Saturday, 30 May 2009
It turns out that the property we have procured may not quite be the blessing that we thought it was. The elderly landlord is asking for a sum quite out of my range and wants a hefty deposit on top. 10,ooo rupees rent per month and 30,000 rupees deposit is not what I had anticipated. Nevertheless, he is kind enough to accomodate me while I search for something more in the 4 to 5,000 rupee range (and no deposit).
The diesel in my car is low enough for me to set out to the city centre by foot and begin my search for a bank that will enable the transfer of my much needed sum from Kotli.
My first stop is an Allied Bank, with whom I have a business account in my local tehsil Sensa. The fact that business has never taken off in these past four years means I have an inactive account. That much I understand, What I can't comprehend is the rudeness that staff members decided to bear on me, when I suggested they modernise and come to terms with the fact we are in 2009.
Resolution comes from the Bank of Azad Jammu & Kashmir. A nascent banking entity little more than a couple of years old. It is essentially local and has yet to be approved by the State Bank of Pakistan, carrying a lot of it's functions via Pakistan's UBL (United Bank Limited). I express my healtfelt hope that Azad Kashmir creates it's own central bank before servile approval from Pakistan comes to fruition (as befits an independent entity, as this side of Kashmir presents itself) to the Operations Manager. In tune with most ordinary Kashmiri aspirations, he nods in agreement.
Now I can cross the road to the centre of Power ( Azad Kashmir's administrative hub which comprises every element of the so-called state - including the High Court and Supreme Court, Inspector General of Police, Prime Minister, CHief Secretary etc.) with some gusto.
Lo and behold, the Chief Secretary is in his office and is "ready" to meet me.
As I approach him, I recognise that he's a quintessential Punjabi, the community that is just about synonymous with the State of Pakistan. I begin by asking him whether he's read my letter (ref. http://tanveerandkashmir.blogspot.com/2009/05/muzaffarabad-day-1.html). His affirmative response wreaked of arrogance and anger. I followed that up with asking him if my uncle's peer had met him at Kashmir House yesterday. A similar reply transpired. By this point, my stomach began to boil like a kettle. I let rip with a range of arguments which clearly amplified the unjust relationship between "Azad" Kashmir and Pakistan. I made it clear that if Pakistan wished to keep the Kashmiri sentiment suppressed under the heaviest of rugs, so be it's prerogative. If disaster and doom for Pakistan hadn't yet become apparent to him, then a little introspection into his attitude multiplied by the vast majority of Pakistan's civil bureaucracy should provide him with at least some clue. He took particular umbrage at me describing him as the de facto governor of Azad Kashmir.
It should come as no surprise that he refused to intermediate between me and the State of Pakistan. Despite clear evidence of the miscarriage of justice and the inability of Pakistan's justice system to provide justice. The Chief maintained that it was beyond his jurisdiction to do so and he refused to write a sentence to that effect on a copy of my letter. We all have problems he reasoned. "So, we allow those who rule us to mint money from us (via taxes) and absolve them of any responsibility to provide what clearly only a government can do, namely provide justice to the ruled?" I snapped.
Taxation without representation, I say.
Thus, there was categorically no scope for the citizens of Pakistan (or it's subjects) to follow the rule of law. With a contract to kill on my head, I couldn't travel to Pakistan and Pakistan's representative in Kashmir wishes to abdicate his responsibility to those he "governs". Furthermore, he suggested that I have trust in Allah and travel to Pakistan! How I wish his superiors had more faith in Allah than in American dollars.
What irked me most was his denial over issues of rule of law in Azad Kashmir. His contention that Pakistan had no objection to the free movement of Kashmiris within Kashmir, that GOC Murree didn't keep control of Azad Kashmiris by force as and when necessary and that Azad Kashmiris had a favourable economic status vis-a-vis Pakistan. To say all the above with a straight face is a talent only a nation on the precipice of damnation can carry through.
Above all, the chief's suggestion that I should feel fortunate to be able to express myself, inferring that I deserve to be locked up or beaten, was just about enough for me to stomach.
As I trudge back towards my residence, many questions flash through my mind. Why can't the people of Pakistan see through the furtive essence of their country's existence? What better example than that of the 2 million refugees of NWFP. On America's insistence and prompted by a fistful of dollars, you enforce poverty, misery and displacement on your own people and then expect the Pakistani public to cough up donations for the mess that you've put these people in!
