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Independence calls getting louder in Pakistani Kashmir

October 23, 2019

Pakistan-ruled Kashmir is becoming increasingly restless as pro-independence protesters are clashing with security forces there. Experts say India's recent Kashmir "annexation" seems to have triggered this movement.

Protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Mughal

Security forces firing teargas and using baton against unarmed protesters is probably a common scene in India-administered Kashmir, particularly in the city of Srinagar. Pakistan-controlled Kashmir has its own problems, but violent demonstrations have been rare on this side of the Line of Control (LoC), which divides India- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir regions. But not anymore.  

Lately, there have been increasing reports about large demonstrations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir — officially called Azad Kashmir in Pakistan. On Tuesday, clashes broke out between protesters and police in Muzaffarabad, the region's capital. The police were reportedly trying to disperse a protest rally organized by the People National Alliance (PNA), a group that seeks an independent Kashmir. At least 100 people were reportedly injured in the clashes, with police detaining dozens of activists.

Read more: Kashmir: Is the UN Security Council reluctant to get involved?

The protesters were demanding that Azad Kashmir's existing legislative assembly be converted into a constitutional assembly and the area's unification with the Gilgit-Baltistan region. 

Pakistan and India both rule part of the disputed Himalayan territory of Jammu and Kashmir, but claim it in full. The restive region is a flashpoint between the two nuclear-armed archrivals. China, too, has some territorial claims in the area.

Kashmir reopens to tourists after 2 months under lockdown

Demand for an independent Kashmir

Tuesday's clashes were not an isolated event. Earlier this month, police stopped thousands of Kashmiri protesters from reaching the highly militarized LoC. The demonstrators were protesting against New Delhi's decision to abrogate India-administered Kashmir's special status on August 5.

The "Freedom March," which kicked off on October 4, was organized by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which wants the entire Kashmir region to be independent of both India and Pakistan.

Toqeer Gilani, the president of the JKLF in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, told DW that the Pakistani administration's decision to stop protesters from marching toward the border was practically an acceptance of the LoC as a permanent border between India and Pakistan and not a disputed territory.

"We have organized this rally against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision to scrap Kashmir's special status. We demand that Indian authorities lift the curfew in Kashmir, let people move freely and release all prisoners," Gilani said.

"At the same time, we demand that both India and Pakistan withdraw troops from their parts of Kashmir and declare it a demilitarized zone. The UN must take control after the demilitarization and organize a referendum in the coming years," he added.

Gilani accused Islamabad of paying lip service to the plight of the Kashmiri people. "UN resolutions allow Kashmiris on both sides to move across the LoC. But Pakistani authorities have blocked the movement, which is tantamount to accepting it as a permanent border," the JKLF leader told DW on the phone from the rally.

An unlikely movement

Analysts say that Indian PM Modi's decision to strip India-ruled Jammu and Kashmir of its special status has unlocked an unlikely movement in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

"Progressive groups that demand Kashmir's independence form both India and Pakistan are forging alliances now. The PNA is one such alliance that has put forward certain demands to the Azad Kashmir administration," Adeel Khan, a London-based scholar who recently launched the @Sail4Kashmir campaign to raise awareness about the Kashmir conflict, told DW.

"PNA's demands are not new, but the movement has gained momentum in the past months. Progressive groups in Azad Kashmir want control over their foreign policy and economy," Khan said, adding that while Azad Kashmir PM Raja Farooq Haider Khan supports an independent foreign policy for Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the demand that the Kashmiri government has control over the region's economy might not be acceptable for Islamabad.

"The protesters demand a change in Pakistan-administered Kashmir — change of institutional heads, for instance. They want fresh elections in which even pro-independence candidates can participate," Khan said, adding that Azad Kashmir's constitution only allows pro-Pakistan candidates to participate in the legislative assembly polls.

It is noteworthy, Khan underlined, that Modi's August 5 decision is actually triggering a progressive movement in the entire Kashmir region.

Anger against Islamabad

After the Indian government's Kashmir move, progressive and nationalist parties in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan formed the PNA, according to Talat Bhat, director of the Stockholm-based Nordic Kashmir Organization, which lobbies for an independent, secular and united Kashmir.

"The PNA rallies in small and big towns continued for two weeks before reaching Muzaffarabad on October 21. But the peaceful protesters were attacked by police as they tried to reach the legislative assembly. The authorities fear that if the protesters gather at the assembly, more people will join their sit-in. That will receive a lot of international attention then," said Bhatt, adding that the Tuesday clashes proved that Pakistan-ruled Kashmir "is not free."

Bhat alleges that the Kashmiris living on the Pakistani side are facing an internet lockdown, in the same way those on the Indian side of Kashmir are facing

Analysts say that clashes in Azad Kashmir could help India divert attention from the problems in its part of Kashmir. Indian media is portraying the Tuesday clashes to support the New Delhi's narrative that Islamabad is the real oppressor of the Kashmiri people, which is not an objective view of the situation, they say.

Some experts point out that Pakistan's direct support to separatist groups in India-administered Kashmir, beginning in the late 1980s, negatively affected the somewhat liberal Kashmiri movement, which took on a more religious outlook afterward. They argue that had Pakistan allowed an indigenous movement to take root in Kashmir, the issue would have gained more international attention.

Islamabad denies it supports any militant group in India-administered Kashmir and insists its backing for Kashmiris is merely diplomatic and political.