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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 18 New Delhi April 20, 2019

Essential Contribution to the Existing Scanty Literature on ‘Azad Kashmir’

Tuesday 23 April 2019


by Bilal Ahmad Mir

Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir by Anam Zakaria; Harper Collins India; 2018; pp. xxxviii + 282; Rs 599.

Anam Zakaria’s book, Between the Great Divide: A Journey into the Pakistan-administered Kashmir is a collection of ten lucid essays divided into three different but interlinked parts—Conflict, State Policies and Beyond the Cease Fire. This is basically a pure ethnographic study of a significant portion of the divided Jammu and Kashmir State which is being administered by the state of Pakistan from 1947 and is commonly known as ‘Azad Kashmir’ while the Government of India calls it Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). It has been more than seven decades down the line when the State was bifurcated into two unnatural parts following the independence and consequent partition of India. The State’s history is a mix of treasures and tragedies. On one side, the State attracts the world by its abundant beauty and scenic attractiveness and, on the other, it remains a hub of militancy, repression, violence, bloodshed and state-terror. The book is all about people, and their daily experience of the ongoing Kashmir conflict in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The main thread that runs persistently throughout the paperback is that common voices matter, no matter what they are. It captures the real people’s experience of conflict and terror in remote border areas as true as truth.

This featherlight and eloquent paperback collection is one of its kind and draws our attention to some unknown aspects of the decades-old Kashmir conflict. It captures the forgotten stories which the colonial history and subsequent post-colonial uncertainty have unleashed over the region. The eventful and heart-touching voices, unheard of till very recently, have been taken into account quite brilliantly. It has touched upon topics that could challenge the official narratives which both the Indian and Pakistani states adhere to. This bottom-up approach to register people’s dissent has gained ground and momentum in the region and can’t be ignored anymore. For, the top-down state narrative has to stop some-where to give space to the indigenous sufferer who has to bear the brunt of the conflict first hand. In any case, the collection is an attempt to study a region, ‘Azad’ Kashmir, and the complex neglected stakeholders like women, children, old and young. It is human history and a kind of ethnography which tells a lot about conflict, cross-border state-cannibalism and sheer neglect of people by their own state. The author shows her anthropological sense and human face by her lucid analysis of conflict and acknowledgement of gendered face to it. She even narrates the accounts of children and homeless who otherwise never count into the broader picture. She fundamentally tries to highlight the experience of a prolonged conflict by people in a region lesser known to the outside world, whereas the same stories of conflict and bloodshed get the people’s gaze, more often than not, on the other side of the LoC (makbooza Kashmir/Indian-occupied Kashmir for Pakistan) because of its very political nature.

The author has tried to fill the literature gap on the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir as objectively as possible and shed light on the rise of militancy and insurgency in the late 1980s. At the same time, she tries to demystify the myths behind the state narratives and attempts to explore the larger Kashmir conflict through the eyes of indigenous ‘Azad’ Kashmiris. While the devastation and bloodshed that ‘Azad’ Kashmir has gone through, due to cross-border ceasefire violations between the two hostile armies, has always been ignored and the resultant loss of precious human lives has attracted minimum introspection and recognition across the world, it is due to the author’s sheer brilliance in field work and ethnographic studies that she succeeded in exploring the impact of such shelling on the villages adjacent to the LoC in Azad Kashmir. The fieldwork has done a job which many in the field have not been able to do, that is, sharing the lived real experiences of people in a deadly conflict zone. Such human accounts are a sort of victory to professional ethics and a breakthrough in the field of peace and conflict studies in South Asia.

As the author says, the history of peace is as important to record as the history of conflict, because both narratives are supposed to learn from each other to get what is at stake each time the LoC becomes a hot war zone. The area of ‘Azad’ Kashmir is, according to the United Nations resolutions, neither a sovereign state nor a province of Pakistan, but rather a “local authority” with responsibility over the territory assigned to it under a 1949 ceasefire agreement with India. However, the same “local authority” came under pressure quickly after the Indian-controlled side decided to expand its constitu-tional relationship with the Centre which came at the cost of eroding Article 370. Anam has essentially divided the book into three inter-connected parts so that the coherence of the events is maintained. She has taken recourse to post-positivist epistemological positions to represent the silenced beings on the great divide. In its first part she explores the genesis of the Kashmir conundrum by getting the readers go to the very moment of partition of India and get to the root cause of the conflict. While doing so, she never loses sight of the indigenous struggle of the people of Kashmir. She gives voice to the dumb by letting them speak for themselves. For, including the very agency of the people of Kashmir to the conflict has marked a dramatic reversal in accounting hitherto political history of this part of the State. She has documented the ‘tribal raids’ in such a way that the victim-offender dichotomy gets demystified. The impact of the raids on inter-communal relations is thoroughly documented. She is of the opinion that people like the displaced, thought-to-bemilitants and women and children, who are often ignored, are the real stakeholders to the conflict. It is these people who need to be heard, rather than silenced.

