July 2004 News

An Encounter With Azad Kashmir

25 July 2004
The News International
Ghazi Salahuddin

Islamabad: That rest house in Chikar had flickered in my memory as the high point in a journey to Azad Kashmir nearly forty years ago. I had just joined a newspaper in Karachi and that was my very first visit to the mountains in the north - an experience that was as overpowering for me, as the sight of the sea would be for a young man coming down from the mountains for the first time. For some reason, we had to climb the final stretch on foot and I was totally breathless, including with excitement, when Last week, I was able to spend a short time in the same rest house that has been extended and refurbished in recent years. But this was an unscheduled visit and I like to think that it was my own deep desire that had made it possible. Otherwise, Chikar was not a stopover in our itinerary in our four-day tour of Azad Kashmir as members of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's fact-finding mission. This also meant that there was no time for a diversion or even frequent stops to take in the scenery that was often so breathtaking. We were on our way from Muzaffarabad to Bagh, when a red jeep overtook our coaster and one of us noticed Sahibzada Ishaq Zafar, a senior leader of Azad Kashmir's Pakistan People's Party, on its front seat. We had been unable to meet the top leadership of the party in Muzaffarabad and we readily decided to fill the gap. We soon caught up with him in the Chikar bazaar, where he had stopped to perhaps talk to his constituents, being the present member of the legislative assembly from that area. That is how we went up to the top and had a session with him in the rest house of my half-forgotten memory. But the memories that I have brought from our last week's trip to Azad Kashmir are very alive at this time. These memories are spread across an entire spectrum, ranging from very pleasant to acutely distressing. As I have said, I was a member of the HRCP's fact- finding mission and this was a serious assignment. We had with us some very committed individuals, who personify the credibility of the Commission, such as chairperson Tahir Mohammad Khan, secretary- general Hina Jilani and former chairperson Afrasiyab Khattak. And the mission had its terms of reference, mainly to examine the system of governance and the level of respect for people's right to representation and participation. We should be grateful for the cooperation that we received at the official level. Apart from meeting the civil society representatives and the common people, we had the opportunity to have candid conversations with President Major-Gen (Rtd) Sardar Muhammad Anwar Khan, Prime Minister Sardar Sikandar Hayat, Speaker of the Legislative Assemby, Siab Khalid, Chief Justice of the High Court, Justice Manzur-ul-Hasan Gilani and a number of other officials. There were visits to the jails in Muzaffarabad and Rawalakot. More interesting and somewhat enigmatic were our sessions with the major political leaders, including Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, Sardar Attique Ahmed, now President of the ruling Muslim Conference, and Khalid Ibrahim, President JK People's Party. As for the mission's findings, a proper report will be issued and Hina Jilani had, at the conclusion of the mission, briefed the press in Islamabad about some preliminary conclusions. In this column, I can only refer to some asides and isolated personal impressions. Speaking as a journalist, I should emphasise the importance of exploring a situation or a territory through direct contact with the people and the concerned officials. Such encounters are invariably very educative. There are always some surprises. In Kashmir's case, we have to contend with a heavy burden of history that has been disfigured by passionate ideological assertions and governmental deceptions from both sides of a divide that has a bearing on the destiny of all of us who live in South Asia. It is, of course, hard to decipher whether Azad Kashmir is a separate territory or a part of Pakistan, irrespective of the complicated constitutional and administrative arrangements. What do the Kashmiris, who live on our side of the Line of Control, feel about it? This was one of the many questions that yielded indefinite and sometimes divisive responses. But there should be no confusion about their yearning for freedom and for peace. Within their area of autonomy, Azad Kashmiris have their own government and an elected legislative assembly, though the provisional constitutional prescribes that only those parties and individuals can take part in the electoral process who acknowledge, on oath, Kashmir's accession to Pakistan. This conditionality has made it very difficult to objectively assess the level of support for an independent Kashmir. It was also obvious that nationalist feelings are officially discouraged or even suppressed. However, it was interesting to find someone like Sardar Attique Ahmad arguing for a Kashmiri identity and the manner in which he presented his case betrayed a preference for a secular polity in the state. He underlined the history of religious and communal harmony in Kashmir. In contrast, Sardar Khalid Ibrahim stressed that he was first a Pakistani and then a Kashmiri. Since this is just a personal and impressionistic portrayal of an intensive exercise, I should specifically refer to feelings I gathered on the issue of the ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan. It is natural for Kashmiris to want to be directly involved in this process. They feel left out and are worried about it. It is also important to note that the ceasefire on the Line of Control, since November last year has changed the lives of people because one-third of the population of Azad Kashmir was affected by the senseless shelling across the LoC. Consequently, the desire to make contact with their brethren on the other side has deepened and this should have an impact on how they look at the conflict and its possible resolution. One very pleasant surprise for me was that in spite of the induction of 'jihadis' in the recent past, the society and politics of Azad Kashmir do not reflect any religious militancy. No religious party has been able to gain any substantial electoral support. Between the Muslim Conference and the PPP, Azad Kashmir has a two-party system and it has functioned with a considerable level of tolerance. Ordinary people have an easy access to high functionaries, perhaps because it is over-governed - such an elaborate structure for a small population. Azad Kashmir's judiciary has more credibility compared to what we have in Pakistan. It has a higher rate of literacy, close to 60 per cent, and there is not a wide difference between men and women in this context. (By the way, 89 per cent of women are illiterate in rural Sindh.) Still, the overall situation is not really cheerful. Unemployment is high because government is the main employer. One can sense a rising tide of emotional disquiet in the context of how the peace process will move ahead and whether the Kashmiris will be genuinely involved in deciding their future. They do not have control over their own resources, which are considerable. You 'do' feel at home in Azad Kashmir.

 

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