Posters of wailing mothers and battered children, of Indian officials attacking the 'honour' of Muslim women, of beatings and thrashing of young boys, mark the Kashmir Highway in Islamabad ahead of Kashmir Solidarity Day, or Kashmir Day, observed as a public holiday in Pakistan every 5th of February.
"Kashmir is the unfinished agenda of Partition!" "Kashmir is Pakistan's jugular vein!," "Kashmir and Pakistan are like one soul in two hearts!"
These are some of the common slogans every year on this day, to show support for Kashmiris living under Indian hegemony on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC).
Hafiz Saeed — the Punjabi self-proclaimed leader of Kashmiris — usually makes an appearance, as do other parties advocating for jihad in Kashmir.
Ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter also rallied today, with the latter shouting the erstwhile slogan, "Kashmir banay ga Pakistan" (Kashmir will become Pakistan).
The struggle must go on, they say. Pakistan won’t rest till Kashmiris are freed from Indian occupation.
In-depth: The pursuit of Kashmir
Over the past decade, however, Kashmir had failed to evoke the same passion in Pakistanis as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Gallup Pakistan — which conducts periodic polls on Pakistani perceptions of the Kashmir conflict — revealed in 2016 that there is growing pessimism amongst Pakistanis over Kashmir’s independence.
Over the past 25 years, there has been a 14% increase in the number of Pakistani respondents who believe that it will take quite some time for Kashmir to gain independence; 19% increase in those who believe Kashmir will not be able to gain independence at all; and a 14% decrease in those who believed that Kashmir would gain independence in one or two years as compared to when the poll was first conducted in 1990.
The study also reveals that participation in Kashmir Day events fell to its lowest in 2015 when only 1% of Pakistanis actually took part in any events. Participation has generally remained low since 2010.
However, since Burhan Wani’s — commander of Hizbul Mujahideen — killing by the Indian army in July 2016, a new spell of violence has been unleashed in Indian-held Kashmir (IHK).
Pellet injuries, death and persecution are infused in the toxic air that continues to suffocate Kashmiris. Kashmir has once again come to the forefront and political forces in Pakistan are perhaps observing Kashmir Day with greater zest to show their opposition to their historic foe, India.
Lahore’s streets are full of Punjab government’s posters about Kashmir Day. The Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan has also put up posters depicting Indian violence.
Emerging political forces, like Khadim Rizvi's Tehreek Laibaik Ya Rasool Allah, are also cashing in on the day, pledging solidarity to Kashmiris.
In light of this renewed vigour, one must ask whether Pakistan is only reacting this way because of India’s aggressive policies towards Pakistan recently — not least the claims of surgical strikes and hostile statements by the Indian Army Chief who seems to be playing an increasingly politicised role under Modi’s regime.
Kashmir was on the boil in 2010 as well. Is it Kashmir then that evokes passion in Pakistanis or is it anti-India rhetoric? It seems as if Kashmir has been completely consumed by the bilateral politics of India and Pakistan.
Emotions become heightened only when relations between the two countries sour. This bilateralism becomes even more problematic when it comes to the state of affairs of Azad Kashmiris.
By pledging solidarity to Kashmiris in IHK only, the underlying assumption is that Kashmiris on this side of the LoC are fully emancipated and satisfied.
They face no injustices, they have no grievances. No one needs to stand in solidarity with them. AJK is often ignored in discussions on Kashmir, only becoming relevant when Indian forces shell, killing scores of innocent civilians living by the LoC.
A closer look into AJK, however, reveals a dire state of affairs. 2017 marked the highest number of ceasefire violations since the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Already, over 200 ceasefire violations have been reported in 2018.
Men, women and children living by the LoC face the brunt of cross-loC shelling, but the Pakistani government stays removed from these areas.
Occasional visits by military and political officials to inspect the areas do little to alleviate the concerns of the people of AJK.
Just this past week, nine people were injured in Khuirratta, Kotli District. However, when locals came out to protest the shelling, they were forced to retreat.
Of course, one can argue that Indian shelling is beyond Pakistan’s control. What can Pakistan do if the enemy ruthlessly fires at civilians? But then who is in charge of providing bunkers and basic amenities to the civilian population?
Why has the civilian population not been relocated from areas scarred by shelling? Where is their compensation and allowance? Whose responsibility is it if not the civilian government’s and the Pakistani administration’s?
Last year when I visited Neelum Valley to enquire about the conditions of families living by the LoC, the locals told me that the civilian government was largely absent from the area.
During another visit to Naykal Sector in Kotli, I met with a young girl whose mother had been killed by a splinter.
"It was Eid and we had tied the goats outside. At night the Indian army shelled and the mortar sliced our goat into two. When my mother went outside to see the animals, a splinter hit her.
"No one was willing to take her to the hospital during the shelling. People were asking for lakhs of rupees to cross the road.
"When we finally took her to a hospital, they told us we had to take her to CMH Rawalpindi for proper treatment. She died in the process."
The young girl emphasised how important it was to have a fully functioning hospital in the area. After all, Nakyal Sector has faced one of the worst ceasefire violations in recent years. Casualties are frequent.
It should perhaps be the government’s primary responsibility to equip the hospital and ensure that victims receive timely help.
The same money spent on posters and rallies would be better spent on uplifting the quality of medical services in the area, which can actually save lives.
The deceased’s husband further complained that "when someone dies in shelling incidents on the working boundary in Punjab, they are given five lakhs in compensation; when my wife died, we only got three lakhs. Are Kashmiri lives less important than Punjabi lives?"
Roads are full of rubble, sewage pipelines are not laid, and doctor-to-patient ratio is alarmingly low. Water and power shortages undermine economic activity in an area where dams have been constructed to fulfill the rest of Pakistan’s energy needs.
Royalties are not given because AJK is not a province of Pakistan, but when it comes to implementing projects that benefit other parts of Pakistan, the area is taken for granted as a part of the country. No permissions are sought from the local government before launching projects that aid Pakistan’s development.
Locals in Neelum Valley have been campaigning for a road from Athmuqam to Taobat; three Pakistani prime ministers — Yousaf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Nawaz Sharif — have come and gone, each promising construction but to no avail.
Kashmiris tell me promises are only made to be broken in this region.
This Kashmir Day, who will stand up for Azad Kashmiris? Are they not Kashmiri enough? Are they not deserving of intervention and attention? Are their basic rights not important?
Will Hafiz Saeed and Khadim Rizvi stand up for them too? Will the Punjab government and the federal government take responsibility for them beyond putting up posters every Kashmir Day?
Will solidarity with Kashmiris extend to this side of the LoC as well, to the ‘azad’ counterpart of the ‘occupied’? And will that solidarity still remain even when India-Pakistan relations improve?
Perhaps it would be more constructive to ponder over some of these questions rather than chest thumping and sloganeering every 5th of February.
Solidarity must be shown through sustained development policies, protection of basic rights, and provision of basic amenities.
Posters may instigate sympathies for Kashmiris in Pakistan but that sympathy is nothing but a hallow commitment to the Kashmiri cause when the very Kashmiris the state represents are overshadowed in jingoistic displays in the name of ‘solidarity.’
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