The Press Club is enroute to my destination and a brief meeting with it's President last week left a lot of unanswered questions. What constitutes pubic interest? If citizens had to pay for news or stories of public interest, what prevented special interest groups or the powers-that-be from manipulating information in the public domain? He wasn't there but a newly opened environmental hut in the same premises evoked interest on my part.
I have witnessed large scale de-forestation of Kashmir. Entire forests had been wiped out by people who sold on the wood for profits. Many claim that a lakri (wood) mafia exists which has it's tentacles deep in Azad Kashmir's polity. An ecological disaster was imminent if this issue isn't paid attention to. The environmental journalist shared my concern and pinpointed the blame on the government, explaining that a special team had been set up to accelerate de-forestation. He went further and described an impending environmental disaster, perhaps of greater magnitude than even the forest fires.
The Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Project
This issue requires greater attention and clarity than what I'm about to put forward. What I will write at this stage is as follows: If this hydro project is carried through, Muzaffarabad city will be virtually drained of water. Tunnels are being constructed for the generation of electricity which will divert a large portion of water from these two rivers. A natural calamity is inevitable, particularly in a region with seismic tendencies.
Pakistan couldn't get a consensus on building Kalabagh dam within it's own frontiers but wishes to fulfill it's need for electricity from Azad Kashmir, irrespective of it's environmental impact, taking full advantage of Azad Kashmir's puppet leadership.
Tomorrow is Friday. I'm gonna have to give it the status of rest day from here-on. The work before me is piling up. Spending a whole day in front of the computer, is the very least that I need to do to compensate for the inability to spend 4 to 6 hours very day. Will I gradually become efficient, will I burn out or will the Pakistanis finish me off.
Let's wait and see.
at May 30, 2009
Friday, 29 May 2009
A lie-in is most definitely in order after yesterday's marathon schedule.
I'm pretty much down to my last few rupees as I await some assistance from my family in the UK. Yesterday's conversation with Sardar Karamdad invoked two lessons for me:
1) That I shouldn't thrust my sacrifices on others. If I'm going through hardship or have given up something easy and good for collective ease and good, I shouldn't promote it. Rather that I should work sincerily without anticipation of reward and hope for the best from the Lord above.
2) That one shouldn't necessarily talk about reform with the people of Kashmir. In his opinion, their development has been so stunted that they are just not amenable to reform. They consider it a burden, particularly as the struggle for daily bread is a paramount concern for the poor and the pursuit of ever more refined entertainment and luxury is for the rich. An organic approach is more apt and people's evolutionary instincts will necessitate change with time. Further that when the sharp end of reality hits home, then will people consider reform. No doubt, one must struggle for positive change regardless.
Returning to the grim reality of daily life; yesterday's attempts at finding accomodation were unfruitful. The single property that we saw didn't yet have a kitchen or bathroom. Furthermore, it was perched precariosly on the edge of a hill and would've been a certain hazard for my 3 year old daughter.
Nevertheless, a new day can at times bring new hope. Today is one such example. We are shown a property which is close enough to being described as an environmental haven. Lush greenery surrounds the property, the vicinity is clean and open, fresh air is aplenty and a near village atmosphere completes the setting. The absence of electricity at the time was amply compensated by the aforementioned features.
The fact that I didn't have any money on me at the time didn't deter my 90 year old/retired policeman landlord.
How gracious is the Lord, I quietly exclaimed to myself.
The hotel where we stayed last night and for most of last week was similarly trusting and generous in giving me time to pay up. I knew that a sum of c. 18,000 rupees (c. 150 pounds) had arrived in Kotli for me. I also knew that this would perhaps be the last "donation" from my family. Banks were closed and getting the money transferred to Muzaffarabad would be a struggle that I'll contend with tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I'm relieved that some raw materials for food had accompanied us from the village. I also make use of the abundance of river water to wash my filthy vehicle. It has always been my motto to utilise nature as best as possible and not defy it. How I wish if we could all keep a sustained perspective on nature despite our undoubted advancement and development as human beings. This could help prevent the suffering that ensues from living in an economy which imports a lot more than necessary, forcing locals to pay a mark-up on the 25% inflation rate that has ordinary Pakistanis in a fix.
