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.’
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
In Pictures: The World Transformed
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram