Friday, August 05, 2005


Crossing from Pakistan into what is euphemistically called “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” is almost an anti-climax. It is almost like crossing from one district to another. If this appears to be a statement on the extent to which “Azad” Kashmir has been integrated into Pakistan, then it is a trifle misleading. While there is little doubt that the geographical and political border between Pakistan and PoK is seamless and the presence of Pakistan in PoK, both literal and metaphorical, is overwhelming, “Azad” Kashmir is still not Pakistan. At least not as far as a people of “Azad” Kashmir are concerned. Most people we met in PoK exerted to emphasize their separate identity from Pakistan. In a sense this was a mirror image of what an Indian would experience in the Kashmir valley where he would be asked if he was from India! This was the first great revelation during a tour of PoK as part of a delegation of Indian journalists who visited the occupied territory under the aegis of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA).
The tour of PoK was instructive in more ways than one. It shattered many of the myths that we harbored about the people, attitudes and politics of what is cartographically still a part of India. The most striking thing in AJK was that despite the people defining their identity as Kashmiris. And this, in spite of the fact, that they have little if anything in common with the Kashmiri Kashmiris. None of the criteria that are normally used for defining an identity is common between Kashmir (and here one is talking of only the Valley) and “Azad” Kashmir. Hardly anyone in AJK speaks Kashmiri, they don’t wear the same clothes and they don’t eat the same food. In fact, the every region of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir – Ladakh, Jammu, Kashmir Valley, “Azad” Kashmir and Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) – has a culture that is very different from the other regions. Surprisingly, unlike in India where no self-respecting Jammuwallah will ever call himself a Kashmiri and a Kashmiri will never accept a Jammuwallah as a Kashmiri, in PoK everybody insists on calling himself a Kashmiri and distinguishing themselves from Pakistan, its government and its policies.
The current thaw between India and Pakistan is also reflected in the way people interacted with the Indian journalists. There was hardly any show of hostility – except perhaps for the poisonous Emir of Jamaat Islami who defended the massacre of women and children in the cause of Jihad and the obnoxious and pompous “president” of the “Azad” Kashmir, Sardar Anwar Khan, who insists on continuously calling himself the only Sadr-e-Riyasat, as though he has doubts about his position. Most people we met were more interested in the softening of the LoC so that the traditional routes of trade could be opened up and divided families could meet. The demand for a plebiscite was always hovering in the background but it was expressed more as a pro forma demand and a debating point rather than a passionate article of faith. Whether this was done not to offend their Indian guests or whether it indicated a shift away from the traditional political stand is an open question. But it appeared as though a sense of realism was creeping in and mindsets were changing in AJK and the people were reconciled to the fact that there are going to be no quick fix solutions to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir. In the interregnum people wanted to get on with their lives and wanted free movement of people, politicians and goods across the line of control.
This was a sentiment that was reflected in the meeting with Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, who is perhaps still the tallest political figure in AJK and whose political instincts are legendary. He was quite clear that it is pointless searching for permanent solutions to the issue of Kashmir. He believes that what is required is that both sides take a series of interim steps which provide relief to the people and make the situation more amenable to a solution. Other political leaders were not as candid as Sardar Qayyum, but even they appeared amenable to a peaceful and negotiated settlement.
In a series of interactions with political leaders, representatives of civil society and ordinary people, we would inevitably be asked by our hosts in a rather self-righteous tone whether we are now satisfied that there are no terrorist training camps in AJK. But this self-righteousness would get punctured quite fast when our hosts were asked if the camps were located on main highways! Nevertheless, there appears to be an effort to wind down the terror camps in the Pakistan occupied territory. Journalists accompanying us informed us that right from the Kohala bridge that marks the border of Pakistan and AJK up to Muzaffarabad the entire stretch of road was full of posters, wall chalking and banners advertising Jihad and exhorting people to join one or the other jihadi organization. But now there was nothing all along the road. This was probably one sign that the infrastructure of jihad is being winded down, not entirely but substantially.
Another abiding theme was of alleged human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Everywhere the Indian journalists were confronted with this one issue. But a few counter questions would bring the inquisition to an end. One of the most interesting incidents took place when this writer was confronted over a lunch by the cadre of the JKLF in Muzaffarabad with the human rights violations by Indian security forces. Present among the young cadre was Zahoor Butt, the youngest and sole surviving brother of one of the icons of Kashmiri nationalism, Maqbool Butt. My answer to these people was in the form of four questions, each of which I made Zahoor Butt answer: One, before the start of insurgency how many troops were present in Kashmir? Answer: Very few; Two, How many cases of human rights violations by security forces were there before violence erupted in the state? Answer: practically none; Three, How would Pakistan have reacted had a similar insurgency broken out in PoK? Answer: Worse than India; Four, Would a man like Syed Ali Gilani be able to survive in Pakistan if he took the position that he currently take against India? Answer: He would be long dead.