A war-like condition that the people of the State have had to go through from the late 1980s has almost gone unnoticed; with people at the centre oblivious to what was happening in the periphery that is ridiculous. The militarisation of the region leads to further alienation of the people because the latter don’t feel secure when it comes to their rights, privacy and other issues. Even the most fundamental of all, that is, their right to life is not guaranteed. However, the author gives little weightage to the civil society endeavours in resolving the Kashmir conflict by pressurising both the governments from time to time. The Chinese role in modernising the Neelam valley, by way of lending economic help to Pakistan, is astonishing given the fact that people of the region are continuously subject to sudden jerks of mortar shelling and resultant physical and emotional loss. She also talks of the Sikh heritage of ‘Azad’ Kashmir and the subsequent uprooting and demolition of its historical legacy by the phenomenon of communalisation. The author further argues how Kashmiris have been marginalised and relegated as a third party to the conflict. While the bogus game of elections was kept intact, it never resulted in complete popular expression of the people’s grievances. Besides, the rigged elections of 1987 happened to be a major factor in instigating the people to take to arms and militancy in the State.

In its second part ‘State Policies’ she would present a “statist lens” for viewing the conflict. To demystify and unearth the farce state narratives and myths she would simultaneously put an alternative way of looking at the conflict by engaging with many state and non-state actors. The author has successfully walked alone and found herself in places no one has seen before. In this part, the author recognises the role of, apart from the non-state actors, politicians and political rivals, another vital force, the Pakistan Army in the resolution of the Kashmir conflict. The alleged training of militants and their infiltration from Pakistan- administered Kashmir in the late 1980s into the Indian-administered Kashmir to encourage the ‘azadi’ sentiments among ‘makbooza’ Kashmiris also finds mention. This part further analyses the spillover effect of many operations to conquer Kashmir like ‘Operation Gibraltar’ launched by the Pakistan Army in 1965.

The last part of the book is related to the post-2003 ceasefire agreement concluded by the two giant states to comprehend the agency of many state and non-state actors. A huge contribution is made in the form of documenting narratives of both pan-Kashmiri nationalists and pro-Pakistan supporters in ‘azad’ Kashmir. She would talk of the wrath and iron hand policies of the Pakistani state in prohibiting the dissemination of pro-freedom literature and would simultaneously try to register the estrangement of people like refugees, children and former militants from ‘makbooza’ Kashmir. The human stories of grief, terror and suppression are presented with utmost professional ethics and care. The Kashmiris who migrated in different phases to ‘azad’ Kashmir find it next to impossible to live in a state which is against the very people who it was supposed to protect.

The main thread running throughout this ethnographic study is the demand for peace and recognition of the human face to the conflict. By bringing in new unknown voices she has left an indelible mark on any such future study of that sort. The people-state divide gets a finish and people’s reservations against the state system are translated into the annals of conflict history. Zakaria has shed blood and sweat in meeting the people from myriad fields so that the authenticity of the research is preserved. In her study she has attacked the dominant main-stream narratives in order to provide a space to inclusiveness. The out and out anti-establishment stand which the author adheres to seems unequivocal and firm and that makes us doubt her approach to the study of the conflict zone. Given the complex nature of the conflict, it is very hard to put the blame on any one actor, especially so when the same happens to be the state. The state system may have failed its people but that failure in no way should stop it from taking measures for the upliftment of latter. The civil society endeavours and the formidable and serious responsibility of the world bodies in resolving the Kashmir conflict finds little mention.

The book is a kind of eye-opener to the people of Pakistan who have been misinformed about the actual aspirations of the region. While developmental projects like the CPEC are hailed as a modernisation milestone in Pakistan, the benefits of the same do not trickle down to the common masses. The history of Gilgit Baltistan and its historical relationship with Kashmir has not been fully explored though the author has presented a cursory glimpse of it. The voices like those of the Hurriyat, poor, militants and refugees give the fieldwork an edge over other similar accounts. The Chinese developmental assistance and partnership with Pakistan have already received wide coverage; so their inclusion were instrumental which the author has successfully done. It would have enriched the work had there been an analysis of people-to-people contact and the possible steps to ease the border regulations between the two parts. Anyway one can’t doubt the author’s ability and beauty in presenting the Kashmir issue through a different lens, a lens of hitherto deprived sections, a narrative which has never been debated upon. The book is an essential contribution to the existing scanty literature on ‘Azad Kashmir’ and significant for scholars and students studying conflict issues in general and the Kashmir conflict in particular.

The reviewer is a Research Scholar (Junior Research Fellow) at the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir, Srinagar.

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