26 November 1999

Dateline Muzaffarabad: 'Azad' is how they want to stay

26 November 1999
The Times of India

'Azad' is the way they want to stay

By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service

MUZAFFARABAD (Pakistan- Occupied Kashmir): Perched precariously on a series of
escarpments high above the point where the Neelum and Jhelum rivers meet in frothy fury, the capital of `Azad' Kashmir does not feel like frontier territory. Though the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani troops is only a few miles away and armed militants slip across the border with apparent abandon, Muzaffarabad is surprisingly calm and peaceful, its residents more preoccupied with the vicissitudes of Pakistani politics than with developments in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.

A large cardboard and metal model of the Ghauri missile displayed prominently at the entrance to the town is perhaps the only physical marker of war the casual visitor encounters; otherwise, the steep, winding bazaars full of woollens, dry goods, bakeries and skewers of roasting meat look and smell just like any other hill station.

Unlike the Kashmir on the Indian side, there are no soldiers or paramilitary troops watching edgily from fortified bunkers, but nor are there any women visible on the streets. When asked about their absence, a fruit seller on Katcheri Road said women came in groups to shop but mostly in the mornings. ``Baqi time to gents ka hi silsila zyada chalta hai (The rest of the time it is mostly men).''

The `Azad' part of the region's name may be nomenclaturally inexact but the Pakistani
establishment takes care to keep up the fiction of separateness. The military dismissed all the provincial assemblies of Pakistan after the October 12 coup but the `Azad' Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) parliament has not been touched. Barrister Sultan Mahmood, the `prime minister', remains in place along with his cabinet.

In any case, sentiment for independence runs pretty low in these parts. Of all the people I spoke to in the bazaars, hardly anyone expressed enthusiasm for azadi from Pakistan. ``Why do we need independence?'' asked Mahmood Butt from behind a pile of green Kashmiri tobacco. ``Far from being kept down, we are better off than the rest of Pakistan. Our literacy rate is double, prices are low, there are not so many jobless.'' And what about Indian Kashmir? ``You say you are a democracy but why did you force people to vote?'' he replied as others around him nodded. ``The military has only now come to power in Pakistan, after ten years. But in Srinagar there has been virtual army rule for the past decade,'' said a bystander angrily. ``We Kashmiris will always consider ourselves Pakistanis.''

Of course, the people of Muzaffarabad, like the rest of `Azad' Kashmir, are not Kashmiri speakers. Their language is pahadi or Hindko, a cognate of Punjabi, and communication between Indian and Pakistani Kashmiris takes place in Urdu.

For ordinary people here, the Lahore Agreement between India and Pakistan represented a great betrayal of the Kashmiri cause and Kargil was an attempt by the army and Mujahideen to redeem the honour of Pakistan. ``Nawaz was very popular in AJK but everyone here felt angered by what happened in Lahore,'' said a local journalist.

``Your leaders have to understand the fact that ordinary Pakistanis - and especially the people of `Azad' Kashmir - are not willing to make any compromise with India over Kashmir. After Lahore, the impression here was that Nawaz wanted to put Kashmir into deep freeze. People feared that the idea was to make the LoC into a permanent line of partition and their perception was that the US also favoured such a plan,'' he added.

When asked about the idea of turning the LoC into an international border, people at large reject the proposal out of hand. ``The real trouble spot is the valley of Kashmir,''said one man. ``You are oppressing people there,'' he claimed. ``How does making the LoC into a border help them?''

For all the emotion that allegations of human rights violations in Indian Kashmir stirs up, there is little hostility on the streets of Muzaffarabad towards Indians as a people. Zee TV and Sony are the most frequently watched channels and everyone I spoke to expressed a marked preference for Zee News over the rather muted fare served up by PTV at news time. ``Even during the Kargil war, people here watched Zee News,'' said a shopkeeper. ``It was not all propaganda. Kuch ham log sahi batate, kuch aap log sahi batate (we would report some things correctly, you would report some things correctly).''

While the Mujahideen leaders in Muzaffarabad refused to meet an Indian journalist without prior clearance from the Pakistani authorities, it was possible to glean an understanding of the jehadi groups' stand from conversations with people who identified themselves as activists of the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Tehreek-e-Jehad. They acknowledged the presence of non-Kashmiris in the ranks of the militants but said these were mostly Punjabis. ``The Arabs went home at least four years ago. And what the valley people call `Afghanis' are actually Punjabis,'' said one. The Hizb man,however, insisted that only two per cent of his organisation's militants
were non-Kashmiri.

Asked about the future, one activist said that no Kashmiri would be willing to take a public stand in favour of a partition of undivided Jammu and Kashmir. ``But just as valley Kashmiris will never accept India, we know that Jammu and Ladakh will never accept a merger with Pakistan,'' he said. ``That's why if you ask the jehadi groups their private views, they know that partition will eventually be inevitable.'' According to a local journalist, there are three possible outcomes of the Kashmir problem. ``The first is that status quo and tension will continue. The second, India and Pakistan partition Jammu and Kashmir along religious lines. And the third, an independent state.'' The third option was the only way to prevent partition, he said, but this was the least probable. ``India and Pakistan will oppose it.

In `Azad' Kashmir itself, people are too integrated into the rest of Pakistan - economically, socially,culturally. Of course, if independence becomes the only option for solving the problem, public opinion here could shift.''

Later that night, fatigued from walking up and down the town's steep lanes, I sought refuge in Muzaffarabad's modest cinema hall. A Lollywood film, Ek Pagal si Ladki, was playing and a modest crowd of men had turned up, mainly to watch its heroine, Reema, go through a series of Bollywood-style gyrations. During the interval, I asked a group of young men whether they saw any difference between Pakistani and Indian films. ``Nowadays there is no difference,'' said one. ``The dances, the
dresses, they're all the same.'' I told him that in Srinagar the militants had at one
time ordered the closure of cinema halls. Was he afraid the Mujahideen would one day do such a thing in Muzaffarabad? ``Whatever happens to Kashmir,'' he said, ``I don't think we are going to stop watching movies.''

Then, almost as an afterthought, he smiled and added: ``Inshallah.''

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