Ascending to Ganga Choti from Sudhan Gali in a 1981 Land Cruiser, with Rehan, the driver of the 4x4 Jeep, I asked, “Are tourists visiting from outside?” I had intended to inquire about the inflow of foreign tourists. He replied, “They have started arriving after ease in pandemic restrictions.” I asked again, sensing my previous choice of words was vague, “Are foreign tourists also visiting lately?” Rehan replied, “They started coming in months before pandemic...” he paused and added, “But most are coming from Pakistan, lately.” The words, “from Pakistan”, when used by Kashmiris to refer to Pakistanis evoke uneasiness among the latter, often making them think that Kashmiris do not intend inclusion with Pakistan.

However, consciousness of this Kashmiri identity was left inside with exuding wisdom and we now know why proclaiming exceptionalism of this identity has become so important. The answer lies in the not-so-distant event of August 5, 2019, when India revoked Article 370 and 35-A in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), a move, which undertakes forceful unravelling of the Kashmiri identity, and its saturation with an imposed Indian identity. This was the very rationale behind India’s move to illegally annex and convert IIOJK into a Union Territory.

This conversation took me back a couple of days ago, to a moment of reflection, when I arrived with my family at Chikkar, a picturesque valley in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, to spend independence holidays. The reflection was eerie, yet that of gratitude, as I gazed upon the mountain with houses adorned like baubles on a Christmas tree. Despite sharing a common faith and a nearly common culture, Pakistanis are prohibited from buying property in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK). I had a reassuring thought, that Kashmiri culture and identity remains free from tampering, here at least, unlike their sisters and brethren across the Line of Control. Yet this unsatisfying reassurance, made way for the discomforting reality, that Kashmiri identity is under obvious threat of being erased and concocted with larger identity indiscernible from the genuine Kashmiri identity in IIOJK. This perhaps, is the most quintessential question observers internationally are failing to ask. The quest for a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ (state), with unapologetic motivation, is driving Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological patron, the Rashtrya Swayam Sewak (RSS) by changing the ethno-religious and cultural make-up of Kashmir into a state of near oblivion.

These ongoing, systemic measures by India warrant the need for international readers to understand diametrically opposite circumstances in AJK and IIOJK. It’s part-convenience for outside readers, due to my national origin, to brush away these observations, and part-intellectual laziness to see AJK and IIOJK as parts of Kashmir controlled by both Pakistan and India, respectively. The reality on ground, however, is much different on the two sides of Jammu and Kashmir.

To begin with, I have, like many Pakistanis, visited Swat Valley in 2014, when the area had been cleaned up from terrorists. The presence of pickets, for security of the public and re-establishing state’s writ, was established at nearly all important entry and exit points. Thorough checking of vehicles and registration of visitors was the norm. Most importantly, the tension in towns and villages had not debilitated by then. Swat Valley, by the year 2020 is much different; sans the pickets and mandatory need for registering visitors’ names, not to mention the hustle and bustle of domestic and foreign tourists. The comparison with Swat is only to highlight the security situation.

Compare this to my recent visit to AJK, where an impression may exist of it being highly securitised. On the contrary, there was hardly any presence of security forces or the military on routes, after passing through different towns and the capital of AJK, that is, Muzaffarabad. The presence of the Pakistan Army was next to none. In my entire trip, I saw not more than two soldiers. The same was the case with police officials. The only few concentrated police officials (not numbering more than five), I saw, were busy decorating the walls of the police station with Pakistan and Kashmiri flags. The markets from Muzaffarabad, the capital, to towns like Garhi Dupatta, Tandali, Kohala and back to Chikkar bustled with crowds, just as it would in other places in Pakistan, on any normal business day. Shopkeepers were engaging customers, transporters were hustling with passengers and the crowd was on the go. And as, with my family, I hovered over the roads to different places, I saw locals celebrating Pakistan’s Independence Day. Young Kashmiri boys on their motorcycles and cars carrying Pakistan and Kashmir flags—or donning them as a cape—went past us. Nothing of this was either staged or choreographed. The same was true at tourist spots such as Ganga Choti or Sudhan Gali. The youth with their families we came across, exuberantly observed Pakistan’s Independence Day, along with owning their Kashmiri identity. On treks, and the villages lying along them, Kashmiris welcome visiting trekkers with dignity and amicable demeanour.

Now, compare this very vivid description with the situation across the Line of Control in IIOJK. The curfew imposed since August 5, 2019 has not been eased at all. The restrictions have been compounded with the breakout of the pandemic. This also comes with denial of access to health services, the closure of educational institutes, the world’s longest internet shutdown, and detention of pro-India and pro-independence leadership—the latter detainees being prisoners of conscience in IIOJK. Above all, the Kashmiris in IIOJK are being deprived of their unique Kashmiri identity and see a perpetual denial of their right to plebiscite. This is attributable to BJP’s scrapping of Article 35-A, 370, illegal annexation last year on August, 5 and introduction of the new domicile law.

The entire aim is to change the cultural and religious visage of the geography with non-Muslim Indian settlers. In the midst of all this, the streets usually stand dissolute; all glimmer of hope remains absent among Kashmiris. That the feelings of Kashmiris in IIOJK have been reduced to hopelessness may be an understatement. Srinagar, Baramulla, all other cities and towns and important arteries are manned by Indian Army soldiers, the Central Reserve Police Force, and local police. Visitors and locals are forced to prove their identity and register, journalists are hounded and harassed. The security apparatus is used to coerce people against expressing their political opinion or protest against an illegal occupation, not to forget, the demolition of locals houses where local armed fighters are found, the use of pellet guns against protestors and stone pelting by security forces to damage property of locals. The security forces also serve in putting up with any armed resistance in a territory long overdue the promise of a plebiscite. Kashmiris feel betrayed, angry, and disillusioned with India’s colonial enterprise.

In the midst of this, a new perennial madness in IIOJK, AJK with its imperfections serves as a litmus test of the preservation of Kashmiri identity. Most importantly, to preserve this identity and its culture in IIOJK, for meeting the promise of plebiscite without tampering demography and culture. This requires commitment to preserve Kashmiris’ aspirations, like the innocence of a child named Hamza, I met at Chikkar. When I inquired from him the name of a hill opposite to the resort, he simply replied, “I don’t know its name” and went on to quickly add, “That is Kashmir, where you stand is Kashmir, and the hill behind you is also Kashmir.” Kashmir and its people in IIOJK need preservation of their identity, geography and culture sans India’s tampering, so that Hamza and his like on the other side can earn back their freedom from Indian occupation.