The Kashmiri tragedy


In time much will be written about the most devastating earthquake in Pakistan’s short history, and most of what will be written will dwell on the grief and suffering of the millions of people affected. Indeed in the first few days after the quake, there has been an outpouring of emotion around the world and people from far and wide have embarked on all kinds of relief drives in a genuine display of solidarity.

Meanwhile Pakistani government functionaries have made stirring calls for the nation to unite and promised to lead from the front in the relief effort. It would appear however, that the thousands of families that have been ravaged by the quake in the remotest parts of the many valleys of the Northwest Frontier Province and Kashmir have reason to disagree with the government’s claims. For days after the quake, basic help had not reached entire towns and villages that were flattened, prompting angry and frustrated backlashes from many of those affected. Looting is commonplace and when relief supplies do reach affected areas, the most deserving are usually crowded out.

Some will argue that all of this reflects only the lack of capacity of the state to respond to disasters of such a magnitude, and that it is hardly fair to single out the current government for a structural shortcoming that spans the entire 58 years of the country’s existence. Many will point to the similar deficiencies in the response of the Indian, Sri Lankan and Indonesian states to last December’s tsunami to underline that the hopeless inadequacy of the Pakistani government’s response to the earthquake is reflective of the resource and technical shortfalls faced by all third world states.

Such arguments tend to gloss over the fact that third world states typically protect the interests of parasitic propertied classes that dominate third world societies, and that any particular government is just as deserving of criticism as any other for the historical legacy. On another level, they fail to identify the central role of first world states in a global capitalist political economy that has systematically condemned the majority of people in third world societies to the margins. When first world states respond ‘large-heartedly’ to disasters in the third world – even though it would be hard to describe the response of the first world to the earthquake until now as large-hearted – it is important to ask what their roles are in perpetuating the structural dependency that leave third world states so utterly incapable of dealing with such crises in the first place, and then begging the ‘international community’ for aid when they suddenly erupt. Furthermore, it is worth considering that much of the aid promised by multi and bilateral donors in the immediate aftermath of disasters, wars and the like never actually materialises, while a significant proportion of that which does materialise is in the form of loans and tied grants rather than unconditional transfers.

While this disaster demands a recognition of all of these issues, the most pressing question that emerges from the dire reality facing the people of Pakistani Kashmir or what is known as ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) – who are the major victims of the tragedy – is why the Pakistani state’s actions come nowhere close to matching its claims when it comes to Kashmir. ‘Azad’ means ‘free’ in Urdu and other local languages, but suggesting that Kashmiris on either side of the border are ‘free’ is a cruel joke. It is widely acknowledged that the Pakistani state has made the ‘Kashmir cause’ a central tenet of its guiding ideology since its creation, yet it continues to treat AJK as its very own colony. The ‘governments’ of AJK have never been autonomous in any meaningful way and have consistently towed Islamabad’s line. The ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act 1974 obliges all leaders from the President down and all legislators to swear loyalty to the cause of accession of the state of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan. Article 7(2) says: No person or political party in ‘Azad’ Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan. Suffice it to say that any resident of AJK who openly declares opposition to the slogan Kashmir banega Pakistan (Kashmir is an integral part of Pakistan) – that has been propagated by the state far and wide and has therefore acquired almost axiomatic proportions – is liable to be tried for sedition.

Under Section 5(2) (vii) of the `Azad’ Kashmir Legislative Assembly Election Ordinance 1970, a person would be disqualified for propagating any opinion or action in any manner prejudicial to the ideology of Pakistan, the ideology of State’s accession to Pakistan or the sovereignty and integrity of Pakistan. The same condition applies to anyone who “defames or brings into disrepute the judiciary of ‘Azad’ Jammu Kashmir or Pakistan or the Armed Forces of Pakistan”.

In the 1996 elections in `Azad’ Kashmir, parties and candidates who wished to participate on the platform of independence and refused to sign the declaration acknowledging `Azad’ Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan as an article of faith were denied the right to contest. While guaranteeing freedom of speech, Article 9 of the `Azad’ Kashmir Constitution, imposes “reasonable restrictions in the interests of the security of Azad Jammu Kashmir and friendly relations with Pakistan”.

The government of AJK is not free to allocate resources, make policy or legislate anything other than tokenisms. All powers rest with the officials of Pakistan and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad with regard to legislation, appointments, questions of general policy, budget, internal security, matters involving substantial financial commitment, public debt and loans and important matters relating to civil supplies.

The most powerful officers who run the government of `Azad’ Kashmir are bureaucracts who are employees of the Pakistan Government and Pakistani nationals including the Chief Secretary, Inspector General of Police and Finance Secretary. They are not answerable to the government of `Azad’ Kashmir but only to Pakistan. In fact, the government of `Azad’ Kashmir has no role in running the administration. It is totally controlled by the above-mentioned all-powerful officers imposed by Pakistan on the `Azad’ Kashmir government. So much for the right to national self-determination.

