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Although Islamabad has always supported Kashmir’s UN-sanctioned Right to Self Determination, it has also been wary of Kashmiri nationalism that envisions a state free from both India and Pakistan.

By Zia Ur Rehman

October 15, 2019

https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/independent-kashmir-the-thought-that-unnerves-both-india-and-pakistan-30590

On two different occasions in the recent past, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged the people of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which is locally called Azad Kashmir, that they should not cross the contentious Line of Control (LoC) and enter the other side of Kashmir, held by India since 1947.

The people in Azad Kashmir are deeply moved by the fast deteriorating human rights situation in India-administered Kashmir, where New Delhi instigated a political crisis on August 5 by ending the semi-autonomous status of the region. It scrapped a legislation that largely acted as a guardian of its majority Muslim demography as well as giving Kashmiri people some exclusive property rights. The unilateral move was accompanied by a strict military curfew and complete communication shutdown, with the internet and mobile telecommunications being completely cut off in the disputed Himalayan region.

The impact of the siege not only affected an estimate of eight million people of India-administered Kashmir but also hurt the emotions of the people of Pakistan-administered Kashmir since the two divided sides share strong familial, religious and cultural bonds.

In the last two months, several large processions were held in Azad Kashmir to show solidarity with the people of besieged Kashmir. On a couple of occasions the protesters attempted to cross the de-facto LoC, without appearing to care much about their safety, as the Indian army stationed across are always ready to open fire on a whim.

On October 4, Khan had a strong message for the people wanting to cross over in desperation. He warned them against much such move, saying they “will be playing into the hands of India”, the country which he said is hellbent on labelling the indigenous Kashmiri struggle as Pakistan-backed “Islamic terrorism”.

The statement came on the day when thousands of members of a pro-independence group in Pakistan-administered Kashmir were marching toward the LoC in condemnation of the lockdown in India-held Kashmir.

Since the Indian repression in besieged Kashmir increased manifold following New Delhi’s draconian move on August 5, major pro-independence political groups in Azad Kashmir, which has as a nominally self-governing jurisdiction over four million people, have fast mobilised. The movement has drawn large crowds and raised the call for the complete independence of the entire Jammu and Kashmir region from both India and Pakistan.

In the past protest rallies, only anti-India and pro-freedom slogans including “Kashmir banega Pakistan” (Kashmir will become Pakistan) were chanted, but this time it’s different. The emotionally-charged protesters, mostly youngsters, are asking both New Delhi and Islamabad to leave their “motherland” and allow the people of Jammu and Kashmir to have an independent nation state.

Although Pakistan has always supported the UN-sanctioned plebiscite for Jammu and Kashmir and even fought three wars with India over the disputed territory, Islamabad did not allow protesters to go near the LoC, blocking the procession with large containers, barbed wire and wooden planks.

The protesters are however determined to move forward. The Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a political group devoted to the independence of the disputed region, decided to hold an indefinite sit-in at Jiskol, a hilly region just a few kilometres away from the dividing de-facto border line. Their sit-in entered ninth day on October 14.

On September 7, another JKLF faction led a long march to a region close to the LoC in the neighbouring Poonch district. As the marchers attempted to cross the line, Pakistani police used tear gas shells to disperse them and arrested at least 30 protesters. To justify the police action, the government said it was done “in the interest of their protection from the risk of Indian shelling”.

The detainees were released a few days later.

Analysts believe that rallies organised by pro-independence groups such as JKLF —  that attracted a few dozen protesters in the past —  are now attracting large gatherings, in thousands.

In the past three decades, the JKLF has made three attempts to cross the LoC. In one attempt in February 1992, 12 people were killed and more than 150 injured after Pakistani law enforcement agencies opened fire to restrict them from getting closer to the dividing line.

Some security analysts argue that such adventurism could harm Kashmir’s struggle for freedom from India’s rule.

“Pakistan is very much careful not to give any pretext to India that dire situation in India-held Kashmir is the outcome of any militancy allegedly sponsored from the outside,” Jan Achakzai, an Islamabad-based political commentator, told TRT World.

“Islamabad will never fall back on old ways. There is already huge pressure on India due to Western human rights diplomacy asking India to normalise the situation in India-held Kashmir.”

Another expert on the 70-year conflict and a native of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir region, Ershad Mahmud, said locals crossing over to Indian-held Kashmir would give the far-right BJP government an opportunity to shift international focus from the crippling curfew and human rights crisis to cross-border ‘intrusions’.

So far the United States has welcomed Khan’s “unambiguous and important” statement warning Pakistanis against going to Kashmir to wage an armed insurgency.

A large number of Kashmiris in Pakistan are however unhappy with Khan warning them against crossing over to the other side of the LoC.

Jameel Hussain, a 25-year-old student from Poonch, said three of his family members participated in the JKLF rally because half of their extended family lives across the LoC. “The LoC would be a border for India and Pakistan, but Kashmiris do not recognise it,” he told TRT World.

Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir said in a tweet that Khan’s statement had been creating misconceptions and he should take Kashmiri leaders into confidence after attending the United National General Assembly’s meeting last month.

“Kashmiris do not accept the LoC. AJK’s all political parties want to break the LoC. Then how did it become India’s narrative?” Mir questioned.

The pro-independence groups also demand that Pakistani should hand the responsibility of diplomacy on the Kashmir issue over to the federal government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir since its legislative assembly is capable of lobbying in the West, with a vibrant and well-educated diaspora, some among the parliamentarians in the US, Canada and the UK, backing it up in Europe and North America.

Political discourses in Azad Kashmir

The political arena of Pakistan-administered Kashmir is dominated by three schools of thought.

First, Pakistan’s mainstream political parties run their offices in the region and take part in elections for its local parliament – called the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Legislative Assembly. These parties are under severe pressure from Kashmiri residents for not formulating a bold Kashmir policy, something that could have put India on the backfoot.

Second, militant groups, such as Hizbul Mujahideen, Jammat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Muhammad, which India considers terrorist organisations for waging a guerilla insurgency against New Delhi in Kashmir.

But in recent crisis, most militant groups operating in Kashmir have preferred to remain silent because any major assault against India’s military is likely to trigger another round of hostility between India and Pakistan, putting the latter in a difficult position. Pakistan is already on the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list, dealing with allegations of “sponsoring terrorism” to target India.

Complying with its promise of cracking down on various radical armed groups,  the Pakistani government has already shut down the offices of several militant organisations after the February Pulwama suicide attack in India-administered Kashmir.

Third, several smaller pro-independent political groups who do not take part in electoral politics and instead seek a separate state free from Indian and Pakistani intervention.

From Pakistan to national freedom

The nature of armed rebellion in India-administered Kashmir has changed from being one fighting for an independent Kashmir in the early 1990s to one wanting to merge the region with Pakistan. In the last few years, according to some observers, the militancy has once again started to gravitate toward the idea of a free, independent Kashmir.

With radical militant groups losing popularity and support base in Pakistan, the Kashmiri insurgency is also changing. After the killing of 22-year-old Kashmiri militant commander Burhan Wani, who’d become  a social media sensation in the disputed region, the radical militant groups present in Pakistan-administered Kashmir were fast becoming irrelevant, said a Qari Abid Ali, a cleric in Rawalpindi, who has been observing the Kashmir insurgency since the 1980s.

Wani was instrumental in reviving the local militancy and popularising it through his video messages highlighting India’s bad human rights record in the region and asking Kashmiri youth to stand up to Indian repression.

In view of Pakistan’s growing hostility toward radical armed groups operating in the country, Ali, the cleric, said many militant organisations that fought for Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan are no longer thinking along the same lines.

When Pakistan supported Kashmir’s armed group JKLF in 1989, providing training to its fighters in light of an armed uprising, the idea of a free Kashmir without India and Pakistan did not go down well with major decision makers of the Pakistani political and military establishment, Ali said.

“After realising that JKLF’s key agenda of ‘free and democratic Kashmir’ could pose a threat to Pakistan’s strategic interests in the region, Pakistan started working on a policy of marginalisation of pro-independent groups in Pakistan-held Kashmir,” he added. “Even Jihadi groups on both sides of LoC are now talking about ‘independent Islamic Kashmir’ and it is worrying both Pakistan and India.”