I'm back a day earlier than I wanted to be.
My uncle's peer (spiritual mentor) is coming to Muzaffarabad to meet me and hopes to get an audience with the Chief Secretary. His go-between is another peer Atiq-ur-Rehman, who doubles as a member of Pakistan's national assembly.
Uncle's peer is specifically interested in putting in a few words to reclaim uncle's sum of 90 lakh rupees from Bashir (ref. www.yughayar.net). It has been categorically established that Pakistan's legal system is just too weak to make Bashir see judicial sense. Hence, the political involvement.
I got word from the peer sahib late yesterday afternoon and was engaged in a conference involving my local MLA (member of legislative assembly). He wanted me to be in Muzaffarabad by the morning. A tough ask considering Muzaffarabad is a good 6 hours drive from my village.
Anyhow, it's 3.00am when I leave home; wife, kids and luggage attached.
I'm not fully awake as I drive and with my right arm in a sling, let's just assume it's horses for courses.
When I reach Muzaffarabad's Sangam Hotel (where the peer is residing), I realise it's been a while since I've had the opportunity of feeling the cool air-conditioning assisted breeze of a hotel lobby. I learn from the peer sahib that the Chief Secretary had left for Lahore early in the morning and that their our meeting had been re-scheduled in Kashmir House Islamabad for tomorrow morning!
I took great pains to explain to the learned peer that as my life was in danger in Pakistan, it wasn't possible on any account for me to visit Kashmir House. I sensed his sense of dismay and apologised profusely. I explained that as he knew my uncle perhaps a lot better than I did, that my political baggage with reference to Pakistan may also embarrass him and the Chief Secretary; surely, it was more appropriate that he meet him himself.
The rest of the day is spent waiting for my property man to show us an example or two of what he has sought out for us. A couple of hours are killed in Jalalabad Park which is located directly opposite the PM's residence. My tiredness is killing me; being in the unenviable state of not being able to sleep or stay awake.
The evening is spent with a dynamic lawyer Sardar Karamdad Khan (ref. http://www.hrw.org/reports/2006/pakistan0906/4.htm) who amazes me with his insight and clear conscience. A long chat over dinner at the riverside ensues and a certain rapport is established with reference to work that needs to be done for the people of Kashmir. Not least that they have an independent judiciary free from the clutches of the Azad Kashmir Council that sits in Islamabad and the myopic generals that sit in GOC Murree.
Today's major drawback is the strife that my wife and kids had to endure on my behalf, spending much of the day in the car as we awaited accomodation. It was past midnight that we eventually resorted back to the riverside hotel that was our home last week. Accomodation will have to wait till tomorrow, at the very least.
A final note on my uncle and peer sahib's issue. My uncle phones me in the evening, clearly incensed over my apparent snub of peer sahib's request to travel to Islamabad. Peer sahib was shocked at my letter to the chief secretary (ref. http://tanveerandkashmir.blogspot.com/2009/05/muzaffarabad-day-1.html) and insisted that I comply with the peer's request. I concluded that the peer had poisoned my uncle's thoughts about me. His emphasis on working to obtain his money rather than justice for the people of Kashmir touched a raw nerve in me.
The danger of showing blind faith in other humans (spiritual mentor or otherwise) can defy reason at times.
Only the man who is forced to stand in the sun without water, truly knows how it feels. No-one else could possibly understand.
My 3 year old daughter wakes up with a persistent cough every morning. Hotel food with it's abundance of inferior ghee and questionable hygiene is taking it's toll on my family and me. Yes, it is grossly unfair of me to put my family through the pain and torture of what I am going through. This is providing the drive for me to become efficient and more focussed at the job at hand. I am doing what I am doing because the living standards for most people in this region are dire. I would feel even more guilty if I were to transport my family and I to the UK to live a selfish existence.
In particular, I need the support of the Azad Kashmiri community in the UK to help me in my endeavours. If they took interest, my work would be a lot more effective and they would be involved in positive change, that would ultimately benefit them too. Coming "home" to a society that had a robust public infrastructure, where education was more in tune with global standards, where law and order was visible and where economic opportunity for the locals took away the burden on "British" visitors to "help out"; surely they understood the need for a sincere, concerted and disciplined effort to produce all these human requirements, rather more than the "locals".
