that, of course, strains your relationship with Washington. Your country also shares a border with conflict-ridden countries like Afghanistan and Iran. How are you managing all that?
Imran Khan: I joined politics because I felt that Pakistan has tremendous potential. When I was growing up, Pakistan had the fastest growing economy in Asia, which served as a model for development in the 1960s. But we lost our way. My objective for coming into politics was to regain that potential.
It’s true that we live in a difficult neighborhood and we have to balance our actions. For instance, Saudi Arabia is one of Pakistan’s greatest friends and has always been there for us. Then we have Iran, with which we have always maintained a good relationship. Therefore, a military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be disastrous for Pakistan. We are trying our best to make sure that ties between these two countries do not deteriorate. It is a region that cannot afford another conflict.
Then there is Afghanistan. Pakistan is doing its best to bring peace to Afghanistan. It is a country that has suffered so much in the past 40 years. We pray that the Taliban, the Americans and the Afghan government achieve peace.
Ines Pohl: Last year, India and Pakistan were very close to war. Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped the special status for Indian-administrated Kashmir in August 2019, we see that the situation has become worse. What is your government doing to defuse these tensions?
Imran Khan: I was the first leader to warn the world about what is happening in India. India has been taken over by an extremist ideology known as “Hindutva.” It is the ideology of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS, a political organization founded in 1925, was inspired by the German Nazis, and its founding fathers believed in racial supremacy. Just as the Nazi ideology was built on hatred for minorities, the RSS ideology is also based on hatred for Muslims and other minorities, including Christians.
It is a tragedy for India — and for its neighbors — that the country has been taken over by the RSS, an organization which also assassinated the great Mahatma Gandhi. A nuclear-armed country is being run by extremists, and Kashmir has been under siege for over five months.
Ines Pohl: Are you willing to talk to PM Modi about these issues?
Imran Khan: After I became prime minister, I made an effort to talk to the Indian government and PM Modi. In my first speech as prime minister, I said that if India moved one step forward, we would take two steps toward them to resolve our differences. But I soon came to know that India did not respond well to my offer because of the RSS’ ideology. It became quite clear last year when it unilaterally annexed Kashmir, which is a disputed territory between Pakistan and India according to several UN resolutions.
Ines Pohl: But Prime Minister Khan, there are many who say that the human rights situation in the Pakistani part of Kashmir is also not good. How would you respond to that?
Imran Khan: Well, it’s very easy to find out. We invite anyone from anywhere in the world to visit the Pakistan side of Kashmir and then go to the Indian side. Let them decide.
Ines Pohl: But still, protests against the Pakistani Kashmir administration aren’t allowed. So that’s not really freedom of expression, either.
Imran Khan: Azad Kashmir holds free and fair elections and it elects its own government. Like any other administration, they have their problems. But as I said, let us invite observers from all over the world. I assure you that they can go to the Pakistan side of Kashmir but won’t be allowed on the Indian side.
Ines Pohl: Let me stress once more: You advocate freedom for the Kashmiri people, as you did at the UN last year, so don’t you think that the international community will pay more attention to your demands if protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir are also allowed?
Imran Khan: Let the people of Kashmir decide what they want. Pakistan is ready for a referendum or a plebiscite. Let them decide whether they want to remain with Pakistan or to be independent.
Ines Pohl: Do you think the international community is paying too little attention to the Kashmir conflict?
Imran Khan: Sadly, yes. Consider the sort of media attention the Hong Kong protests are getting. The tragedy of Kashmir is much greater.
Ines Pohl: Why is that happening in your opinion?
Imran Khan: Unfortunately, commercial interests are more important for Western countries. India is a big market and that is the reason behind the lukewarm response to what is happening to some 8 million people in Kashmir, as well as to minorities in India. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is blatantly against minorities, and particularly against the 200 million Muslims in India. The silence of the world on all of this is mainly because of commercial interests.
Also, strategically, India is supposed to be a counterbalance to China, and therefore you see a completely different approach to the two conflicts.
Ines Pohl: Mr. Khan, what can Germany and the European Union do in this regard?
Imran Khan: I think Germany can play a huge role. Germany is the strongest country in Europe and plays a big part in the EU. When I spoke to Chancellor Angela Merkel, I tried to explain these issues to her; about what is happening in India. And she actually made a statement about it when she visited India.
Ines Pohl: What is the current status of the Afghan peace talks?
Imran Khan: I think they are heading towards a ceasefire. We are hoping that the US-Taliban talks succeed, as we have a new government in power in Afghanistan with President Ashraf Ghani being re-elected.
Peace in Afghanistan would open up trading opportunities in Central Asia. It [Afghanistan] would also become an economic corridor for us. If there is peace in Afghanistan, our people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan, will also benefit.
Read more: Will the EU’s carrot-and-stick policy for Pakistan work?
Ines Pohl: You surely can help out the US. How close are your ties with the Taliban right now?
Imran Khan: Pakistan has played its part in peace talks. There was a hostage situation and with Pakistan’s efforts, two out of three Western hostages were released. So, we are doing our best with whatever influence we have.
Ines Pohl: You are very critical of the human rights situation in Kashmir and India, and I see that you like to present yourself as a representative of the Muslim world. But when it comes to China and the Muslim Uighur community, you are not as vocal. Why is that? Why are you not more outspoken about the Chinese suppression of the Uighur people?
Imran Khan: Well, mainly for two reasons. First, the scale of what is happening in India is not comparable to what is supposedly happening to the Uighurs in China. Second, China has been our great friend. It has helped us in our most difficult times because of the economic crisis my government inherited. Therefore, we do talk about things with China privately, not publicly, as these are sensitive issues.
Read more: Belt and Road Forum: Is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor failing?
Ines Pohl: And last but not least, you knew Britain’s Lady Diana very well. What do you think about her youngest son, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan Markle’s decision to leave their senior roles in the royal family?
Imran Khan: You know what, I have so many issues in Pakistan to deal with. It doesn’t seem to be a huge issue to me. I think, it’s their life. If that’s how they want to lead it, then why should people interfere?
Ines Pohl: Do you think Diana would have understood their decision?
Imran Khan: I guess so. Frankly, I haven’t really looked into it deeply. I think they are a young couple who want to lead their own life, so it’s up to them.
Ines Pohl: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.
The interview was conducted by Ines Pohl, DW’s editor-in-chief, at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, Pakistan.