In restless Kashmir, desire for independence grows

Even among Pakistani Kashmiris, who share a religion with Islamabad, the desire for independence is growing because of discontent with the economy, difficulty of movement, and identification with Indian Kashmiris.

By , Correspondent

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    Indian policemen stand guard near the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) headquarters ahead of a visit by a delegation of Indian lawmakers to Srinagar, India, Monday.
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While a group of Indian lawmakers arrived in Indian Kashmir on Monday hoping to resolve a crisis there that has seen more than 100 civilians killed in the past three months, a surprising number of Kashmiris in Pakistani Kashmir say they want to see independence from both countries.

In dozens of interviews with the Monitor, residents of Muzaffarabad expressed frustration at the level of power exerted by Islamabad and their economic situation, as well as a desire to form a state with Indian Kashmir, independent of both Pakistan and India.

Because of Pakistani Kashmir’s overwhelming Muslim majority, it has long been assumed that its population is content with rule from Islamabad. But that’s changing, says Mosharraf Zaidi, a newpaper columnist with The News, an English-language daily. “The natural inclination now is toward an autonomous Kashmir, as a response to the failed political process between India and Pakistan,” he says.

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Many cite the failure of India and Pakistan to overcome their differences, and the resulting instability in Kashmir, as their reason for wanting independence.

Indeed, according to a recent poll conducted by London’s influential Chatham House think tank, some 44 percent of Pakistani Kashmiris in Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) wish to see full independence. The vast majority of others want to see some type of independence, either more powers within their state or combined with India-controlled Kashmir.

Before Pakistan

AJK is the southern part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It fell under Pakistani control after the first Kashmir war broke out between India and Pakistan in 1947, shortly after both countries gained independence from Britain. It is bordered to the east by the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir and to the north by Gilgit-Baltistan, an area which was until last year known as the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) and is also controlled by Pakistan but claimed by India.

The Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir are divided by a cease-fire line from the 1947 conflict. The Line of Control has since become a de facto border.

Unemployment is the most significant problem facing the population according to Pakistani Kashmiris. The majority of people in the area depend on forestry, livestock, and agriculture for a living, and 35 to 50 percent of its population of 4 million are currently unemployed according to government estimates.

“The government here is not sincere to its people, they have nothing to offer us, and there aren’t any opportunities,” says Muhammad Adil, a bus driver in Muzaffarabad. “We are like Pakistan in that they are our Muslim brothers, but we need our own government. Everyone knows that Kashmir was around long before Pakistan was created.”

Despite the fact that decades of violence rocked the region and has only recently become relatively calm, Mr. Adil, like many of those interviewed, believes that Kashmir can only be reunited through force. According to the survey, 37 percent of Pakistani Kashmiris believe militant violence will make a resolution to the dispute more likely, while 31 percent believe it would make a resolution less likely.

Barrier to movement creates restlessness

“The LoC [Line of Control] is an almost complete barrier to movement,” writes the Chatham House's Robert Bradnock in his report.

Zeeshan Naqash, a computing student living in AJK, says he was impressed by the level of development he saw in Indian Kashmir when he visited family there in 2007, but feels that Pakistani Kashmir has more freedoms. “Over here you are free to write what you want, you are free to stay out late and there aren’t curfews, there isn’t a major Army presence.”

Still, he says, AJK has seen little economic benefit from being a part of Pakistan. “I want to see a free state separate from both India and Pakistan,” he says.

Others are not as fortunate as Mr. Naqash was by being able to cross the border.

Bilal Ahmed says he was forced to leave his studies at Srinagar College after coming under the radar of Indian authorities, who suspected him of having militant ties. He now teaches at a school run for migrants from Indian Kashmir. The government estimates there are about 35,000 of these migrants.

In the summer of 1993, Mr. Ahmed left India. The Indian military had tortured and killed a number of his friends, he says. He made a six-hour trek across snowy mountains, avoiding land mines to reach AJK. He has not seen his parents or sisters since, he says, and bus tickets to Srinigar are available only to those with “lofty connections.”

“I respect the people of Pakistan and of Azad Jammu Kashmir, but we Kashmiris are held hostage to the dispute between India and Pakistan. It’s a tragedy for the Kashmiri people and the whole world has turned their backs on us,” says Ahmed.

His personal experience aligns with the survey, which found that across the two parts of Kashmir, 8 percent of respondents claimed to have friends or family living on the other side of the cease-fire line, “but only 1 percent of the total population had visited in the past five years. Less than 5 percent knew anyone who had crossed the LoC in the last five years.”

Lack of faith in government

Compounding matters is a lack of faith in the AJK government. Only 34 percent of Azad Jammu Kashmiris believe their state elections held in 2006 have improved their chances for peace, according to the polling.

Infighting between politicians who appear to spend more time in Islamabad than in Kashmir adds to negative perception about the political class, says Saleem Parwana, president of the Muzafarabad Press Club.

“We have now had four different governments in four years,” he says, referring to the latest vote of no-confidence in the government of Muslim Conference leader Raja Farooq, which paved the way for Farooq’s rival [and former ally] Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan to be sworn in to office as prime minister of AJK for the second time since the 2006 elections.

“The AJK goverment can’t remedy the peoples’ problems. They are more engaged in breaking and making governments This doesn’t engage the ordinary people,” he says, adding that since the flooding hit the city, the population is struggling to cope without reliable electricity or fresh water supplies.

AJK’s top bureaucrat, the chief of police, and the finance secretary are all appointed on a rotational basis by Islamabad, ensuring the "state" has less authority than a province.

In search of fresh solutions

Dr. Bradnock writes “that the plebiscite options are likely to offer no solution to the dispute.”

But Mir Abdul Rasheed Abbasi, who until late July was AJK’s minister for law and parliamentary affairs, says that ordinary people are better off in Azad Jammu Kashmir than in the Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir and should not hold out hope for independence.

Calling the results of the survey “exaggerated,” he says: “Even if the people want independence, who will bestow this upon them? Under what mechanism? The Security Council resolution has not been carried out for 62 years. It offers the only hope for a lasting and durable peace.”

Nearly all of those interviewed by the Monitor expressed solidarity for their Kashmiri brethren on the Indian side of the border, and said they hoped for a united Kashmir [either independent or under Pakistani control]. “If anyone asks me, I will always say I am a Kashmiri, not a Pakistani,” says Meher Gillani, who runs a petrol station in Muzaffarabad city. “But we must be united, we are nothing without them,” he adds.

According to Basharat Peer, a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York and author of “A Curfewed Night,” a memoir of growing up during the Indian Kashmir insurgency of the 1990s, Kashmiri nationalism “has been strengthened even among the diasporas in United Kingdom and elsewhere, after the Kashmiri rebellion against India in 1990.”

“Also the fact that [AJK] is “Azad” [Free] only in name and in reality controlled by Pakistan does add to a desire for independence,” he says.

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