As my cousin (the dismissed police constable) and I take the long walk to the Capital's administrative hub, he lauds my determination but I sense he wonders why I'm putting myself through such agony.
I make a point of re-visiting the chief secretary's office. Though they gave me a tentative date of the 26th, I wanted to ensure that my letter had been read and registered with the Chief.
I was urged to meet the additional secretary (presumably, the chief's number 2). Upon reading my letter, he felt that this was an issue above his jurisdiction and that the chief (Pakistan's de facto governor in Azad Kashmir) himself was the only person competent enough to address the contents of my letter. A date of the 27th has now been given to me. No guarantee of course; I reminded the chief's personal secretary of the seriousness of the issues at hand. His reply was that he was doing his job in the best manner possible and that he shouldn't be held responsible for the supposed crimes of others. A familiar bureaucratic lament, synonymous with the sub-continent.
I learn that my attempts to procure a place of residence for my family is still probably a day away. It would be unwise for me to make them endure hotel life any longer than they have. Reluctant though I feel, I decide that spending a few days back in the village will refresh and re-invigorate me and my family. I shall come back on the 27th and in the meantime my Muzaffarabad residence, financial replenishment (if I'm fortunate) and an opportunity to make up for wasted time seemed sufficient reason to take my foot off the pedal for a few days.
I miss my Naani too.
I'm behind in my blog write-ups, at times I'm overwhelmed by people who have taken an interest in what I've been doing and am trying to do.
I decide that I must try and sit in the hotel room today and update myself. I know I'm not writing as concisely as I should and all the ancillary web-related work is suffering too. For example, apart from the first two video clips on (ref. www.zorpia.com/sahaafi) zorpia, I'm yet to post the dozens of video clips that I've generated so far on my journey. The bandwidth provided by my internet service provider is just too narrow to facilitate uploading. I realise the urgent need to source a broadband internet connection somewhere in Muzaffarabad soon.
The past year has admittedly been a pretty lazy one on my part and there are times every day, when I rue not keeping myself organised and up to date during this period. I'm constantly having to play catch-up with the work at hand.
My day gets slightly complicated when a relation of mine who was dismissed from the police force in 2006, turns up on a promise that I made to him in assisting his re-instatement (subject to the rule of law of course).
This marginally affects my expenditure burden but it's important that I maintain the spirit of social welfare that I've set for myself.
While I'm writing up this blog, it persistently dawns on me that Azad Kashmir is effectively a lawless territory, without the slightest hint of accountability. This fact has been repeated to me so often during my cycle journey, if not since April 2005.
A common example of how the legal system operates is as follows: two disputing parties take their mutual issue to court. The police (if appropriate) and the judiciary at every step, milk each party for whatever they're worth. After a few years (as is usually the case) both paries tire of the judicial system and decide to settle out of court. Even then, the authorities may or may not feel satisfied that they've been fed enough: In which case, they pursue each party to clear their dues. After all, a "settlement" has been reached!
When I look at the amount of luxury 4x4 vehicles with government number plates that litter Muzaffarabad, I wonder at the extent of cold-blooded corruption that pervades this city.
Some people talk of the negative fallout on the city of the October 2005 earthquake. That it split families, greed took control of those that were able to source access to funds. Those who were weak, less resourceful or even less selfish missed out. It's a well-known fact that despite Pakistan's afffirmation to be accountable for the use of earthquake donations, no transparency has emerged thus far. Tens or even hundreds of millions (equivalent pounds) have not been accounted for.
Eating food and sleeping in public places have their undoubted hazards. The fact that my wife and two infant children are with me too, creates the added frustration of not having one's own secure environment, in which to eat and sleep.
Though I managed to complete my 17-day cycle ride without spending a single rupee, having my family with me necessitates expenditure. It's just as well that my family in the village has sent us some money, perhaps I can enjoy respite for a few days more. Though at almost 1,000 rupees a day on just basic necessities, it will not be many days before I'm back at square one. It's important that I activate the ex-patriate Kashmiri community in helping me agitate for positive change (ref. www.yughayar.net). Most people in the sub-continent jump at the chance of re-starting their lives in the "West".