The other question that was perpetually put was as to why India did not adhere to the UN resolutions. On this again, one had to make the questioners undergo a reality check. Such was a level of indoctrination and indeed ignorance borne out of a one-sided debate within Pakistan and PoK that it came as a shock to our interlocutors when they were told that it was not India but Pakistan that did not adhere to the UN resolutions. Clearly, most people in AJK had probably never bothered to read the UN resolutions. They would simply parrot ‘plebiscite’ without knowing that there were obligations on Pakistan's part which preceded a plebiscite, obligations that were never met.
Apart from HR violations and UN resolutions, there appears to be a political consensus within AJK against America. The level of anti-Americanism witnessed in AJK probably surpasses that one witnesses in Pakistan. In meeting after meeting it was tried to impress upon us how important it is to keep the US out of the region. There is deep suspicion of US objectives in the region and interestingly the people of AJK seemed to be more keen on an understanding with India to keep the US out rather than involve the US and get their aspirations fulfilled. In fact many in AJK would use Pakistan’s relations with the US to taunt the Pakistanis that unlike them the Kashmiris were not beholden to the Americans and were still ‘independent’. This seemed to be yet another manifestation of the sense of separateness that the people of AJK feel from Pakistan. In a sense this could also be seen as an expression of Kashmiri nationalism in AJK, which we in India had probably never imagined existed.
The fact that these expressions of nationalism were emanating from people who were very closely linked to Pakistan (they were either working in or for a Pakistani organization or were settled in Pakistan) is quite significant. But even otherwise, there is a very vocal lobby that demands independence from both India and Pakistan. Everywhere we went in AJK – Mirpur, Muzaffarabad and Chakhoti – there was no dearth of political activists who spoke of “Pakistani occupation of Kashmir”. At the forefront of the demand for complete independence are organizations like JKLF, All Parties National Alliance (APNA) which is an umbrella organization of nationalists in both AJK and Northern Areas, the leftist students organization National Students Federation (NSF) and a smattering of other smaller groups. Every where we went, we would be approached by small groups of nationalists who would inform us of the oppressive control exercised in AJK by the Pakistani security agencies. They would tell us that what they want is to see the back of both India and Pakistan. They however appeared resigned to the fact that neither India nor Pakistan would ever let go of them. In fact, they would appear depressed when asked if by demanding that both India and Pakistan quit Kashmir they were not tempting fate by giving both countries a common cause to get together and crush the Kashmiri aspiration!
When confronted with the overwhelming odds of India and Pakistan versus the Kashmiris, the nationalist element (and even the pro-Pakistan moderate element) would try and explore if there were any models from other parts of the world that could be applied in Kashmir. They would bandy about models like Andorra, Trieste, Northern Ireland etc. But here again one couldn’t help feel sorry for the people who felt that their nationalist aspirations could be solved by one of these models. This they understood when they were asked if they knew how old the Andorra problem or the Northern Ireland problem was. When they were told that it has taken over a thousand years for finding a solution to Andorra and close to 500 years for a solution to Northern Ireland, the coin suddenly dropped and they realized that the solution to Kashmir might not be forthcoming in their life time and could take perhaps a 100 or 200 years. They seemed to appreciate that the trick for them was to keep their aspiration alive until such time in the future when they can realize it. And in the meantime, they should try and get the best deal possible from both India and Pakistan.
It must however be said that despite their intense passion for their cause, it is not clear how much public support these groups enjoy. The impression we got was that these nationalist groups are quite well organized and have a degree of support but are probably still in a minority. The majority opinion still favors some sort of accession to Pakistan. Nevertheless the dissenting voices are far more vocal and open than they have ever been in the past. This is what we were told by Pakistani journalists accompanying us.
Surprisingly for the Indians, the nationalists were more disparaging of the political set-up in AJK than in Jammu and Kashmir and would express a sneaking admiration for the power enjoyed by the elected legislature in Jammu and Kashmir as compared to state of affairs in AJK where even the “prime minister” had to seek permission from the chief secretary before embarking on a tour or sanctioning an expenditure. But at the local level the administration is AJK is very responsive and approachable for the common man than is the case in J&K. The civil service is recruited locally and mans all lower and middle level positions. It is only at the senior most level – chief secretary, home secretary and IG police – that Pakistani officers are appointed. We saw none of the bandobast normally associated with district administration in India. We were informed that even the most ordinary citizen can simply walk into the office of the Deputy Commissioner or Superintendent of Police and get his work done. Ministers and legislators are also very accessible. As for services, the roads and civic infrastructure is reasonably good and we were told that power cuts are practically non-existent. The territory however suffers from the fact that there is little or no industry and very few sources of revenue for the government, which depends on Islamabad for its funds. Even within “Azad” Kashmir, there is a big difference between Mirpur and Muzaffarabad. The Mangla dam in Mirpur led to an exodus of Mirpuris to UK and their remittances have transformed the face of the place. On the other hand, notwithstanding its status as capital of “Azad” Kashmir, Muzaffarabad remains a bit of a mofussil town.
