Impressions after a second visit to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. What is striking, though, is the strong support for India-Pakistan Confidence Building Measures.

For a journalist working in Jammu and Kashmir, the Kashmir on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) is always on top of one's mind. I have been fortunate to visit the area that Indians know as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), and Pakistanis know as “Azad Jammu and Kashmir,” (AJK) twice. The first time was in 2004. A conference organised by “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” University last month gave me the opportunity for a second visit.

As a resident of Baramulla, I should have been able to make it to Muzaffarabad, the capital on the other side, within five hours by road, had the governments of India and Pakistan allowed our three-member delegation to travel on the much-vaunted cross LoC bus.

However, the walls between the two sides built over 60 years forced me to travel via Delhi-Lahore-Islamabad — the journey thus took me almost three days.

Nevertheless, this longer route was interesting in itself. The 180-km Islamabad-Muzaffarabad road reminded me of the winding Srinagar-Jammu highway, while the mountainscape and the gushing waters of the Jhelum resembled Patnitop and the waters of the Chenab.

Entry point

In the approach to the Kohala bridge — this is the first entry point to Jammu and Kashmir state from the Pakistan side; it is also the place where Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was detained in 1946 on the orders of Maharaja Hari Singh — no one can miss the signposts and hoardings with “Aao Kashmir Chalein (Let us go to Kashmir”). The slogan is everywhere, from security bunkers to road signs, somewhat similar to Border Road Organisation signs that remind us that “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, India is one.”

As we drove past the signs on the Muzaffarabad road, I could not help wondering: was this for tourists from Pakistan? Or was is it an exhortation to Pakistanis to “conquer Kashmir”?

The Kashmir “trade mark” is claimed obsessively in PoK. But if Kashmir denotes an area where the people speak the Kashmiri language, the Kashmir on the Pakistani side is far from this benchmark. The main language spoken there is Hindko, an offshoot of Pahari, followed by Gojri and other dialects. Kashmiri is spoken by hardly five per cent of the population.

In other ways too, PoK is closer to Jammu than Kashmir, and to the Punjabis of Pakistan. But this has not dimmed the enthusiasm of the people in PoK for the “cherished dream” of claiming the beautiful Valley of Kashmir as their own.

Some voices

“We have been living with the imagination of the stunning beauty of Kashmir,” said Tanveer Ahmad a scholar. “We love Kashmir more than our lives,” he said.

Scholars and writers in PoK have written a number of books about the Kashmir valley depicting its beauty and its culture, and more recently, the “sacrifices given by people for Azadi” in the wake of “gross human rights violations by Indian forces.” Any discussion about the Indian side of Kashmir is dominated by “repression by India.”

There are voices in PoK, particularly in Mirpur, an area dominated by expatriate Kashmiris, which are for complete independence of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, from India and Pakistan. But those voices are not strong for many reasons — a sizeable section of the population is for merger with Pakistan; also, the basis of political life in PoK, the political parties, are all either regional off-shoots of the political parties in Pakistan, or ally themselves with them. Also constant discouragement by Islamabad is evident — invisible pressure on PoK from Islamabad and the continuous surveillance on the people is part of a permanent structure in Muzaffarabad.

At the AJK University, where the students are quite vocal, there is a range of voices. “We are for merger with Pakistan but only after (your) Kashmir gets freedom,” said Sama Gazal a post-graduate student in AJK University. “We are a dependent state on both sides so it is better to be with Pakistan. India has done so much of repression in Kashmir.”

Countering her were Syed Mohisin Raza and Gowhar Javed, who said they were for independence. “We cannot go with Pakistan. Abhi unkey saath rehna majboori hey (it's only because of circumstances that we are with them now),” said Raza. Interestingly there is not much support for violent struggle for “liberating Kashmir.”

But barring the disgruntlement with political interference from Islamabad, people largely feel “comfortable” with Pakistan.

After the devastating earthquake in 2005, the face of Muzaffarabad has completely changed. It looks a well planned city. Perched on the hills on all four sides, are magnificently modern houses, which have come up with generous aid from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Expatriate Kashmiris have also played an important role.

