"This is not Azad Kashmir. For us, it is azab Kashmir," a refugee from India-occupied Kashmir now living in one of the 30 camps in Pakistani Kashmir said to me once.
He was mocking the area's name, which should emphasise its freedom. Living in makeshift camps, sometimes for decades, with often very limited access to basic infrastructure and employment opportunities, I was always confused with how refugees from an area Pakistan has officially always wanted to claim are left hanging. But then, there is nothing easy to understand about Kashmir, an area politically and historically laden with feigned interest and biased opinions.
News about Kashmir in the Pakistani media most often focuses on the Indian side of the border. Most people are not only unaware of the present situation in the region, they are also unfamiliar with the historical burden that may be necessary to understand its present state. With such a lack of advocacy itself in Pakistan and abroad - often with Kashmir being seen as synonymous with India-occupied Kashmir - the fate of the refugees in Azad Kashmir appears doubly neglected.
When combing remote villages of Poonch during the reconstruction projects we were carrying out in the area, we stumbled on a small commemorative monument which my friend, without being able to read, identified as a tribute to the local Muslims killed by the Mahraja's forces. I was doubtful, aware of the general history of Pakhtun marauders who bolted east after Partition to try to secure more land for the Pakistani state. But my friend was right. The monument was older than Partition and conflicts between local Poonchis and the Maharaja's government have a long history.
Christopher Snedden, in The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir, has not shied away from this sensitive topic. To find an unbiased answer to this problem, he sifted through countless sources and conducted many interviews, especially in Azad Kashmir. Knowledge of the area (from its historical roots and their political ramifications today) enables him to look at it from a perspective other than differentiating between the two sides, the India-occupied and Azad Kashmir, as is generally done in the popular narratives. Snedden says that "a reason why little has been written about the major events in Jammu Province in 1947 is Indian and Pakistani neglect. Both governments have been engrossed in their war of words over J&K rather than factually determining what - or who - instigated the Kashmir dispute."
Half of the book is made up of invaluable additional sources, tables on elections, administration and human resources otherwise very difficult to get hold of. In one of appendices, Snedden takes a look back at the beginning of the 19th century and at the Rajas of Poonch, the descendants of Dhyan Singh, and their cousins, the Maharajas of Jammu and Kashmir, descendants of Dhyan's older brother, Gulab. He finds rivalries between the areas emanating from this point, as the Rajas of Poonch missed out on controlling their part of the dynastic heritage. And it is in Poonch in 1947, largely on the side of what is today Azad Kashmir, in Sudhnuti and Bagh districts, that an uprising against the Maharaja took place.
Snedden sees this as the major reason for the split of Kashmir. While India blames Pakistan's attempt to exert control on the area by sending Pakhtun raiders into the Kashmir Valley, Snedden argues that the Muslim population of Poonch revolted on its own and opted for accession to Pakistan. His sources show that Nehru was privately aware that most of the 'tribesmen' causing trouble were in fact Poonchi ex-servicemen from British regiments. It was only later that the prevalent story of a predominant Pakhtun force was shaped, especially after a gruesome incident in Baramulla where Pakhtuns did indeed massacre a large part of the local population while looting.
"Unable to fend off India's accusations, Pakistan acquiesced in India's tactic of defining all troublemakers in J&K as raiders and blaming all of J&K's internal problems on them." According to Snedden, Pakistan did so by "failing to do three things." Among them was not publicising the Muslim uprising in Poonch and the anti-Muslim violence in occupied Kashmir. Chiefly, however, "Pakistan failed to grant de jure recognition to the Azad Kashmir government. As it lacked legitimacy in Pakistani eyes, the new government's ability to promote itself as the only true representative of the people of J&K was severely hindered. […] J&K was part of the strategic game Pakistan was playing with India in 1947-48 to obtain the three contested princely states of J&K, Junagadh and Hyderabad. Karachi did not want to jeopardise its position on J&K by supporting an unelected government in a part, while conversely seeking a plebiscite for all of J&K [and having already] rejected the unelected pro-Indian Provisional Government [in Junagadh]."
It was from this initial political impotence that Azad Kashmir developed and remains to this date in an extraordinary position, being de facto part of the Pakistani state, but officially a 'state' - that is, azad - in its own right, with its own government.
Although real power over Azad Kashmir, its administration, resources and at times also its political structure shifted from Muzaffarabad in 1952 to the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad, the province's affairs circled largely around a few influential men from the area, and at times outsiders, put in place to make sure Pakistan's interests remained paramount.
Two of these men stand out. Their influence came from their role in Partition. They had large followings in different areas of the region and from Partition until the beginning of the 21st century they were always part of the "presidential merry-go-round," as Snedden calls the local political situation. Sardar Muhammad Ibrahim Khan, the leader of the popular Azad Kashmir Movement in 1947 (later joining PPP-AK), was the first president in October 1947 and ended his last presidency in August 2001. Sardar Muhammad Abdul Qayyum Khan became president the first time in September 1956 and ended his last presidency in July 1991 and was then prime minister until 1996. Both lived through times of waxing and waning influence of Karachi and later Islamabad, and experienced the changes that started in 1970.
At that time, Azad Kashmir got a presidential system of government and parties from mainland Pakistan started to push into the then largely uncontested dominance of Muslim Conference successors. Ibrahim and Abdul Qayyum were also leaders of their respective biradaris, a concept not specific to Kashmir, but, as Snedden argues, especially important there. South Kashmir, influenced by Punjab, is significantly different from the North where "people use half a dozen different languages, with Urdu used for inter-group communications […] Tribalism plays an important role in the affairs of the community of the people both of Azad Kashmir and of Jammu - unlike the Kashmir Valley which is fairly homogeneous ethnically."
By 2006, the military 'biradari' had become "the most unified, potent, and willful" in Kashmir. However, what Snedden calls "biradari angst," the collective fear of being left out as a tribal group, could still be felt often in the reconstruction phase after the earthquake. Often this happened on a very local scale, changing from one valley to the next. The failure to appreciate this did affect many humanitarian projects, whether carried out by Pakistani or international organisations. On the contrary, Islamabad's understanding of the situation enabled it to exploit this factionalism and remain largely in charge without noteworthy troubles.
Snedden explains these networks in vivid detail. However, this also makes the one inexcusable deficiency of the book more stark - the lack of maps. Even for a reader familiar with the smaller settlements and tehsils of Azad Kashmir, a glance at the geographical perspective would be very helpful, apart from the fact that good maps of Azad Kashmir are hard to come by.
The book largely circumvents the issues of militancy (like the presence of Lashkar-i-Taiba and its possible strength to date) and illegal opposition forces (it does explain the history and standing of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front briefly but makes no mention of the Jammu Kashmir National Students Federation, for example). This raises the quality of the publication. It focuses on the basics that need to be understood first, before the more popular topics normally associated with Kashmir can be tackled. Even in Pakistan, it is little understood how Azad Kashmir came into its present being, how it works and, most importantly, what Azad Kashmiris want.
To change this, a study like Snedden's that manages to explain lucidly the historical, political and societal basics, is of great importance. It is an exemplary analysis of one of the regions of the subcontinent that are of such importance in the wider geopolitics but have so little advocacy.
The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir
Oxford University Press, Pakistan