In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a shrinking pro-freedom space

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In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, a shrinking pro-freedom space

Muzaffarabad, Pakistan  Political parties seeking independence for the entire disputed territory of 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, political activists said.

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, the Pakistan-administered Kashmir chief of JKLF, 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, 80km east of the Pakistani capital Islamabad, in November. A fresh case was lodged following the latest hearing, he added.

Since gaining independence in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both claim in full but administer separate portions of.

Since 1989, thousands have fought in an armed movement for the separation of Kashmir from Indian control. Some armed groups demand accession to Pakistan, others advocate complete independence for the territory, home to 16 million people.

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 Yasin Malik, is a political group that has advocated for independence. It is headquartered in Srinagar, the capital of Indian-administered Kashmir, 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 Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

“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 Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (the current ruling party).

“The parties you now have [in Pakistan-administered Kashmir], 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 one journalist who closely follows electoral developments in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

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

The journalist spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the subject.

Pakistan has historically supported the Kashmiri movement for self-determination in Indian-administered Kashmir, both diplomatically and politically. India alleges that its neighbour also supports armed groups who have been fighting Indian security forces for decades, a charge that Pakistan has repeatedly denied.

In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, 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.

Khwaja Saifuddin, 70, is a senior vice-chairman of the JKLF and says restrictions on his party’s activities are routine [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

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 Afzal Sulehria, 38, president of the separatist Kashmir National Party (KNP) in AJK.

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 [against Pakistan],” Sulehria said.

Sulehria as well as representatives of the JKLF and the United Kashmir People’s National Party (UKPNP) 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 scores of 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.”

In Indian-administered Kashmir, meanwhile, a renewed crackdown against Kashmiri political leaders and citizens continues, after at least 42 security forces personnel were killed in a suicide attack in February.

Malik, the JKLF chief, was among more than 160 people arrested on February 22 in that crackdown, and clashes between security forces and protesters continue in the restive Himalayan region.

“The state wants us to be silent completely. The continuous raids by the state agencies in our homes, they want to stop us,” said a JKLF leader from Indian-administered Kashmir on condition of anonymity.

“The consequences of all the suppression are that even educated young men are now picking up the gun.”

‘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”.

Syed Waqar Hussain Kazmi, chief UKPNP organiser, says both India and Pakistan treat the question of Kashmiri independence similarly [Asad Hashim/Al Jazeera]

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.

Pakistan has long demanded that India administer the plebiscite in India-administered Kashmir, indicating its willingness to organise the vote on the side it controls.

In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, pro-freedom activists said that leaves them between a rock and a hard place.

Waqar Hussain Kazmi, chief organiser for the UKPNP, said Pakistan’s treatment of pro-freedom activists mirrored that of neighbouring India.

“We are the sons of this soil, but over here, we are accused of being [Indian intelligence] agents. And on their side, we are accused of being [Pakistani intelligence] agents.”

Additional reporting by Sudipto Mondal and Showkat Shafi in Doha, and Rifat Fareed in Srinagar.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim

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