The Saudi government is building the new campus for AJK University at a whopping Rs.700 crore. The UAE government has also constructed a state-of-the-art hospital spending more than Rs.100 crore. A make-shift university campus built by Turkey was inaugurated by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In fact, Turkey's extraordinary involvement in rebuilding the city has brought about a surprising change in the landscape — some mosques in Muzaffarabad display typical features of Ottoman architecture — gentle domes and “pencil minarets.” “We see Pakistan along with us as two important Islamic countries in the world today. So our interest in helping people here is self explanatory,” said Muharem Hilmi-Ozev, a political scientist from the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul who was there for the conference.

Muzaffarabad and Srinagar

Comparing Muzaffarabad with Srinagar, the second oldest city after Varanasi in South Asia, would be unfair. Though Muzaffarabad was among three main district headquarters of the state before 1947, Srinagar has always been the epicentre of cultural and political awakening with a population of 14 lakh souls.

Muzaffarabad, with a population of just over 6,00,000, looks cleaner than Srinagar (PoK has 10 districts with an estimated population over three million in 2009). Even during my previous visit in 2004, I found that the stories of “under development in PoK,” fed to us on this side, are off the mark. This time, I noticed road connectivity and power supply to houses even on the upper reaches of a hill. In contrast, many villages in Jammu and Kashmir even today are without basic facilities. Neither does Muzaffarabad seem to be lagging behind in education and health compared to the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir though progress is more in tune with Pakistani literacy rates. In the past few years the development in these two sectors has been rapid. The literacy rate in PoK has touched 65 per cent which is higher than for any other area in Pakistan. In conversations, both the young and old in Muzaffarabad say that Pakistan has “never discriminated” against the region.

“We had several top generals in the Army. Diplomats, scientists and officers in Pakistan civil services continue to call the shots in policy making of Pakistan,” said Kamran Basharat, a student. However, he said, people in AJK do see themselves differently from Pakistan and seek more political autonomy.

Many agree with the argument that “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” is hardly “free” in the real sense of the term. Islamabad's interference in its internal matters through its all powerful Kashmir Council is a bone of contention in PoK politics.

But the symbolic nomenclature of “President, Prime Minister” as also a separate Supreme Court and Election Commission gives an impression of more distinctness from Pakistan, on the face of it, than Jammu and Kashmir from India.

“It is a source of pride for us,” said a political activist, but added that “lot more needs to be done.” Generally, however, people do not have many grievances with Pakistan as they feel that there are many areas in that country which are less developed than PoK. Perhaps this is because Pakistan's strategic interest in PoK makes building roads and better infrastructure inevitable, exactly like what New Delhi does in Kashmir. The absence of heavy industries is another common feature between the two sides. Likewise while entering Muzaffarabad from Kohala, a stern reminder to “foreigners” about registering themselves reminds one of Srinagar. Even as both India and Pakistan claim that Jammu and Kashmir state across the LoC is one, a Kashmiri state subject becomes a “foreigner” in Kashmir by virtue of his Indian or Pakistani passport.

CBMs

Even while Kashmir remains an “integral part” of the “unfinished agenda of partition” across the LoC, there is strong support for the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) launched by India and Pakistan after the 2003 ceasefire.

Over a period of five years the CBMs have demolished the stereotypes and myths created by “vested interests” on both sides. While Indian discourse has harped on how backward, underdeveloped and controlled PoK is, Pakistani propaganda, intended to attract more and more jihadis and to keep alive the “unfinished agenda” slogan, has worked well by spreading stories such as how “the Indian Army does not allow Kashmiris to pray in mosques.” The many violations of human rights by the Indian Army on this side of Kashmir also provide grist to the Pakistani mill. But the CBMs have helped the people to understand the realities better.

“It is the best mechanism to build understanding on both sides,” said Abdul Hamid a refugee from Kashmir of the cross LoC bus service. Since there are thousands of divided families on both sides, the bus service is most sought after but has left people disappointed due to the procedures involved. Cross-LoC trade too is mired in bottlenecks over currency and the absence of proper communication facilities between the two sides. Most believe that the potential of these CBMs will remain unfulfilled unless they are made more accessible.

To the Kashmiri eye, the two sides have many similarities as well as differences. But as the CBMs have shown, with some constructive policies, there is much space to bring them together at both social, economic and psychological levels.

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