In October, 370 delegates gathered at the Neelum View hotel in Muzaffarabad, 'capital' of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. They were from the All Parties National Alliance (APNA), a coalition of nationalist parties fighting for Kashmiri independence from both Indian and Pakistani rule.
The delegates were launching the 'referendum campaign'. Over the next 12 months the APNA hopes to ask Pakistan Kashmir's 3. 2 million residents one simple question: do they want freedom from or accession to Pakistan? 'I believe there will be a thumping majority in favour of freedom,' says Arif Shahid, APNA chairperson and brain behind the campaign. 'The time for a real referendum on Kashmir has come.'
There is nothing unusual about the aspiration. Kashmiri nationalists have been fighting for the reunification of their state ever since it was partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1948. What is unusual is the brazenness. Nationalist parties are banned in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Neelum View is the glitziest hotel in Muzaffarabad, hosting Pakistani politicians and army generals alike. From where did the APNA get its temerity? The answer is as simple as it is tragic, says Shahid: the earthquake that last year destroyed large swathes of his country.
'We lost thousands of our people and scores of our villages. But there's no doubt the earthquake helped our cause. There is now an international presence and media in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. They see the political realities. And they are favourable to us.'
The call for an independent Kashmir has long been muffled by India and Pakistan's rival claims on the territory, which have caused two of their three wars. Pakistan's argument is that as a Muslim majority state Kashmir should be 'free' to accede to the Islamic Republic. India says Kashmir is an 'integral' part of its secular nation and will remain so in war or peace. Both sides are ready to fight 'to the very last Kashmiri', says Shahid.
The latest fight - an insurgency against army rule in India-controlled Kashmir - has been the bloodiest. Although it began as a nationalist uprising in 1989, it rapidly degenerated into a proxy war between Pakistan and India, scarred by sectarian killings, brutal army oppression and, so far, the death of at least 45,000 people, many of them civilians. Pakistani (or 'Azad') Kashmir has supplied the hinterland to the conflict, hosting 30,000 refugees and bases to a dozen or so pro-accession jihadist groups fighting the war on Islamabad's behalf.
It was the presence of these 'banned' groups that explained Pakistan's reluctance to open its side of Kashmir following the earthquake, says Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW). 'For 48 hours the Pakistan army dithered,' he says. 'In the end the scale of the disaster overwhelmed them and the army was forced to open up Azad Kashmir to international relief organisations. But there were real misgivings. First, the army knew it would expose to public view militant jihadist camps whose existence had officially been denied. And second, it understood that with such a massive international operation in place the military would lose its grip on one of the most closed areas in Pakistan.'
That is what happened. Prior to the earthquake, all land and mobile telephone links were controlled by the army, proving a major obstruction to postearthquake rescue efforts. The government was thus compelled to open lines to private mobile companies and, through them, greater telecommunications and internet access. Similarly there are now for the first time nonstate radio stations, as well as several international media networks, operating out of Muzaffarabad.
This freeing up of Kashmiri society has redounded to nationalists' benefit more than to the jihadists or the army, says Mohammed Khaleeque, APNA spokesperson. The reason, he says, is the Islamists' sectarian role in the anti-Indian insurgency and the army's failure to meet people's expectations in the aftermath of the earthquake.
'There is a lot of anger and it has translated into political protest,' says Khaleeque. 'In the last 12 months we've seen meetings, demonstrations and showdowns with the Pakistan authorities. Sometimes the protests are over government inefficiency and corruption. But increasingly there are demands that the army withdraw from Kashmir and that our sham "autonomous" local government stand down. People want real control of their lives. All of this has strengthened the nationalists.' Brad Adams agrees.
'Everyone we spoke to in Indian Kashmir - activist, official and neutral - said that the growing sentiment was for independence rather than accession to India or Pakistan. I'd be amazed if that wasn't also the case in Azad Kashmir. Kashmiris on both sides of the divide know Pakistan is not the Muslim paradise it was made out to be. My hunch is that were Kashmiris free to choose they would prefer to go their own way.'
But the fear is there will be reversion to the old ways once the emergency caused by the earthquake is over and the international agencies start to pack up and leave. Diplomats and donors say that Pakistan is already quietly urging that the aid agencies quit Kashmir sooner rather than later. It is a request the world must resist, says Adams.
'With the earthquake, the international community has a golden opportunity to open up Azad Kashmir permanently,' he says. 'And $6. 5 billion in aid is a lot of leverage. I am not saying emergency humanitarian relief should be made conditional.
But development aid can be. There are a lot of demands on the world's resources. If they are to be spent on Kashmir's reconstruction, then it should be on condition that Pakistan respects the basic civil and political rights of the Kashmiri people.'