Millions of Kashmiris, if not more, continue to suffer on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) because of the ongoing mortar shelling and firing by the Indian and Pakistani armed forces. Hundreds of them have been killed and injured after hostilities resumed on the LoC and some parts of the Working Boundary in and around Sialkot and Bhimber districts over one year ago in late 2016. Much to the joy and relief of LoC inhabitants, there had been a complete ceasefire, except small and isolated incidents, since November 2003.
Those living at the LoC enjoyed a normal life. Their children could go to school. They could walk between the scattered villages and travel on the roads without the fear of being hit by an Indian mortar shell or the bullet of a sniper. While the ceasefire was in place for almost 13 years, people inhabiting the thousands of villages along the LoC did not have to take long detours that increased the distance manifold to avoid the areas vulnerable to the Indian army posts.
My family is originally from a village at the LoC. I have travelled extensively in the areas along the LoC and therefore am somewhat familiar with the challenges that people living in these areas have been facing since the late 1980s when the freedom movement started in Kashmir. The inhabitants of the LoC recount stories of their relatives, neighbours and friends being killed by the Indian firing in the 1990s; young children not being able to go to school for years and remaining illiterate; sick and critically ill patients unable to reach hospitals; and mosques, hospitals and schools being blown away by mortar shells. That was the time when militancy in Kashmir was at its peak and hence there was a warlike situation along the LoC and in Kashmir Valley.
However, things changed dramatically after 9/11, at least for the people at the LoC, when then president Musharraf decided to stop active support of some of the militant groups and worked with India to stop active hostilities between the two armies at the LoC. The people living at the LoC were the biggest beneficiaries. Active war stopped and cross-LoC trade started. Kashmiris could visit their relatives on either side of the LoC after getting a travel permit.
But little did they know that the peace would not last for long. The political situation deteriorated in the Kashmir Valley after July 8, 2016 when the Indian Army assassinated a very popular and iconic young Kashmiri militant commander, Burhan Wani. The valley erupted once again in protests against India. The gathering on the funeral of Wani, comprising hundreds of thousands of people, was reminiscent of the 1980s and 1990s when the freedom movement of Kashmiris was in full swing. Instead of backing out, the Indian forces kept using more force against the unarmed Kashmiri protesters, blinding them with pellet guns.
The unrest in the valley had a spillover effect on Pakistan-India relations and on the situation along the LoC. Blaming Pakistan for the unrest, the Indian military resumed firing on the LoC, blaming the Pakistan military for fanning the flames of insurgency in the valley by supporting militants like Burhan Wani. Suddenly hostilities started everywhere on the LoC: from the Northern areas of Azad Jammu & Kashmir along the Neelum Valley to the south in Bhimber districts, people are being killed and injured since the summer of 2016. Firing and shelling has intermittently continued over the last one year.
While the Pakistani armed forces blame India for the provocation and maintain that they only punish the Indian army posts in retaliation, there have been reports of innocent civilians dying on the other side. It would be naïve to assume that bullets and shells do not at all end up punishing Kashmiris living on the other side, given that civilian populations live in close proximity to army camps and posts, which are everywhere, in both the Indian-held Kashmir and AJK.
So one cannot help thinking that both India and Pakistan are apathetic to the suffering of the people of Kashmir. Frustrated with the current situation, the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front and its allied nationalist parties have now demanded immediate demilitarisation and cessation of hostilities on both sides of the LoC. On March 16, last Friday, the JKLF staged a big peace rally along the LoC in Poonch district of AJK. A large number of people from Kotli and Poonch districts of AJK participated in the rally. Unfortunately, the AJK government used tear gas and even firing to disperse the protesters, instigating the protesters to burn a police check post. According to local district administration officials, they were trying to stop the protesters lest the Indian Army opens fire on them when they come in the range of enemy check posts. The Indian Army did not even spare the United Nations military observers who came under attack a few days ago while travelling in UN-marked cars and white flags, according to the administration.
Since the peace rally, AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider has condemned the JKLF and its allied nationalists, labelling them agents of India and threatening them with dire consequences. The JKLF, on the other hand, is demanding the ouster of the AJK PM and using strong language against him, further polarising the discourse in AJK. It was unbecoming and inappropriate of the AJK PM to demonise the JKLF for peacefully demanding demilitarisation and cessation of hostilities. The JKLF may not be representative of all Kashmiris’ political aspirations with its independence from both India and Pakistan stance, but it does have a credibility among big swathes of population both in Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistan. And it does reflect sentiments of many Kashmiris.
The JKLF’s iconic leader, Yasin Malik, a militant-commander-turned-politician has suffered more than any other leader for the Kashmir cause. Tens of thousands of people in Indian-held Kashmir attend political rallies of Yasin Malik. When he is not in jail, he is out there organising people for freedom. Malik’s comrades in AJK Tauqeer Gilani, the head of the JKLF AJK Chapter, and Tahira Toqeer are equally dynamic leaders. Husband and wife Tauqeer and Tahira have devoted their lives to the liberation of Kashmir. Their strategy is peaceful political struggle and mobilisation.
The current AJK government and the Pakistani establishment will have to listen to and respect different strands of political opinion of Kashmiris if they want to have any credibility about their stance on Kashmir. Otherwise, they will end up further alienating the ordinary Kashmiris, pushing Kashmiri youth into more extreme politics.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2018.
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