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Of an enigmatic world

Anam Zakaria’s book on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir provides the reader with a sense of a people desperate for normality

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

The one-third of Kashmir held by Pakistan is largely a mystery to Indians and much of the world. India may claim Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) but its interest is rhetorical. Curiously, the people of what Islamabad dubs Azad Kashmir are an enigma even to Pakistanis. For Pakistan’s media, writes journalist Anam Zakaria, these Kashmiris “did not have their own identity, their own politics. Rather they were only worthy of mention if the Indian state had shelled or fired at them. They seldom made it to the news otherwise.”

Through several trips over several years she tries “to learn from ordinary Kashmiris what they had been through.” Islamabad’s narratives, “bent upon juxtaposing this side of the Line of Control as the heaven across the hell, had silenced the voices of the locals.”

Her focus is the Neelum Valley whose population is the most affected by the cross-border exchange of artillery shells and militants. Indian artillery fire, especially before the 2003 ceasefire, has left thousands of locals dead or wounded. A decade of destroyed schools and hospitals has left “behind a generation of uneducated, ailing Kashmiris.”

There is a resignation among Pakistani Kashmiris that blasting shells from one direction and mujahedin movement in the other is their everyday reality. “There was absolutely no judgement in their voice as they related these details to me. There was an explicit understanding that it had to be done,” writes Zakaria.

She has numerous accounts of the trauma faced by PoK locals – relatives killed, friends maimed, children left with deep psychological wounds because of wayward shells. Tales of weddings where, when crackers burst, all the children fall flat on the ground.

A few declare a plague on both houses. “There will be no Azad Kashmir. All of this is just a façade for the Pakistani establishment and a handful of mujahideen to gain power, money. What do we get out of it? We don’t want to be a part of it anymore,” says one elderly local. India is referred to as dushman and the mujahedin as a necessary response, but PoK locals say so without much emotion.

The pre-Partition Hindu and Sikh culture that once existed in PoK has been completely eradicated after the “tribal” invasion. The handful of books written about the forced conversions, exile and mass suicides by young Hindu and Sikh women are suppressed by the authorities. “When I ask Kashmiris about where the major Hindu or Sikh neighbourhoods were, or what happened to the non-Muslim communities at the time of the raids, no one seems to have any answers. One or two people point me towards a temple or a gurdwara but overall there is an eerie silence,” writes Zakaria.

A Sikh writer, Amardeep Singh, author of a book on Sikhs in Pakistan, says “My blood flows from Kashmir but I have no evidence that we once belonged there, I have no proof of my past. The tribal raids in Muzaffarabad cleansed us out.”

Pakistani Kashmiris who joined the insurgency against India have no doubts about the justice of their cause. The PoK refugee camps are filled with villagers who fled India because of torture and harassment by Indian security forces.

Ashfaq, a militant who wore three-piece suits to evade Indian soldiers, says “In 1989, the movement was entirely started by the Kashmiris. There were no Afghans, no one else. That only happened later…Pakistan hasn’t pushed us into militancy. No one needed to push us into it. The Kashmiris saw this as the only way forward.”

By the 1990s the self-determination struggle became linked “with the desire to establish an Islamic caliphate.” Lashkar e Tayyeb was used by Islamabad to crush Kashmiri nationalist sentiments. “They create a bad name for Kashmiris; in fact, instead of helping, they hurt the Kashmiri cause,” says a militant.

The most wretched stories emerge from the PoK refugee camps where many Kashmiris who fled India still live. They are misfits in PoK as their language is Kashmiri while the locals mainly speak Pahaari and Gojari. They are also a poor ideological fit. “Many of them are secular nationalists, opposing Kashmir’s unification with Pakistan. They stand for an independent Kashmir,” writes Zakaria. The more vocal among them face beatings and harassment by the Pakistani authorities, mirroring what they ran away from in India.

A few pages are dedicated to the handful of PoK separatists who complain bitterly about Pakistani rule. Even the comical “president” of Azad Kashmir can’t help but grumble about Islamabad. Interestingly, the Simla Agreement is much despised in PoK because an unexpected consequence was that Islamabad robbed the region of almost all administrative autonomy afterwards. One gap in the book: no mention of Gilgit-Baltistan other than to admit it is wracked by Shia-Sunni violence. A little bit more about PoK’s history would have been welcome. One is left with a sense of a people stuck in limbo, numbed by violence and desperate for normality. Not unlike their brethren to the east.

(HT Media)



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