Sajid Iqbal speaks to Shams Rehman, author of 'Azaad Kashmir and British Kashmiris'
Since the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the region of Kashmir has been disputed by India and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, it remains a contentious issue for many Muslims in the UK, the majority of whom can trace their origins to Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
‘Azad Kashmir and British Kashmiris’ is a collection of articles on different aspects of Kashmir. The book introduces the reader to the government, politics, economy, language and religion in this part of the divided Kashmir. It also touches upon some controversial issues and to what extent Azad Kashmir is ‘Azad’, meaning free.
It then goes on to outline what author Shams Rehman calls the “politics of independence” in Azad Kashmir and then subsequently offers a summary of the Kashmiri problem and if there can be a democratic and inclusive solution.
Rehman, an activist from Akalgarh near Mirpur (Azad Kashmir), said he took interest in the subject after the execution of Maqbool Bhatt in 1984, a pro-independence leader and co-founder of the guerrilla group Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front. That day, he said, put him “on the road of learning” about Kashmir and he continued even after migrating to Britain in 1989.
“I thought of writing a book about Kashmir and Kashmiris because all other communities had their identities, languages and histories recognised, but Kashmiris seemed to be confused and always reluctant to own up their identity and language.”
“I noticed that Muslim Kashmiris here in Britain, from Mirpur, were made to believe that their Kashmiri identity somehow was in contradiction with their religious (Islamic) identity. However, at the same time they were made to protest against the Indian embassy about the Kashmir Issue.”
Rehman claims that pro-independence activists were accused by the British Pakistani media as ‘divisive’ and ‘Indian agents’, which then motivated him to put forth his views in writing.
“I wrote on different aspects at different occasions for different purposes but due to the lack of organisation and demands of everyday living and practices, I could not write the book I have in me” he said.
The book is intended for those interested in the subject, particularly those of Kashmiri origin. Rehman hopes that it will help British Kashmiris engage in the campaign for raising awareness about their heritage, identity and contribution to British society.
Rehman believes that the Kashmiri question in the media is told “mostly from the Indian perspective” when it receives coverage. To him, the fault lies with Kashmiris themselves.
He said: “Kashmiris have failed to present it as their issue. At times willingly and sometimes unknowingly they have been used and abused by the Pakistani rulers and of course through Kashmiri leaders to trap India.
“This of course does not mean that Kashmiris in the Indian occupied Kashmir had no issues with India. They did have them and still have them and they have actually become very complicated and serious.
“But the manipulation of these issues and sentiments of Kashmiris in the IOK distorted the Kashmiri struggle from the one for justice and freedom to communal and terrorism.”
This led the issue to become a political “hot potato” at the international level, though some media outlets try to keep Kashmir on the agenda, such as Channel 4’s ‘Kashmir’s Torture Trail’.
The core issue, Rehman believes, is of the military occupation on both sides,
“It is the right of Kashmiri people regardless of their language, religion or region to decide the future of Kashmir in a free and fair environment,” he said.
“Kashmir is not a question of Hindu-Muslim rivalry or of a two nation theory but of unification and independence of Kashmir. In fact it is an issue of democracy, I mean the real democracy where people wanted to democratise the autocratic system and it was that struggle which was crushed by the armies of India and Pakistan in 1947 and it is that process which is continuously suppressed and distorted by the occupying forces of India and Pakistan in Kashmir.”
He added: “There are increasing numbers of Indians and Pakistanis who are realising that their rulers’ obsession with Kashmir is costing them peace and development so now, they are waking up to the calls of modern times that we have to cooperate and co-exist and grow out of narrow nationalism.
Kashmir is still on the UN’s agenda today, but rarely discussed. It can be taken to the World Court of Justice but for that both India and Pakistan has to agree or at least one has to take the required actions.
But in Rehman’s view, India and Pakistan can only agree if all or an overwhelming majority of Kashmiris unanimously ask both India and Pakistan to leave Kashmir and to let the people of the state decide their future.
In the closing article of his book, Rehman has outlined what he believes is a democratic solution of the Kashmir issue that includes and recognises the diversity of viewpoints within Kashmir and Kashmiris.
He explains: “It has recently become common amongst many Indian and Pakistani politicians and intellectuals to emphasise that Kashmir is composed of a diversity of views, regions, religions and cultures and that therefore there cannot be one self-determination here but many.
“However, what they often fail to recognise is that almost all countries are multi-ethnic including India and Pakistan so will there be a second round of self-determination for different provinces of Pakistan and states of India?”
Rehman goes on to say that British Kashmiris have a role to play in helping with this issue, the first one being to have their Kashmiri identity recognised at all levels of British society. This, he believes, will help Kashmiris “get out of marginalisation and exclusion and invisibility and give young Kashmiris a positive identity along with their British and religious/Muslim identity.”
As well as that, he suggests forming non-partisan networks of British Kashmiris and making relevant bodies and institutions in the UK and abroad aware of the issue and garner support.
“We need to have a positive dialogue here between Kashmiris, Pakistani and Indian diaspora communities to find ways of helping the Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri governments to work together to resolve this and other issues rather than work against each other and destroy the development opportunities and resources.”