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NON-FICTION: OUR SLICE OF HEAVEN

Updated September 09, 2018

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Whose side are you on: a view of Keran in Neelum Valley, with ‘Azad’ Kashmir on the right and India-held Kashmir on the left, and the Neelum river in between acting as a natural ‘border’ between the two regions | Photo from the book
Whose side are you on: a view of Keran in Neelum Valley, with ‘Azad’ Kashmir on the right and India-held Kashmir on the left, and the Neelum river in between acting as a natural ‘border’ between the two regions | Photo from the book

For many Pakistanis, the words ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) — Free, or Pakistan-administered Kashmir — conjure up images of apple blossoms, beautiful peaks, touristic bliss and national pride. These images are cultivated in our political imagination in juxtaposition to scenes of state-terror, human rights violations and religious bigotry in ‘Maqbooza’ Kashmir — Occupied, or India-held Kashmir. Plenty of attention and solidarity is dedicated to Kashmiris living in India-held Kashmir. Our brothers and sisters in Azad Kashmir, however, are seldom remembered in our thoughts.

The Kashmiri conflict is most commonly discussed in reference to the geopolitical tussles between Pakistan and India. Both countries lay claim to the region, have fought three wars to make it their own and regularly exchange diplomatic fury and military fire over the infamous Line of Control (LoC). What is lost in the process are the voices of Kashmiris — voices that have been swallowed up by narratives that see Pakistan and India as the true makers of Kashmiri history. So much so that we only hear about Azad Kashmiris as the passive martyrs of cross-border shelling.

Anam Zakaria’s new book, Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, brings these voices to the centre as it “explores the larger Kashmir conflict through the lens of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris.” The book is a collection of oral history interviews — an increasingly popular method of enquiry that looks at history not to determine ‘objective’ facts per se, but to dissect memory and subjectivity and analyse them as “facts of history.” It seeks to decipher the historical force generated by subjectivities.

A new book uses oral histories to explore the larger Kashmir conflict through the lens of Azad Kashmiris

Oral history gives primacy to the voices of ordinary citizens without devaluing traditional historical sources; instead, it looks at the interplay between various sources, between official and non-official narratives, and discards the usual academic pretences of objectivity. Needless to say, this is an approach that opens up exciting possibilities in the field of history. Zakaria is cognisant of oral history’s limitations and harnesses its strengths effectively, showing us that it is not only geography that is disputed in Kashmir, but history too.

The book is divided into three parts, with the first “seeking to understand the origins of the conflict at the time of Partition” (for example, the infamous ‘tribal’ raids). The second part “studies the conflict from the perspective of the state with the aim of deconstructing official narratives.” Interviews with Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, Jehangir Karamat, and the former president of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Sardar Muhammad Yaqoob Khan, make up this section of the book. The last part “looks beyond the 2003 ceasefire to understand the role of state and non-state actors in Kashmir today, and explores the current grievances of ‘Azad’ Kashmiris through the narratives of nationalists as well as pro-Pakistan supporters.”

As Zakaria writes, “It seeks to understand what peace and freedom mean in ‘Azad’ Kashmir.”

The official narrative of the Kashmiri conflict — that my generation was taught at school — is that at the time of Partition, Kashmir was a Muslim-majority state with socio-economic ties to Pakistani Punjab and it was ruled by an anti-Muslim Hindu prince who joined India against the wishes of his people. Pakistan intervened in support of Kashmiris, pressuring India to promise a plebiscite, which it never honoured. In this narrative, Kashmiris are instrumentalised as a symbol of Pakistani victimhood when, in fact, the Kashmiri struggle for independence and self-determination predates 1947. As pointed out by several interviewees, the tribal raids were a mistake that took away agency and authenticity from Kashmir’s struggle for independence: “We could have won our independence without this meddling,” says one of them. Others claim that the tribal raids and the subsequent communal violence that ensued between religious groups irrecoverably altered social relations in the Valley.

