While the people of Jammu and Kashmir have suffered decades of Indian army brutality, and since August 5, 2019, they have been under total lockdown, even nature has not been kind to them. Last month, there was a terrible snowstorm in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), the part of Kashmir on the Pakistani side. Reports from the region say at least 76 people died because of avalanches and collapsed roofs. Hundreds sustained injuries.
Many areas of AJK are not easily accessible making rescue and relief efforts difficult. In AJK, there are also more than 40,000 refugees that had fled Indian Occupied Kashmir (IOK) when the 1989 uprising began. Most of these people are housed in makeshift camps where apart from a few, the general conditions are quite poor. Houses in such areas are susceptible to inclement weather such as heavy rains and snowfalls.
This is one dimension of the challenge the Kashmiri refugees in AJK face. The more serious problem is the fact that these refugees fled leaving behind loved ones in IOK hoping that they would return one day and bring their families to AJK. This has proved a heart-wrenching experience for the overwhelming majority. Some refugees who made the journey back to Indian Occupied Kashmir were arrested by the Indian army and killed. News of such killings of course spread among the refugees in the camps in AJK, causing great distress.
Those refugees that left their family members in IOK have not been able to see them for more than 30 years. Wives, mothers, children, and siblings left behind may be living a few kilometers away in villages on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC) that separates the two parts of Kashmir, but they might as well be on another planet. Many refugees have recounted tales of great suffering due to such separation. When elderly parents die in IOK, the refugees in AJK have not been able to attend their funeral prayers. The situation of wives is equally grim. Since the husband is alive, the women cannot remarry but they cannot even live with them. They are virtual widows. Similarly, children are unable to see their fathers because they are separated by the Line of Control.
A four-member delegation of Canadian human rights activists that visited AJK in December compiled detailed reports after interviewing many refugee families. Michaela Lavis, a Master’s student at York University, was part of the delegation. Her thesis focuses on “Forced Migration and International Law: A case study of Jammu and Kashmir.” Upon return, she had an interesting and revealing op-ed published in the Canadian daily, the Toronto Star (January 5, 2020). Ms. Lavis described what she heard from the refugees — mainly women — whom she interviewed and what they have experienced all these years.
Conditions in the refugee camps in AJK may not be ideal but the people are safe, unlike the eight million Kashmiris living under India’s brutal military occupation. In AJK the refugees have free housing, education, health services, and free electricity. They also get an allowance of Rs. 2000/person/month (approximately $20 Canadian). This is not a huge amount by any standard, but is nonetheless helpful.
Kashmiri shawls as well as embroidery are renowned worldwide. Prior to the August 5 Indian lockdown in Occupied Kashmir, Kashmiris in AJK and elsewhere were able to bring shawls from the other side. This has come to an end. In fact, people in Occupied Kashmir have suffered billions of rupees in losses as a result of the Indian crackdown. While India tries to create the impression that life is returning to normal, this is simply not true. The people of Kashmir have categorically rejected India’s unilateral and illegal declaration of Kashmir as “Union territory” that is an integral part of India. The temporary arrangement that Shaikh Muhammad Abdullah had entered into with Delhi in 1954 through what came to be called Article 370 of the Indian constitution has been abrogated by India. Thus, the State of Jammu and Kashmir has reverted back to what it was before 1947. India has no right to be there and must withdraw all its troops out of Kashmir immediately. This is the legal situation regardless of India claiming otherwise.
The other aspect is that despite their immense suffering, the people of Kashmir refuse to accept India’s rules when it demands that people open their shops or schools. Students refuse to attend classes and people open their stores for one or two hours in the evening so that they do not give the impression of any normal life in the state. This is the people’s way of civil disobedience toward their occupiers. It has exacted a heavy price but the Kashmiris are prepared to pay it for their fundamental rights and a life of dignity.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).