Adopting a ready-made society in terms of the rule of law, security and economic opportunity is always going to be perceived as the easy way out. Very few people are willing to undergo the challenging, rough and tough life of improving their own society or region. Even fewer are willing to return, once they've tasted the good life. In that respect, perhaps I seek a fool's paradise. I'm committed nonetheless.
Juggling my personal requirements with improvising a strategy for positive change in society is no easy task. What makes it harder is when I come across people who have blind faith in Pakistan. They fail to see any fault in Pakistan's conduct over the past 62 years, rather they expect India to fall in line! It gets more absurd when they suggest that they have some sort of trump card up their sleeve/s, which will imminently force India to give up Kashmir!
There are many factors to blame for this rational abyss and atrophy. The education system narrowed during the colonial era and worsened after Independence enabling (sic) muslims to bite the bait of sectarianism. A "royal" aura and mindset (as if Muslims are born better than others and have a god given right to rule) curbed their evolutionary instincts. Tragically, they omitted the need for introspection and an understanding of the civilisational benefits that Islam gave to the world, particularly in it's first 1200 or so years of existence.
What I commonly opinionate to people is that, as long as this region fails to provide those 3 basic duties of security, rule of law and economic opportunity to it's people, they will continue to fall prey to the "needs and priorities" of the Western World. While the Far East and some aspects of Indian society have truly become dynamic, the rest of us continue to be mired in ills that follow from our leader's blind gaping at the "West".
While I listen to the lawyer's press conference in respect of Tuesday's farce, my positive reaction to talk of bringing accountability into society and stemming the police's seemingly unbridled power; is transformed into horror when one of the lawyers suggests that Pakistan should take full administrative control of Azad Kashmir!
How about Pakistan taking control of Pakistan as a pre-condition to such servitude, I dare ask?
Wednesday, 27 May 2009
A lot happened yesterday that I hadn't been able to commit to my blog. Most notable was a heavy-handed fracas between lawyers and policemen of Muzaffarabad city.
Meanwhile, I'm on surer ground as far as my injuries are concerned. It is confirmed that the only serious damage is the fracture to my right shoulder. Everything else is cuts and bruises of a non-serious nature. I've to keep my right arm in a sling for about three weeks; which is about the duration of time it will take for the fracture to heal up. As a precautionary measure, I'm also instructed to visit a neurologist to assess my head injuries.
I quite enjoy the 5 kilometre walk from the city back along the road towards Kohalla sans bicycle and rucksack, to the medical institute where I'v been referred. I'm a bit disappointed in the specialist that I'm referred to though. He originates from the valley and despite his undoubtable high level of intelligence, is unnecessarily morbid about Kashmir's future. No amount of enthusiasm on my part encourages him otherwise. I can only imagine that his family or close friends must have undergone major trauma amidst the Kashmir conflict.
As I generate a database of who and what to see and visit; let us re-visit the lawyer-police tension that is threatening to engulf the whole of Azad Kashmir.
It all emanated from a single lawyer procuring a "stay order" (legal terminology for keeping possession of land or property) from the High Court. Others, including the police were ibformed that the said land was government property and thus, law enforcement agencies were instructed to destruct property on the land and re-claim possession. In the agitation that ensued, violence broke out between laywers and police. The latter are alleged to have used heavy-handed tactics including tear-gas shelling and even encroached into the bar, ransacking the premises as they saw fit (legally, no go territory for the police - according to universally accepted principles). Many lawyers were seriously injured and serious civil repercussions including nation-wide strikes have been advocated by the legal fraternity.
This amplifies the point that I've made on more than one occasion earlier: that the people of Azad Kashmir, civilians and authorities alike, struggle to bridge fences and more often than not, differences of opinion and judgement trigger violence.
Steering these people towards consensus and a clear national vision seems an insurmountable task. Nobody has thus far been equal to the task.
at May 27, 2009
Friday, 22 May 2009
Tis my first full day.
What I regret not doing yesterday is going straight to the Chief Secretary's office which is based adjacent to the Azad Kashmir Prime Minister's Secretariat. As I'm looking to create some sort of impact in a hardened world of dare I utter it...criminals, I feel I need to make it clear to these people, what pains one has to undergo to live a straight, within the rule of law if not a meritorious existence in this system which appears to favour the opposite.
I keep focussed nevertheless and the Chief Secretary's office is startled at my approach. His personal secretary (PSO) assures me that I can expect a response to the following letter by the 26th.
