What does azadi mean to Kashmiris? The answer may be surprising

On the issue of joining Pakistan, the answer is 50-50.

 |  7-minute read |   10-06-2017
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Those of us who have visited Kashmir, even when it was peaceful or have served in the state, would always carry a few stark realities of the region.

Firstly, as a tourist you are always asked “have you have come from India”, and secondly, All India Radio was and continues to be termed as Radio Kashmir. That stated, they were always courteous and humane.

Yet, since Independence, Kashmiris have always considered themselves to be separate and distinct from the nation. This is largely due to Article 370, which has restricted others from being a part of the state. Another fact is that the identity issue only arises once you cross the Banihal Pass.

This feeling only deepened with the onset of militancy and the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pundits. The generation now leading the agitation has witnessed calls for prayer for only one religion and hence believes that the region is solely theirs, converting the struggle into a religious one.

It has been exploited by Pakistan playing the religion card, flushing the Valley with money to pay for inciting violence, while simultaneously pushing in militants in the garb of supporting their struggle. With easy availability of channels from across the border and Saudi Arabia, strongly supporting Wahhabism and jihad, the distance between the rest of India and Kashmir is only widening.

It is further aggravated by hostile Imams belting hatred from mosques. The present agitation is based on the war cry of azadi, a term which is as confusing as it is simple. The word itself carries different meanings for locals, who are themselves unsure of what they desire.  

Every incident of stone throwing by young students, moving from their place of education, is preceded by a ritual dance accompanied with cries of “azadi, azadi”. The steps are unique and the cry is in unison. The most common phrase which every child shouts is, “Go India, Go Back”, which is also painted in various parts of the state.

Most don’t understand what it implies, but have learnt it and now use it. Flags being flown in protest are of Pakistan and the ISIS. The Pakistani national anthem has been played prior to local cricket matches and Pakistani team colours worn by players.

Hence the confusion which arises is whether the locals’ demand for azadi implies independence for Kashmir alone, joining Pakistan or seeking the old J and K as an independent state, amalgamating POK and Gilgit Baltistan.

The latest demand is the establishment of a caliphate raised by a splinter militant group, Taliban-e-Kashmir, headed by Zakir Musa, the new poster boy of militancy, supported by a section of youth.

This piece is based on the term azadi and flows from interactions, online and personal, with Kashmiri youth and adults, all proponents of the struggle.                   

For most, azadi implies freedom and when questioned further, it is being a separate nation. Surprisingly, there are no clear answers when told that POK and Gilgit Baltistan would never be left by Pakistan to create the erstwhile J and K and Kashmir alone can never survive.

Even the separatists are scared to commit themselves, making loose statements that the population would decide whether it becomes an independent nation or would join Pakistan. Angry comments and evasive answers follow when told that the UN resolution on plebiscite clearly stated that Kashmir is either a part of India or Pakistan, with no mention of an independent state, hence would be unacceptable to either.

However, the bottom line is, they wish to be free from India. This is the crux - be free from India.  

An educated central government employee even went on to suggest that India should capture POK and then enable J and K and POK to become a separate nation. When stated that for this to happen, they need to support India rather than fight it, there was no answer.

Similarly, when told that POK has more Punjabi Moslems than locals, there was a mumbled answer stating that they would fight them next.

kashmir-embed_061017024549.jpgThe most common phrase which every child shouts is “Go India, Go Back”. Photo: Reuters

On the issue of joining Pakistan, the answer is 50-50, though many opine that Pakistan is supporting their cause and would ultimately stand by their final decision.

When questioned about the missing J and K flag and Pakistani flags being flown, if the demand is for a separate nation, answers varied from ignorance to stating that the Pakistani flag was flown solely to irritate India.  

In no case do locals consider Jammu or Ladakh as a part of their so-called azad state. For them, Kashmir is a separate entity and would remain so. They seek freedom for Kashmir, solely on religious grounds, being a Moslem majority region, in a predominantly Hindu nation.

Their main fear always remains of a Hindu dominated government changing local demography, especially now that it is a coalition partner in the state. Political statements on return of Kashmiri Pundits and establishment of ex-servicemen colonies only add to rumours of a changing demography. This is further impacted by Pakistani propaganda playing on similar lines. Thus, fear of losing religious identity drives the agitation.

I wonder if this fear is the result of historical baggage when an originally Muslim majority region of Kashmir was under the Dogra King of J and K, who opted to join Hindu majority India. It could be that this is what creates an inborn fear of a similar fate in the days ahead.

The militants too have added fuel to the existing state of confused minds. They are broadly in two categories. The majority are affiliated to Pakistan-sponsored groups, hence support joining Pakistan, basically on religious ethnicity.

A newly raised local outfit seeks a caliphate, based on ISIS ideology. Presently, differences have not broken out into the open, which may enhance the rift between groups, which could be exploited. Locals support the militancy, solely because of religious similarities, without considering the end result. Thus, it is azadi from India, next stage, unknown.

The youth have been misguided, pumped in with feelings of jihad, with a belief that Pakistan supports their freedom struggle. They have no true idea of what they desire, solely the fact that a Moslem dominated Kashmir should not remain a part of Hindu India.

Whenever India gloats on the Army’s success in eliminating militants, the Pakistani media claims it as staged killing. This would be more acceptable locally than the true version, as news from Pakistan carries more weight than Indian news.

From the above, some facts emerge. It is azadi from India, with no clear future aim, hence indicating anger against the Indian state. The locals only seek azadi for Kashmir, not for complete J and K, hence do not consider the state as one entity. The youth are confused and incited by Pakistani propaganda, lure of easy money, spread of rumours and religious sentiments. Militancy is supported only because it assists in their struggle against the Indian state.

Pakistan has understood this aspect, realising that it is a small region which is impacted by this struggle. Hence, it has been recently attempting to increase infiltration attempts south of the Pir Panjal, seeking to spread militancy and impact demographic changes. These attempts are being ruthlessly curbed by India and would continue in the days ahead. This part of their strategy must fail.

This opens options and avenues to the government to seek solutions. Since they seek azadi for Kashmir, the government can seriously consider revoking article 370 for the Jammu and Ladakh regions. This would indicate to the locals that Kashmir is a separate entity and a unique region in India. It would also enable development in other parts of the state where the article is lifted, creating a financial rift within the state, maybe impacting mindsets.

Secondly, interacting at the grassroots levels, mainly with students, in the form of open debates on their interpretation of azadi and why they desire it, could result in eliminating the fruitlessness of their actions. These forums could be exploited to drive home a point that independence of Kashmir would neither be acceptable to Pakistan nor India, hence could lead them nowhere.  

Thirdly, isolation of the Hurriyat, blocking their funding, would seriously impact violence in the state. Finally, perception management by projecting information of Pakistan’s duality in their independence struggle, mistreatment by militants and blocking of foreign channels beaming anti-India and jihadist propaganda may change mindsets.

Also read: Why India has learnt nothing about Kashmir in 70 years


Harsha Kakar Harsha Kakar @kakar_harsha

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army and author of the book, Harsha Kakar writes.

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