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Anam Zakaria is a researcher, development professional, educationist, and winner of the KLF-German Peace Prize 2017 for her book The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians. With the release of her new book, Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, she speaks to Eos about the importance of looking at the lesser-discussed side of the Kashmir valley

What motivated you to do this research on Azad Kashmir?

Kashmir had always piqued my interest. My cook and his family, who I grew up with, were Kashmiri and every summer they would return to Neelum Valley to visit relatives. During the 1990s, when Neelum Valley was victim to artillery barrages and heavy mortar shelling and bloodshed had become the norm in many villages, I remember the constant anxiety about whether they would return safely. And when they would come back, the children would share a myriad of stories — some of the magnificence and beauty of Kashmir and others of terrifying experiences of hiding in jungles and behind mountains to escape the ‘enemy forces’ across the line. It was several years after the 2003 ceasefire — when relative normalcy returned to the region — that I finally had a chance to visit. It was then that I began to understand the implications of the wider Kashmir conflict on this region. Disheartened to see how little even Pakistanis knew about the everyday realities of Azad Kashmiris, I was pushed to explore their lived experiences of the ongoing conflict by travelling through parts of the region and conversing with the people. What do we learn about the broader Kashmir conflict through the lens of Azad Kashmir?

How did the oral history method enable this research?

The power of oral histories rests in their ability to unearth narratives often silenced or forgotten in the mainstream discourse. I chose to use the oral history method as it allowed me to explore historical events and political realities from a personal perspective. I wanted to understand how the larger conflict had impacted people on this side of the Line of Control (LoC). The oral history method allowed me to sit with women and understand how they had survived a 14-year long war, prior to the 2003 ceasefire; to work with refugees and understand what it means to be divided from one’s family for decades; to speak to former militants to understand what it takes to pick up arms against the Indian state and what personal costs it entails. Oral histories are also very powerful in deconstructing the impact of state policies and actions, particularly the impact of the wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971 on ordinary Kashmiris. The oral histories documented in this book reveal how important it is to record both memories of peace and of conflict, for the two together show what is at stake each time the LoC is activated.

We seldom hear about Azad Kashmir. The region hasn’t received enough attention. Why do you think that is?

I was struck by how little we know about Azad Kashmir throughout the journey of researching and writing this book. Through my conversations with Pakistanis, Indians and Kashmiris from India-held Kashmir, I realised that the region is often only viewed and understood in juxtaposition to the ‘other side’ of Kashmir. Most discussions on Azad Kashmir take place in context of India-held Kashmir. Azad Kashmir’s own identity, its own politics, grievances and aspirations are seldom discussed. Since the socio-political climate is so tense across the LoC and since the cycle of violence is unending in India-held Kashmir, in the dominant discourse and imagination, Azad Kashmir is at times overshadowed.

What aspirations do Azad Kashmiris hold?

One of the most recurrent demands is that of peace. The 2003 ceasefire gave temporary respite to many of the villages by the LoC. However, each time Pakistan-India relations sour, the LoC is activated and families living by the line have to face the brunt of it. In the wake of Burhan Wani’s killing in 2016, cross-LoC tensions escalated and the areas which had remained peaceful since the ceasefire were caught in between artillery barrages once again. Tourism was disrupted, livelihoods damaged, old bunkers quickly renovated and refurnished. Even those who live further from the LoC are desperate for peace so

that the economy can flourish and the region can progress. The fact that the Kashmir conflict is often reduced to bilateral dialogue — and many times lack thereof, too — is a significant grievance and Kashmiris feel that both countries need to initiate a robust and uninterrupted dialogue of which they are a part.

Politically and administratively, too, there is a demand for greater autonomy and more empowerment of the local government. The recent 13th amendment to the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974 is being hailed as a significant step in the right direction. However, others feel that a greater transfer of power is needed from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad to strengthen democracy and embolden the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government. Unemployment, lack of development, water and sanitation issues and concerns regarding poor infrastructure continue to be voiced as well, but unfortunately often in vain.

What do the experiences of Azad Kashmiris tell us about the broader Kashmir conflict?

In popular imagination, Kashmiri identity is often reduced to the Kashmiri language, spoken by the people of Kashmir Valley. However, my work on Azad Kashmir reveals that Kashmiri identity is far more than a linguistic identity. Rather, for many Kashmiris it is a political identity that transcends linguistic barriers and is linked to the wider movement for self-determination and empowerment. The fact that Azad Kashmir has retained the name ‘Kashmir’ and many people in Azad Kashmir associate with the Kashmiri identity, shows that any dialogue or potential resolutions on the Kashmir dispute must engage the people of this region.

Further, by looking at the conflict through Azad Kashmir’s lens, it becomes apparent that the impact of the conflict is not restricted to India-held Kashmir alone and that Azad Kashmiris remain critical stakeholders in what happens in the region. Victims to mortar shelling, Azad Kashmiris are aware that peace and stability in Azad Kashmir cannot be restored until the demands of Kashmiris across the divide are addressed. After all, what happens on the other side of the LoC has significant impact on them. In fact, the presence of thousands of refugees from India-held Kashmir also shows how Azad Kashmir continues to be a part of the larger conflict. It reveals the human impact of protracted conflicts and the far-reaching implications of the Kashmir dispute.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 9th, 2018