Participants of the ‘peoples’ freedom march’ under the aegis of pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) reached near Jiskool on Sunday, a spot where the administration and police have blocked Muzaffarabad-Srinagar highway by placing containers, barbed wires, electricity poles and mounds of earth, witnesses said.
“Hum le ke rahengay azadi (We will get freedom by all means),” they were heard chanting constantly, while waving flags of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and their party (JKLF).
At present, the protest has entered a stalemate, with the administration insisting the march be called off and the protesters demanding the removal of the road blockade.
Muhammad Rafiq Dar, central spokesperson for the JKLF, told Dawn that the protesters, currently staging a sit-in, will wait until tomorrow for the removal of the containers.
"If they don't, we will continue to stage a sit-in here and announce our next plan after that," he said.
Dar said the march was a peaceful programme aimed at expressing solidarity with the besieged Kashmiris and drawing the attention of the international community towards the urgent need of an immediate and peaceful settlement to the long pending [Kashmir] issue. He said that his group did not want to engage in any kind of confrontation with the local law enforcement personnel.
“We are not for any kind of confrontation or violence because that will serve the Indian purpose,” he told Dawn.
Earlier in the day, Dar had urged the AJK administration to remove the containers so that the marchers could reach Chakothi, a village which is 3 kilometres before the Line of Control (LoC) but is overlooked by Indian gun positions atop lofty mountains across the divide.
“I hope they will allow us carry on our peaceful march to the town of Chakothi,” he had said.
The marchers had started their journey from Garhi Dupatta, located some 20 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad, at 10:30am, but on vehicles and motorcycles.
The caravan reached Hattian Bala, 40kms from Muzaffarbad, at about 12:15pm, where they were warmly welcomed by local residents.
“It was really a rousing welcome,” said Saleem Haroon, one of the JKLF leaders.
A little before Hattian Bala, the caravan was joined by another rally that had started from Bagh via the famous hill resorts of Sudhan Galli and Chikar.
From Hattian Bala, the marchers once again started walking on foot and reached Chinari by 3:15pm.
Chinari is located around 50 kilometres from Muzaffarabad and some 11 kilometres before the LoC. There, the participants had taken a break for refreshments and Zuhr prayers.
Jiskool, close to where the caravan has currently stopped, is located around two kilometres ahead of Chinari.
Video clips shared by the participants on social media showed exemplary response of locals, who offered food, fresh fruits, juices and water to the marchers apart from showering rose petals on them.
While in Chinari, the JKLF central spokesperson had told Dawn that they would hold consultations for their next course of action.
“We know the road ahead is blocked. And the place where the containers have been laid is narrow with steep mountains and river [Jhelum] on the right and left, respectively [...] We don’t want even a single participant to suffer any harm there,” he said.
“We have to save our energies for [confrontation with] India.”
Dar had anticipated that by sunset the crowd would thin out, and the rest of the participants would stage a sit-in half a kilometre before the containers until the next move.
On the other side of the containers in Jiskool, Divisional Commissioner Chaudhry Imtiaz, Deputy Inspector General Police Sardar Ilyas Khan, Jhelum Valley Deputy Commissioner Imran Shaheen and Superintendent Police Arshad Naqvi were also present.
Leaders of the march had been invited by the administration for talks.
“We have already humbly informed the organisers that there is a serious threat of Indian shelling. The Indians would not only target the marchers but also the entire civilian population in this area, something they have never hesitated from in the past," Imtiaz told Dawn by telephone.
When asked if the marchers could be allowed up to Chakothi for a sit-in there, he said: “It is our primary responsibility to protect [the lives of] the marchers. The last point where we could allow them to reach is this [Jiskool]. Beyond this point is the firing range, therefore there is no question of allowing them,” he said.