Azad Kashmir today: Mountain paradise turned into a hell by Pakistani Islamists
Posted by jagoindia on February 17, 2010
By Ahmad Faruqui
Monday, 15 Feb, 2010 Azad Kashmir’s future is as murky today as it was in 1947. —
Azad Kashmir was created within two months of Pakistan’s independence with high expectations. Nestled in the mountainous western region that abuts the vale of Kashmir, it forms an archer’s bow that is about 100 miles long and about 20-40 miles wide.
The Pakistani security elite hoped that an arrow fired from the bow would bring about the instant liberation of the vale of Kashmir from Indian occupation. The first arrow was fired almost within days of creation.
It plunged the entire region of Kashmir into armed conflict. Fourteen months later, a ceasefire sponsored by the United Nations took effect on Jan 1, 1949. The ceasefire line remained stationary despite several attempts to move it. But after the 1971 war which saw the secession of East Pakistan, it was renamed the Line-of-Control (LoC). That militaristic designation persists to this day since the line which separates the two Kashmirs has not been formalised as an international border.
‘Azad’ means free and Azad Kashmir was supposed to serve as a model state whose liberty and freedom would inspire rebellion in Indian-administered Kashmir. That did not happen for several reasons. Constitutionally, Azad Kashmir is not a part of Pakistan. But neither is it an independent state. For its entire 62-year history, it has depended on Pakistan for its economic and political survival. It does not even issue its own postage stamps.
Because Islamabad has always exercised its claim on the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, Azad Kashmir is not counted as a fifth province of Pakistan. But for all practical purposes, Muzaffarabad lives under Islamabad’s shadow. Its first government was established on Oct 24, 1947 with Sardar Mohammed Ibrahim as president. On Nov 3, 1947, Azad Kashmir sought unsuccessfully to join the United Nations as a member state.
In March 1949, after the dust had settled along the ceasefire line, Azad Kashmir signed a power-sharing arrangement with the Government of Pakistan ceding all authority related to defence, foreign affairs, refugees and the plebiscite to Pakistan.
Pakistan created a Ministry for Kashmir Affairs to look after its newest asset. However, as events would show, the ministry was soon preoccupied with influencing political direction in Azad Kashmir. Not surprisingly, the ministry’s directives were not always well received by Azad Kashmiris. At times, they were met with stiff resistance.
In 1955, Pakistan declared martial law in some parts of Azad Kashmir to suppress street violence triggered by the Kashmir Act. In 1957, Pakistan resorted to police action to quell a public meeting that was seeking direct action to create a united and liberated Kashmir. In 1961, President Ayub Khan carried out indirect elections in Azad Kashmir through a Basic Democracies Ordinance which legally only applied to Pakistan, further straining ties with the Azad Kashmiris.
Subsequently, faced with Islamabad’s dominance in their day-to-day affairs, several Azad Kashmiri leaders started a movement for liberating Indian-held Kashmir not for Pakistan but for creating a separate Kashmiri state. This further aggravated ties with Pakistan. While all this was happening, Jammu and Kashmir was inducted into the Indian union.
In 1965, the Pakistani army launched a covert war inside Indian Kashmir seeking to instigate a popular rebellion. This arrow too missed its target. Instead, it enraged India which launched a strong counter-offensive along the international border with West Pakistan.
Under the weight of the Indian elephant, the Pakistani military hastily called of its operations in Kashmir. The war ended in an UN-brokered ceasefire along the international border with minimal changes in the Kashmiri line. After the war, Pakistan lost its urge to light a fire across the Line of Control (LoC). Matters changed in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and the Pakistani military, with US and Saudi assistance, began training legions of Mujahideen to evict the godless communists.
After a bruised and battered Red Army pulled out of Kabul in 1989, Indian Jammu and Kashmir found itself in the grip of a large-scale revolt. Whether this was a purely indigenous movement or a corollary to events in Kabul continues to enrich scholarly volumes.
Regardless of the cause, the uprising in the vale provided the Kashmir hawks in Pakistan’s security elite yet another opportunity to press on with their objective. They reactivated their bases in Azad Kashmir and once again decided to fire arrows into Indian Jammu and Kashmir. Soon, ‘freedom fighters,’ armed and trained allegedly by the Pakistan Army, were rolling across in droves across the LoC.
Azad Kashmir was again in the cross-hairs of armed conflict. Against this backdrop, Pakistan under Gen Ziaul Haq decided to legally separate the geographically much larger Northern Areas of Gilgit and Baltistan from Azad Kashmir. This caused almost as much consternation in the latter as it did in India. The separation of the Northern Areas by Pakistan eliminated all doubts about the sovereignty of Azad Kashmir. With the reactivation of conflict across the Line-of-Control, the quality of life of the Azad Kashmiris was trammelled. Those who did not want to take part in the proxy war became pariahs.
Most of the cross-border infiltration was halted in the wake of 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan. The attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 was designed to reinvigorate the Kashmir issue but all it did was bring India and Pakistan to the brink of full-scale war in 2002. For a while the Musharraf regime sought to differentiate the struggle for freedom in Kashmir from political acts of terror but its spin failed to gain traction with the world community. Cross-border terrorism was quiet for several years.
The attacks on Mumbai by a group linked to militant activities in Kashmir in November 2008 were an attempt to reignite the conflict but succeeded only in drawing widespread opprobrium. During the past 62 years, the people of Azad Kashmir have been unable to arise out of poverty in large measure because they are caught in the crossfire between India and Pakistan. The land which their elders knew as a mountain paradise has been turned into a living hell.
Of the four million people who inhabit the region, nine of 10 live in extremely impoverished conditions in rural areas. Population growth is excessive, at 2.4 per cent per year, and the average house holds no fewer than seven people. Sadly, Azad Kashmir’s future is as murky today as it was in 1947. And the objective for its creation, the liberation of the vale of Kashmir, seems increasingly remote.