The right of freedom of association is highly restricted including basic trade union rights. State employees in Kashmir have never enjoyed even the highly compromised trade union rights that state employees across Pakistan are granted. There has been no meaningful effort on the part of the Pakistani state to meet the employment, educational, health and cultural needs of the Kashmiri people. The Pakistani state would never admit it, but social development infrastructure in Indian Kashmir is far better than that in AJK, and that’s not saying much. A sparse roads and communications network has only recently emerged in AJK, and that too has been reduced to rubble by the earthquake. Meanwhile, AJK is home to Mangla Dam, one of the major sources of irrigation water and electricity in Pakistan. When Mangla Dam was constructed four decades ago, local people paid a heavy price, being displaced in large numbers, while arable lands in the area were destroyed by seepage and other major design oversights. In recent times the government has wanted to raise the water level in the Mangla Dam, an act that would create more social and ecological damage. Only the efforts of the influential Kashmiri community in the UK have prevented the government from going ahead with its plans.

Indeed it is the Kashmiri diaspora that has been largely responsible for what limited material development the region has seen, even if this development has been highly uneven. One would be hard pressed to find working age males at home in any of the regions that have been devastated by the earthquake, including state capital Muzaffarabad. Migration remains the only hope of most Kashmiris to earn a livelihood. One would think that a region that has been so coveted by the Pakistani state would warrant a little bit more of the state’s attention when it comes to such basic infrastructural and livelihood needs.

Then again, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan cannot dedicate a bare minimum of resources to AJK. It has, after all, been supporting a covert Kashmiri ‘war of liberation’ for decades. Thousands of young men and women have been sacrificed at the altar of cynical war-making in the name of the Kashmiris. It matters little whether Kashmiris themselves believe in this war of liberation – as is obvious from the facts mentioned above, Islamabad has an exclusive right to decide what is best for the Kashmiris in any case. It is now well documented that the upsurge in militant activity in Kashmir coincided with the end of the Afghan jihad. Clearly the Pakistani state needed to dispose of the thousands of jihadis that were no longer needed by US imperialism in Afghanistan. Yes, popular liberation forces exist on both sides of the border, but they have never been allowed to truly flourish, by either government.

The meagre public funds remaining in the Kashmir coffers after the allocations for contrived militant forces have been dedicated to the state’s never-ending public relations campaign that seeks to demonise India. In virtually every news bulletin on the state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), a segment is devoted to describing the blatant human rights violations being committed by India in what in common parlance is ‘occupied Kashmir’. A separate nightly ‘Kashmir file’ has been run for decades in which graphic images of abuse are flashed. The Indian treatment of the Kashmiris remains a travesty that has been criminally ignored by virtually everyone outside the subcontinent, while its record in meeting the welfare needs of Kashmiris and allowing independent political processes to take root is only marginally better than Pakistan’s. This, however, does not excuse the excesses and hypocrisy of the Pakistani state.

In recent years, the Pakistani public has clearly grown impatient with the state’s continuing recourse to the ‘Kashmir cause’. These warning signs – alongwith the urging of the Clinton and Bush administrations, and particularly the “war on terror” – have been recognised by the establishment and help explain the present government’s ‘u-turn’ on its Kashmir policy. Nonetheless, as far as Kashmiris on both side of the border are concerned, there has been no meaningful change in the attitude of either government towards them. Kashmir still remains the most neglected part of either country. And on October 8th, nature underlined this grim reality in the most brutal fashion.

While the missionary zeal with which Pakistanis, Indians and many other private citizens around the world have mobilised to contribute to what will be a very long and drawn out relief effort in Kashmir and the other affected regions, it is important that in the midst of all the grief and devastation, the politics of Kashmir not be forgotten. There have been many voices suggesting that the adversity caused by the earthquake might provide even greater impetus to the fledgling peace process that has been hyped by all and sundry for well over a year now. However, this begs questions about the nature of this ‘peace process’ and how two centralised and elitist states can ever truly represent the needs of Kashmiris and Pakistanis and Indians alike. In this regard it is especially important to consider the role that Washington has played in ‘brokering’ the process. The needs of capitalist accumulation likely explain the peace process more than anything else, as the well-publicised plans to build various gas pipelines through both countries might suggest.

While it may seem uncomfortable to voice criticism of the Pakistani or Indian governments in such trying times, one can only hope that dissident forces in both countries ask the question: why is Kashmir such a priority now, after a disaster of this nature has obliterated it to shreds? Why has the state in cities like Muzzafarabad and Rawalakot totally disappeared, and why has law and order collapsed? Shamefully, it is said that debris and decomposing bodies cannot be disposed in the most devastated cities because there are no cranes.

It is often in times of crisis that nationalism reaches a feverish pitch. It is no surprise that General Pervez Musharraf has publicly asked for unity and to avoid playing the ‘blame game’. But why should Pakistanis, and particularly the residents of AJK, be feeling nationalistic towards the state at this juncture? What has unrequited nationalism given to ordinary Pakistanis and Kashmiris in 58 long years? If ever there was a time to demand answers of those who make decisions about the lives of hundreds of millions of people – including those whose lives have now been lost – this is it. The ruling class will try and exorcise its demons through this crisis. The ongoing tragedy of Kashmir demands that Pakistanis, Indians, Kashmiris and those around the world who have been jolted into noticing Kashmir because of this earthquake not allow this tragedy to go on for another six decades.

Aasim Sajjad is a political activist associated with the People’s Rights Movement (PRM) in Pakistan. PRM is a nationwide political confederation of working-class struggles.

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