When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned more than 70 years ago, Jammu and Kashmir was split between India and newly created Pakistan. Both countries continue to administer parts of Kashmir, both claiming rights over the entire territory, both being haunted by the decades of violence that has consumed them.
There have been demands in Indian-administered Kashmir, with a predominantly Muslim population, to either merge with Pakistan or to create an independent country. The demand has been rejected by the Indian government amid violence and the killing of around 70,000 people since the late 1980s.
The Pakistani side of Kashmir has seen its share of violence and suffering. Pakistan-administered Kashmir was until over a decade ago described as one of the most closed-off territories of the world.
Pakistani writer Anam Zakaria travelled through Pakistan-administered Kashmir to hear its people – their sufferings, hopes and aspirations, breaking the silence surrounding a people who are often ignored in discussions on the present and future of Jammu and Kashmir even though they are important stakeholders in what happens in the region.
Zakaria’s journeys have culminated in “Between The Great Divide: A journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir”. The book is being described by Indians and Pakistanis as not only a first but also a deeply empathic account of disrupted lives in the region.
Zakaria, a development professional, educationist and researcher based in Pakistan, speaks to Asia News Network about her book.
What made you look at Azad Kashmir?
I first visited Azad Kashmir as a tourist several years after the 2003 ceasefire had brought relative peace to the region. Until then I had imagined the ramifications of the Kashmir dispute to only be limited to the ‘other side’ of Kashmir. It was as I travelled through parts of Azad Kashmir and conversed with its people that I learnt how the larger conflict had impacted them – refugee camps, heavy mortar shelling, a constant state of vulnerability living by the volatile Line of Control (LoC), the threat of escalation of conflict, and so much more. I realised how important it was to explore the conflict from Azad Kashmir’s lens for a broader understanding of the Kashmir dispute and its implications.
How would you explain the Kashmir conflict to a pan-Asian audience?
Kashmir’s history, like its geography, has unfortunately become increasingly contested over the years. Narratives of the conflict, its origins and its ongoing impact are often appropriated by India and Pakistan. In the process, Kashmir has been reduced to a bilateral affair between the two nations, with indigenous voices being silenced. To anyone wanting to learn more about the conflict, I think it becomes essential to peel through the statist narratives and explore the human dimension of the dispute. At its core, one finds countless stories of loss, violence, trauma and a desperate longing for a peaceful future.
What does Kashmir mean to non-Kashmiris?
In terms of states, Kashmir still plays an integral role in India and Pakistan’s internal politics as well as in their unique political imaginations. One sees political actors in and out of power using the Kashmir cause to garner popular support even today. On a people-to-people level, Pakistanis also continue to profess a deep emotional connection to Kashmir, sympathising with Kashmiris and often also registering protest against the ongoing violence in the Valley. However, periodic polls conducted by Gallup Pakistan do reveal a shift in sentiments over the years; in particular there seems to be dwindling optimism amongst Pakistanis regarding conflict resolution.
It must also be noted that for many people in India and Pakistan, Kashmir is often only imagined as the Kashmir Valley and to be Kashmiri is seen as closely linked with the Kashmiri language, spoken predominantly by the people of the Valley. As a consequence other important stakeholders, like the Azad Kashmiris, are frequently ignored in conversations about the present and future of Jammu & Kashmir. Contrary to this line of thought, many Azad Kashmiris explained that Kashmiri identity is a political identity, which transcends linguistic barriers and is central to how they see themselves.
Why hasn’t the region (on both sides) received the attention it deserves?
Partially this is due to the protracted nature of the conflict. Kashmir receives local and international attention periodically, only to be overshadowed by other news overtime. However, partly this is also due to the fact that India and Pakistan’s narratives on Kashmir have often taken dominance, with local voices and perspectives being silenced or forgotten.
Within Jammu & Kashmir, Azad Kashmir in particular receives little attention. Given the increasingly tense socio-political climate across the LoC and the number of casualties there, narratives from Indian-administered Kashmir have understandably been documented more. Since Azad Kashmir is often viewed in juxtaposition to the ‘other side’ and since the region is – comparatively speaking – far more peaceful, its own politics and aspirations have not been explored enough.
After decades of turmoil do Kashmiris still feel strongly for their cause (azadi or freedom)? Do they have regrets? Do they yearn for the “normal”? Will there ever be a solution to this?
In Azad Kashmir, many Kashmiris still staunchly support the azadi cause – this ‘azadi’ is understood as independence from India. There is also some nationalist sentiment on this side, advocating for a united independent state of Jammu & Kashmir. However, I did come across people – particularly families living by the LoC and bearing the brunt of cross firing – who say they are sick and tired of the fight for azadi and just want peace. While they ideologically may still support the cause, in practical terms they realise that the fight seems unending and they are desperate for some sense of normalcy to return to their homes and lives. We are speaking of countless children who have grown up in bunkers, of countless lives lost to mortar shelling, of irreparable psychological damage – their call for peace echoes loudly in the border villages I traveled through.
Which is that one story that hit your heart the hardest?
The story of a mother whose young son was hit by a mortar while he was on his way to work. A car raced over his body right after, crushing him underneath. His family told me of how they collected his flesh and bones in their hands so they could hold his funeral: ‘maine apne haath se uska gosht andar kiya taki uska janaza go sake.’ This was during the 1990s when mortar shelling was at its height, with many women and children from this family spending days at length in dark, suffocating bunkers that I later visited. Each story they narrated from these years shook me, their resilience most extraordinary.
What if you had access to Kashmiris on the Indian side – how different would the book have been then?
A significant portion of the book explores the impact of ceasefire violations on people living by the LoC. Unfortunately both India and Pakistan tend to only report on losses on the sides administered by them. Casualties on the other side are frequently ignored. While I am aware that the experiences of villagers across the LoC mirror victims’ narratives of shelling in Azad Kashmir, I was unable to speak to people there. Adding their voices to the book – particularly of how they survive the constant state of uncertainty and vulnerability – would certainly provide a more holistic picture of what it means to live on one of the most volatile lines of division.
Is this book a natural progression to Footprints of Partition? Your next?
Yes, in some ways. My interest in oral histories that developed during the process of researching and writing The Footprints of Partition has been further strengthened in Between the Great Divide. The oral history method has been instrumental in understanding the personal impact of the Kashmir conflict, allowing me to deconstruct consequences of state policies and enabling me to explore narratives ignored or sidelined in mainstream discourse. During this process I also realized that since my work on Partition was largely restricted to Punjab for my first book, my understanding of the divide and its repercussions was also limited in many ways. Exploring the human impact of Partition through Kashmir’s lens unearths new understandings of 1947 and its ongoing journey. In the near future, I plan to continue using the oral history method to study personal memories and the state’s role in the reconstruction of conflicts in the popular imagination of South Asia.