The presence of the Pakistani security agencies is overwhelming in “Azad” Kashmir. In the hotel in which the Indian journalists were staying there were probably more security personnel (mostly in plain clothes) than people. A close watch was kept on every journalist as well as on people who came to meet them. That despite such oppressive presence of security personnel there were people who were coming to meet the Indians was in itself a sign of the changing times. Some of the people we met told us that they would have to now spend hours explaining to the intelligence agencies what they spoke to us about and probably have to contend with surveillance for a few weeks.
Probably the most closely watched people in “Azad” Kashmir are the Kashmiris who went across the LoC to get training and return to fight the Indian state. Many of these people are completely disillusioned and long to return home. Except those who have adjusted themselves in the pro-Pakistan jihadi groups, and are therefore enjoying the patronage of the Pakistani state, most of the other “freedom fighters” are out on a limb, barely managing to survive. The treatment meted out to them by the Pakistani agencies is not only humiliating but also repressive. Many of these Kashmiris told us that they never realized that Pakistan will never allow them their ‘Azadi’, and that if Azadi is not possible then they are better living in India than in Pakistan. But the doors for their return are closed. They wan to return to their normal lives but fear that they will be picked up by Indian security agencies and harassed. If they can be assured their dignity, most of them would return by the first available bus.
The disillusionment with Pakistan is not limited to only the Kashmiris who crossed the LoC or the nationalist element in “Azad” Kashmir. It was a surprise to hear some fairly senior officials in the district administration and police service also criticize Pakistan's oppressive control on “Azad” Kashmir. Probably the most interesting experience I had was when we visited the “Azad” Kashmir university. There I happened to get into a conversation with a few students and a couple of civil servants. I asked them that they keep paying lip service to Kashmiriyat and keep parroting that the Kashmiri pandits need to return to their homes, but on the walls of the AKU there were posters in which even a man like Jinnah was painted out as a jihadi! Among other jihadis were people like Iqbal, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and other luminaries of the freedom movement. I asked how any non-Muslim can ever be convinced of their intentions if the mouth jihadi slogans. The answer I got was quite surprising. I was told that these kind of propaganda posters were not the work of the Kashmiris but of Pakistanis. They said the Kashmiris have no use for these things and if they were allowed to exercise power they would tear up most of these posters. Listening to the civil servants and students one got the feeling that the Kashmiris of “Azad” Kashmir are bristling under the oppressive control of Pakistan but feel helpless in doing anything about it.
Even the politicians in “Azad” Kashmir are not exactly enamored of the status of their territory. In private, a number of politicians would express their helplessness in the face of diktats from Pakistan. In public however they would all faithfully parrot the official line. But while most people would try and convince us of their secular credentials, the communalization of Kashmir is a given reality. Ask a few searching questions and this reality manifests itself. One instance is of a office bearer of the Mirpur press club who initially made a speech in whch he professed his love for his Kashmiri pandit brethren. But once an open interaction started he couldn’t help reveal that when it came to politics he would rather disenfranchise the KP’s because of their preference for India than allow them their right of choice. He was of the opinion that since the Hindus and Sikhs favored India, they should not be allowed any say in the future of Kashmir. Many other people, including politicians and civil society representatives, would eventually come out of the closet and say that Jihad was an article of faith and they couldn’t denounce it. One Kashmiri leader from the Valley, Tarimi, first took pains to disabuse us of the fact that the “freedom struggle” in the Valley was a communal movement. But after a few minutes, he started raving and ranting about the perfidy of the KPs and said that they defamed the “freedom struggle” and went on to say that even before the “freedom struggle” started the KPs used to paint the Muslims in black. So much for secular Kashmiriyat!
From whatever little we saw in “Azad” Kashmir, it was clear that there is no one monolithic opinion in the territory. While there was always some dissent about the status of the territory, it appears that the voices of dissent are gaining in strength. Pakistan will probably need to reinvent its role in the territory if it wants to avoid a situation of the sorts that confronts India in Jammu and Kashmir today. There are some signs of Pakistan reversing the destructive policies of proxy war that it has followed in last two decades, and which are now threatening the stability of the Pakistani state itself. While the measures to de-weaponize and dismantle the infrastructure of jihad need to be further strengthened, Pakistan also needs to take some very important political steps in the area if it wants to avoid discontent in the region from bubbling over.
Written on 18th April, 2005


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