Copy of Letter:
To: Chief Secretary (Representing the State of Pakistan in Azad Jammu & Kashmir)
Subject Matter: Rule of Law / Denial of fundamental rights to the Kashmiri People / nature of relationship between Azad Kashmir and Pakistan
From: Tanveer Ahmed - citizen of the State of Azad jammu & Kashmir and British National
Request: To clarify matters given information below and seek resolution via a consultative process
I can confidently assert that the world is unanimous in accepting that nation states have (amongst others) 3 basic duties to their citizens:
1) To provide justice without favour, bias or linkage.
2) To provide security to all citizens viz. life, property and dignity.
3) To facilitate economic activity (via employment or self-employment) failing which a minimum amount of social security should be provided to each citizen so they can subsist.
Having been in Pakistan for about 3 years and in Azad Kashmir for just over a year (uninterrupted since April 2005) I am saddened to point out that none of the above exists in Pakistan. Furthermore, the people of Kashmir (on either side of the divide) do not have unhindered access to basic human necessities such as travel, trade and an independent thought process.
Before I came here, I was enjoying a productive and successful career in journalism. I had broadcasted and wrote for the BBC in Iraq, been the editorial writer and news editor for a national weekly newspaper (The Muslim Weekly), reported from Afghanistan and had other lucrative offers in the pipeline
I gave everything up in the UK to concentrate on understanding the relationship between India and Pakistan, judging that as a critical background to devising a solution for the people of Kashmir (Who have, let’s face it, suffered and continue to suffer, face un-natural restrictions…just because India and Pakistan cannot reconcile between each other).
Despite using all practical and creative means at my disposal, I failed to gain even an inch in attempting to play a positive role in improving the relationship between India and Pakistan. No bilateral organisation/NGO was willing to accept me on board, no media or academic institution was willing to give me any space, to the extent that when I conducted a cycle ride from Torkhem to Wagah in July/August 2007, to promote peace and the importance of movement (ref. www.sahaafi.blogspot.com), I was forcibly evicted from Wagah for the crime of participating in the joy and happiness of India and Pakistan’s 60th anniversary.
I’m sure you’ll agree that if somebody wishes to do good for society/humanity, they devise principles for themselves. One of my principles has been that I confine myself to the rule of law, (that meant not paying any inducements to police or other government officials). At great risk to my existence and as great a societal handicap as one can imagine, I initiated an effort to reclaim 90 lakh rupees for my uncle who had been been stung by a common fraudster since 1992. Despite my principled stance, the legal framework in Pakistan has favoured him at every step as he wobbled and weaved through the legal process.
Even though he happens to be in Adiala Jail since December the 16th, my sources tell me he is quite comfortable there, obtaining all his creature comforts at will. My estimation is that he’s just biding his time before he can access another legal loophole that will pull him through. I’d just like to put a few points on record about this gentleman Bashir (ref. www.yughayar.net):
-He has been considered as a major expert in the property business.
-He has been instrumental in “washing” a lot of black money that has been earned through drugs in Europe and elsewhere.
-He has many commercial as well as residential properties (registered in the name of others)
-He has acted as an entertainment pimp for the likes of Sheikh Rasheed and has relations with Chaudary Shujaat (who may have been instrumental in his Rahwali Sugar Mill scam).
-He has put out a contract to kill me, this prevents me from traveling to Pakistan indefinitely.
- At the outset, the claim was only for 90 lakhs, the minimum amount. Yet all his ducking and weaving over the past few years has been at great cost to me and my family. He was forewarned of additional costs should he act ‘smart’.
The minimum that he has made from my uncle and his numerous friends since 1992 is 12 Crore rupees. That is what I seek; given the weakness of the judicial system and my protestations to a Pakistan foreign Office official a couple of years back, this matter can only be solved via political means (the Pakistani Chief Justice Issue is a perfect example).
-I do not seek this money to go and spend in a Monte Carlo Casino, rather that I wish to utilise the bulk of it for the development of Kashmir, Pakistan. India and Bangladesh, so that the 3 basic duties of the nation state (as mentioned at the outset) can be performed. I aim to invest in media, education, preservation of the environment and administrative/legal reform.