The biggest casualty of the raids, Zakaria suggests, might have been the collapse of “Kashmiriyat”, a notion of collective identity “defined in terms of the region’s tolerance of multiple cultures and religions.”

The legacies of these raids — compounded by the marriage of religion and nationalism in Pakistan — have led to tragic consequences in terms of social relations between different religious groups in Azad Kashmir. Sometimes these fractures manifest themselves within the same family. One Sikh interviewee recalls a branch of his family that had converted to Islam and stayed in Azad Kashmir after Partition: “His son, a little too self-conscious of his Sikh heritage, grew up as a junooni (fiery) Muslim, constantly trying to prove himself as a pure Muslim. Though extremely helpful, he refused to walk with me in his hometown in Pakistan because he was afraid to be seen in the streets with a man wearing a turban.” This is not a unique phenomenon, nor is it limited to our national borders: in Pakistan and India, “religious minorities have to exert their allegiance to the state over and over again,” writes Zakaria.

India claims that in October 1947, Pakistan sent sectarian ‘tribal forces’ into Kashmir to illegally annex the independent state, committing an act of aggression that India could not ignore. “In India, the discourse centres on the savagery of Muslim invaders and the fundamentalist nature of Islam that secular India must protect itself — and its atoot ang [unbreakable part] Kashmir — against,” writes Zakaria. The problem with this narrative, she asserts, is that it also “ignores the indigenous resistance against the state prior to the entry of the ‘tribesmen’” and conflates the alleged Pakistan-sponsored militancy with indigenous forms of political resistance. As one former mujahid points out, “the Kashmir conflict is a personal conflict for every Kashmiri.” While Pakistan might have aided the insurgency in some way or the other, India will eventually have to take responsibility for making life unbearable in the Valley.

But so far, India has been in denial about its excesses, hiding behind accusations of meddling. In the 1980s and 1990s, when a strong wave of protests and insurgency took hold of the Valley, Indian forces once again accused Pakistan of sponsoring religious militancy, and used it as justification for brutal acts of collective punishment against dissidents of all colours. Faced with grave human rights violations, including widespread torture and harassment, many Kashmiris from India-held Kashmir fled for ‘Azad’ Kashmir in Pakistan, leaving their families behind, hoping that the fresh agitations would bear fruit and they would soon return to their homes, “this time in their own Azad Kashmir.” They are still waiting.

One refugee remembers arriving in Azad Kashmir to be greeted by sympathetic soldiers who served him tea and offered their shoes to refugees who did not have any. The help and solidarity these refugees received from Pakistan was indeed crucial to their survival and this is something we can be proud of as a nation. But we cannot cherry-pick the good to justify the bad — we must also recognise the pain and suffering our policies have caused.

Today, a closer inspection of the political situation in ‘Azad’ Kashmir reveals a sad state of affairs. A source from the AJK government complains to Zakaria: “Kashmiris have to beg for basic necessities [such as] water, even though thousands have been displaced in Kashmir [because of] the construction of dams on Kashmiri rivers.”

“We cannot speak up locally because our powers are so curbed, nor internationally because after the 1974 Act, it was decided that the AJK government couldn’t raise any issue unilaterally unless it goes via the Kashmir Council, which is dominated by Pakistanis,” he adds. A deafening silence surrounds these stark realities in Azad Kashmir.

Between the Great Divide is a unique and urgent book because not only does it give us a crucial historical perspective on the broader Kashmiri conflict, but it also compels us to reflect on what azadi means in Pakistan. It effectively demonstrates how, in the land of the pure, the word azadi is often tainted by historical amnesia and national vanity, drained of its meaning and substance.

By weaving these Kashmiri voices together, Zakaria urges us to add more depth and sincerity to our solidarity towards our Kashmiri friends. If we truly believe ourselves to be their allies, we must go beyond the great divide and pay heed to their voices. This book is an important step in that direction.

The reviewer is a journalist and sociologist, based in Berlin.

Between the Great Divide:
A Journey into Pakistan-
Administered Kashmir
By Anam Zakaria
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978-9352779475
282pp.

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