MUZAFFARABAD, June 28 (2002): “Of course I want Kashmir to be Pakistan,” the shopkeeper says, glancing nervously out of the corner of his eyes at the intelligence agent monitoring his every word.
“I am a Muslim, and Pakistan is for Muslims.”
He may well be telling the truth, but it is hard to tell. In what Pakistan calls “Azad (Free) Kashmir”, every conversation with foreign journalists is monitored, and every interviewee is resolutely “on message”.
Everyone, that is, except one teenage boy, a refugee from Indian-controlled Kashmir, who inadvertently spills the beans about his brother, who has crossed back over the Line of Control that divides Kashmir to fight Indian rule.
A none-too-subtle squeeze is applied to his arm and he is led away and lectured by the same Pakistani intelligence agent. Officially, according to Pakistan’s government, no one ever crosses the Line of Control, and every Kashmiri Muslim wants to join Pakistan.
The disputed, mainly Muslim Himalayan region is at the centre of a deadly stand-off between nuclear neighbours India and Pakistan, and its territory is divided between the two armies along a tense frontline.
On both sides of that frontline, the rival armies keep a vice-like grip on political activity.
The hand is a heavy one too in Indian-ruled Kashmir, where fierce opposition to Indian rule has drawn just as fierce a response from the Indian army.
Amnesty International accuses the Indian army and the militant groups alike of a litany of human rights abuses since an armed uprising began in 1988, ranging from torture to rape to indiscriminate murder.
Sitting in a refugee camp in Pakistan-held Kashmir, 25-year-old Mohammad Arif says his family has been ripped apart by Indian security forces.
Arif, who now works as a tailor in the semi-permanent Manyak Payyan refugee camp outside the town of Muzaffarabad, says he left Indian-held Kashmir three years ago, after being repeatedly picked up and tortured and accused of helping the militants.
He shows where the electrodes were attached to his feet, and tells of how his brother and uncle were both killed.
“The Indians raided our house and asked the whole family to line up outside,” he said. “Then they took my brother away. Later his dead body was returned to us. He had been beaten to death.”
Arif left his wife and children behind when he fled, because the journey across the frontline was too dangerous. His daughter was three years old and his son just one.
“I have written to them but I have never received a reply,” he said. “I worry about them all the time.
India, now preparing for state elections in Kashmir in September or October which it promises will be free and fair, accuses Pakistan-based militants of fuelling the revolt and Pakistan itself of using the insurgency to fight a proxy war.
Kashmir’s division is a legacy of the sub-continent’s hasty partition on independence from Britain in 1947. Facing a revolt by pro-Pakistan Muslim militants, the state’s Hindu ruler controversially acceded to secular Indian rather than Muslim Pakistan.
War between India and Pakistan followed, and Kashmir was split along the Line of Control. U.N. resolutions demanding a plebiscite be held to ask Kashmiris to choose between India and Pakistan have never been implemented. Many critics of Indian rule blame the revolt on the alleged rigging of elections in 1987 against candidates favouring independence or integration with Pakistan, saying the frustration of many Kashmiris boiled over.
Amnesty International says 34,000 people have died in Kashmir as a result of the ensuing conflict. Around 1,200 civilians, it says, have fallen victim in the last year alone, killed by militants, security forces or as a result of shelling and sniping by the two armies along the frontline.
These days, candidates for political office in Indian Kashmir have to sign a paper declaring their allegiance to the Indian constitution, implicitly signalling acceptance that Kashmir is an integral part of India.
In “Azad Kashmir”, the same thing happens – in reverse – as candidates are forced to declare their desire for Kashmir to join Pakistan.
In elections last year for Pakistani Kashmir’s legislative assembly, more than 30 prospective MPs from the pro-independence Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) crossed out or cut off that declaration on their application forms.
“All of their papers were rejected and most of our candidates arrested,” said JKLF chairman Amanullah Khan in an interview with Reuters. “In all, around 350 of our members were arrested.”
“If you want to work in government service you have to give in writing that you are for the accession (of Kashmir) to Pakistan,” he said. “If you are a businessman and you want a government contract, you have to give the same thing in writing.”
Khan is saddened to see politicians on both sides of Kashmir accept that compromise, calling them “the pets and puppets” of India and Pakistan.
Pakistan says it keeps a close eye on journalists in Kashmir only for their own protection, especially after the kidnap and murder earlier this year of American reporter Daniel Pearl in the Pakistani port city of Karachi by suspected Islamic militants.
But some Kashmiris say they feel unable to speak openly in Muzaffarabad, and lament their lack of political freedom.
“In so-called Azad Kashmir, it is really a puppet government, which has to follow instructions from Islamabad,” said one Kashmiri professional, speaking on condition of anonymity in the Pakistani capital. “Kashmiris have no voice.”
Khan still dreams of an independent Kashmir, a South Asian Switzerland with a neutral, secular and democratic constitution.
India and Pakistan, he argues, are scared of what they would hear if they allowed the people of Kashmir to find their voice.