I wrote this piece in solidarity with the people and their diverse but interrelated struggles for freedom and social justice in the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. I see my responsibility as a European anthropologist, implicated in colonial structures of domination and legacies of conflict in South Asia, not to advocate for a particular political solution to the Kashmir conflict, but rather to respect the diverse experiences and aspirations of Kashmiris and to work towards a culture of debate and solidarity across social and political divides, which I believe is important in confronting all forms of oppression and inequality in Kashmir and the world beyond.
Every year on 5 February, Kashmir Solidarity Day is observed across Pakistan and Pakistan-controlled Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). This public holiday was introduced in the 1990s during the armed uprising of Kashmiris against Indian occupation. It commemorates the ongoing struggle of Kashmiris for freedom (azādi) from India and aims to demonstrate Pakistan’s moral responsibility and commitment to this struggle.
In this short contribution, I will argue that Pakistan’s solidarity is crucial in drawing national and international attention to the Kashmiri freedom struggle. At the same time, however, this solidarity is contested and potentially harmful, when it comes to people’s political rights in AJK. Pakistan’s solidarity, entrenched in military nationalism and enmity against India, is fundamentally self-interested and primarily serves its military and/or political elites. Therefore, it has mostly failed to truly recognise and promote people’s right to freedom in AJK.
Pakistan’s solidarity with Kashmir continues to shape AJK’s political marginalisation within the Pakistani nation-state and its role in sustaining Pakistan’s military nationalism, with India as the enemy that constantly threatens the existence of the Islamic nation. Pakistan’s solidarity with Kashmir holds that, in contrast to the parts of Kashmir across the ‘border’ – the military Line of Control – AJK is ‘free’ (azād) from Indian occupation. However, this official narrative conceals that AJK’s ‘freedom’ has come with political and military dependence from, and domination by, Pakistan.
Pakistan claims to only protect AJK from India and to support the local state and its people temporarily until the people of Kashmir—through a UN-led referendum—will determine the political future of the entire former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, including AJK. In fact, however, Pakistan dominates AJK militarily and through constitutional and bureaucratic means. Islamabad holds control over the most important political matters in AJK, including defence, security and trade, and appoints the most influential positions within the region’s administration. Conversely, AJK lacks political representation in Pakistan and the means to hold the Pakistani government and/or military accountable. While the people of AJK can elect their own government, they are affected by laws, regulations and interventions from Pakistan over which they have no or only limited control.
Pakistan’s ambivalent solidarity with Kashmir is most clearly revealed by the constitution that was granted AJK in the 1970s. By stipulating that no individual or political party in AJK may challenge the ideology of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan, the constitution contradicts the very right of people to freely imagine, debate and ultimately determine their political future, which Pakistan demands for Kashmiris under Indian occupation.
Recently and in response to the intensification of India’s occupation and military siege in Kashmir, following the revocation of the regions’ partial autonomy status in August 2019, Pakistan has increasingly sought to bring international attention to Kashmir and the Kashmiri freedom struggle. In contrast to previous decades, it has framed the Kashmir dispute as an international issue that needs to be resolved through a popular UN-led referendum. This stance in part reverses the bilateralism that has marginalised Kashmiris and shaped the Kashmir dispute as a territorial dispute between Pakistan and India. Given the Muslim majority of the former state and the fact that the UN resolutions only mention the option of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to either India or Pakistan (and not the third option of independence), Pakistan is likely to win such a referendum. While Pakistan in public and in front of the international community calls for the referendum to determine the political future of Jammu and Kashmir, the constitution leaves the people of AJK no choice but to support Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. Alternatives such as independence can only be expressed in secret or with great caution and cannot be debated openly and freely. However, to transform the entrenched conflict, I believe, we precisely need such public and open debates that respect the social and political diversity of Kashmiris across the entire state, including AJK, and work, through democratic means, towards freedom for all.
Pakistan’s solidarity with Kashmir is self-interested, but the people of AJK would not have been able to run their own local state without Pakistan’s political and military support. This local state provides most administrative and social services, such as the distribution of relief after the 2005 earthquake. While being dependent on Pakistan, it has also enabled the people in AJK and their political leaders to limit Pakistani control by restricting the access to state resources to recognised state subjects of Kashmir. According to the so-called ‘state subject rule’, a law introduced in 1927, when Jammu and Kashmir was still a princely state, state subjects and their descendants are the only people who have the right to settle, own land and hold public office in the state. Now that India has abolished the state subject rule in Indian-controlled Kashmir, along with the region’s partial autonomy status, it is all the more important to emphasise that AJK is nowadays the only region of Jammu and Kashmir where the state subject rule is still in place. It is this law that allows people to retain some (limited) degree of political autonomy, to assert their own identity, and to confront and negotiate as Kashmiris with Pakistan over their mutual relationship, including the conditions of Pakistan’s solidarity with the freedom struggle.
Recent constitutional reforms in AJK give rise to hope for more autonomy and a more equal distribution of power between Pakistan and AJK. In June 2018, the parliament of AJK, supported by the Pakistani government, passed the 13th amendment to the constitution. With the amendment some powers were shifted to the democratically elected AJK Legislative Assembly (including natural gas, electricity, terminal taxes, census etc.). The amendment is contested. Some commentators celebrate it as the achievement of financial autonomy for the first time in AJK’s history, while others criticise it as ‘a further “colonisation” of the region (…) under the pretext of empowerment’.
Moreover, local government elections were recently held in AJK for the first time in over 30 years. Local civil society activists have long called for their reinstatement, criticising both Pakistan and the members of the AJK legislative assembly for refusing to share their power. The election of local village councils and city committees is considered an important step toward democratising the region, improving local participation in politics and distributing state resources in a more equitable and accountable way. It remains to be seen whether these elections will lead to a more responsive and responsible local state or rather become another farce of democracy and freedom in AJK. After all, Pakistan and its allies in AJK have so far refrained from what would be a genuine and groundbreaking act of political solidarity: repealing a law that prohibits contesting the ideology of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan, and promoting the right to freely debate and imagine alternative political futures and possibilities of azādi and social justice for Kashmir and its diverse people.
The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Research Society of International Law (RSIL), its editorial team, or its affiliated organizations. Moreover, the articles are based upon information the authors consider reliable, but neither RSIL nor its affiliates warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.
 This contribution focuses on AJK. However, Pakistan’s failure to promote people’s right to political self-determination also holds true, and even more so, for Gilgit-Baltistan, the other of the two parts of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
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