What an excellent book this is – engagingly written and truly revelatory. It is a commonplace to say that Azad Kashmir is the least understood part of the former princely state. Anam Zakaria, a Pakistani writer, became intrigued by a visit to the Neelum Valley. From that arose the idea for this book, a series of journeys, conversations and interviews across Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Zakaria presents herself as the innocent and enquiring outsider. She is much more than that: an acute observer with great compassion and not a little courage – and without a partisan drum to bang. By-and-large, she allows the people of Pakistan Kashmir to tell their own stories.
So we hear the voices that get drowned out in the conventional narrative: the long ago abducted Hindu and Sikh women who ‘under the garb of their Muslim names … remain hidden in the folds of Pakistani and ‘Azad’ Kashmiri cities and villages’; the women of the Neelum valley who say they want the struggle to end and that nothing has come out of it; the pro-independence campaigners who argue that Pakistan has been as oppressive as India; the Pakistani military man who concedes that the sidelining of the JKLF was a mistake; the former chief of army staff who insists that: “the line between terrorism and the freedom struggle getting blurred is an enormous blow to the Kashmiris”.
Alongside the accounts of pan-Kashmiri and pan-Muslim sentiment, the anger and sorrow of those who have lost family members through Indian shelling and incursions, and the fury at what is widely seen as India’s illegal occupation of the Kashmir Valley, other issues emerge. There’s a profound sense of Kashmiri disquiet about their political and economic marginalisation within Pakistan, particularly acute in Kotli and Mirpur where huge and deeply disruptive dam construction has not delivered the dividend which the local population had every right to expect. Zakaria quotes an academic expert as saying of the Mirpuri community: “The Kashmiris see them as Punjabis and the Punjabis see them as Kashmiris”. And she mentions in passing the ‘many signboards in Chinese’ evident in this area as new infrastructure projects take shape.
However well you think you know Kashmir, this book will take you by surprise.