Pro-freedom Space Shrinking in AJK: Al Jazeera

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Muzaffarabad – Political parties seeking independence for the entire Kashmir from both Indian and Pakistani control are facing a fresh round of intimidation and legal action in the Pakistan-administered portion of the region, Al Jazeera reported on Saturday.

The government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known locally as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), denied that it was restricting space for pro-freedom parties, while electoral analysts said those parties have historically had marginal support in the territory.

The same parties in India-administered Kashmir regularly face arrests, arbitrary detentions and other alleged human rights abuses while in custody, activists told Al Jazeera in late February.

Last month, court hearings were held in a “treason” case lodged against 19 activists of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a Srinagar-based pro-freedom party, for allegedly shouting slogans calling for both India and Pakistan to leave Kashmir.

“Our slogans were that Kashmir should have the right of self-determination and that Indian and Pakistani forces should both leave Kashmir,” Toqeer Gilani, chief of JKLF in AJK, told Al Jazeera.

“They objected to us saying that Pakistani military forces should leave Kashmir.”

Gilani said the slogans were shouted during a conference organised by the student wing of his party in the town of Kotli in November. A fresh case was lodged following the latest hearing, he added.

Indian security forces have carried out an increasingly intense crackdown on separatist groups on their side of the Line of Control, which separates the two portions of Kashmir, resulting in scores of detentions, extrajudicial killings and alleged human rights violations.

The JKLF, led by jailed Yasin Malik, is a political group that has advocated for independence. It is headquartered in Srinagar but maintains a presence in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“We told the judge that we confess to the cases, so you can arrest us if you want,” said Gilani, who was one of the 19 named in the latest case.

Hearings in the case are ongoing, with all 19 activists out on bail.

‘Limited political relevance’

Analysts said pro-freedom parties have historically had limited electoral influence or support in AJK.

“In terms of being politically relevant, what we call the ‘state parties’ are essentially all gone,” said Ejaz Haider, a political analyst who hails from Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Politics in AJK has now become dominated, he said, by national Pakistani political parties, including the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Pakistan People’s Party and the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

“The parties you now have, these are extensions of the Pakistani parties,” he said.

Other followers of politics in the region agreed with that assessment.

“[The pro-freedom parties] are a very marginalised group, mostly urban-based,” said a journalist.

“And many of them are living abroad. On the local level, they are fringe groups now.”

Pakistan has historically supported the Kashmiri movement for self-determination in Indian Kashmir, both diplomatically and politically. On Pakistani side, however, the room to express a political stance other than for accession to Pakistan is limited.

An electoral law, for example, requires all candidates for the legislative assembly of the autonomous AJK government to swear an oath to support accession to Pakistan.

“I solemnly declare that I believe in the ideology of Pakistan, the ideology of state’s accession to Pakistan and the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan,” reads the relevant portion of the electoral oath.

India enforces a similar restriction in India-administered Kashmir.

Neither here nor there

“We are citizens of this state, we have lived here for thousands of years, generations of our family have lived here, but the resources of this land, they are apparently not for us,” said activist Afzal Sulehria, 38.

Sulehria said he has been jailed three times and faced court cases for the last 16 years for having advocated for an independent Kashmir.

Most commonly, Sulehria and other political activists told Al Jazeera, they are charged with “treason” or “sedition”.

“We are not citizens of Pakistan, as per the Pakistani constitution, as per the United Nations resolution and as per our own laws. But despite this, we have been arrested for treason and rebellion,” Sulehria said.

Sulehria as well as representatives of the JKLF all said they were free to hold political rallies, but that their members were pressured through surveillance and court cases if any slogans targeting the Pakistani state are raised.

“We can take out political rallies, but we will be bound by restrictions, and people who attend will be threatened to limit attendance,” said Sulehria.

“When we speak about [Pakistan leaving Kashmir], they treat us as if we are enemies of the state.”

Gilani, the JKLF’s local chief, said Pakistan’s suppression of pro-freedom narratives is akin to India’s position. He stressed, however, that the crackdown by Pakistani authorities is not on the same scale as that in Indian-administered Kashmir, where security forces have illegally detained or killed political activists.

“The violations of human rights and physical abuse, there is no comparison of that,” he said. “But their approach is the same when it comes to restrictions, even if the scale is not the same.”

‘They can’t say that’

Representatives of the Pakistan-administered Kashmir government denied that there are any restrictions on political groups operating on its soil, but said that criticism of Pakistan or its military would not be tolerated.

“In Azad Kashmir, I can tell you that there is tolerance for dissent. But that tolerance doesn’t brook abusive and seditious language against the state of Pakistan,” AJK President Masood Khan told Al Jazeera.

“There are no curbs of freedom of expression otherwise.”

Khan clarified that those who “raise pro-independence slogans, they would not land up in jail”.

Tariq Farooq, a senior minister in the AJK government, concurred with that view.

“Anybody can do anything, claim anything, discuss anything in this area. In our government, everybody has full fundamental rights to speak anything which is related with human rights,” he told Al Jazeera in the AJK capital, Muzaffarabad.

Asked if that freedom extended to parties advocating for Pakistani forces to leave Kashmir, he said: “They can’t say that”.

The AJK government bases its position on a 1949 UN resolution that calls for a plebiscite to be held in Kashmir, giving Kashmiris the choice of acceding to either India or Pakistan.

No third option is offered in the resolution. 

(Source: Al Jazeera )

 


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