-A final note on this Bashir issue: There are ample examples of where Arabs, Europeans or Americans have been cheated in Pakistan. They didn’t have to be humiliated via the legal system. The Government of Pakistan solved their issues promptly and directly.
Moving gradually away from the personal and back to the collective; I have completed a 17-day cycle tour of Azad Kashmir, starting from my home village of Kokoi to Muzaffarabad (ref. www.tanveerandkashmir.blogspot.com). I found that the people of Azad Kashmir are particularly disturbed at how political/military events are panning out in Pakistan. They feel harshly done by the economic arrangement between Azad Kashmir and Pakistan. In the year 2009, there is yet no linkage with the outside world viz. no international airport. People are forced to accept goods from Pakistan; the rate of essentials is crippling people, the quality of flour is pathetic and the rate exploitative. The list of grievances in this modern age of communication technology is endless and Pakistan needs to get a grasp on the rapid changes that are taking place throughout the world. The Kashmiri people are tired of marginalisation.
Just as I’ve maintained the importance of the rule of law, in equal measure I maintain the necessity of seeking positive change through peaceful means. If you fail to respond to my plea for justice in the next three days, I will have no option but to engage in civil disobedience. Remember, the eyes of the world are firmly on Pakistan. Is it not constructive for you to provide examples of where your country recognises sincere commitments to the betterment of society, which in turn may provide the desperately needed credibility that you seek?
If anything untoward were to happen to me, I would hold you and your citizen Bashir responsible. The over 500,000 strong UK-based Azad Kashmiri community will not show blind faith in you for much longer. If Nelson Mandela could defeat the colonial settlers on the basis of principles, there’s no reason why I can’t do the same with you.
Tanveer Ahmed (Journalist, Consultant, Activist)
Not only did I pass Kohalla (The intersection of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir enroute to Muzaffarabad) last night, I made it to Zamanabad...more commonly referred to as 5 mile or Paanch Meel in inference to being 5 miles in from the intersection cited above.
As warned by the doctor yesterday, the pain in my bones in the morning is almost unbearable. It's just as well that I took advice in eating eggs last night which were duly cooked by my host who happened to be the owner of the restaurant that I stayed in last night. His kindness streched to the extent of providing me a bed to stay the night and a hearty breakfast in the morning before seeing me off.
Muzaffarabad was now only 28 kilometres away and the road ahead was pretty straight. I continued receiving suggestions of using a motorbike, that the road ahead was difficult, why don't I put myself and my cycle on a wagon? etc. I was in no mood to entertain such thoughts and had to politely brush such advice away each time I saw it coming.
As I edged closer to my destination, it seemed as if the wind was pushing ever more firmly in my direction. Even when travelling downhill, I had to peddle vigorously in order to keep the bicycle in motion.
As has been normal upon entering previous cities of Azad Kashmir, everybody appears to be doing their own thing with only as much as a quick glance here or there upon the unusual sight of a cyclist with rucksack in tow.
Despite the cool breeze emanating from the River Jhelum (which begins it's journey from the Vale of Kashmir, flowing through Srinagar), the mid-day sun appears to beat down on me like never before and with just a few kilometres before the finishing line, I decide to break for Zuhr (afternoon prayers).
Tired, bruised and jaded: yet the shopkeeper and his friends near the mosque insist on joining them for lunch. As I narrate my story over a meal of scrambled eggs (I couldn't have asked for anything more apt), their reaction confirms that i made the right decision this most ardous of journeys.
I explain that I can't wait to get to my destination in the city and that I would bear the pain for that little bit longer. I assured them that my first destination would involve meeting a doctor friend of my fathers, upon whose medical advice I shall act promptly upon.
I learn of the gruesome murder of Hoshiyar Singh and his family in Samba (near Jammu) via Kashmir Times Online. This terrible event of the 11th of May takes away another broad-minded thinker from our midst.
A blow for Kashmir and a blow for humanity.
Sunday 17/05/09 - Day 16
Having visited Sardar Qayoom's house (from the outside) in Ghaziabad yesterday, I began to get some negative vibes from the people around me. I sensed that the people emitted a harsh aura to outsiders and it should come as no surprise to my reader's that last night was the first time that I had to sleep hungry.
Despite feeling extremely weak and tired, I set off soon after Fajr (morning prayers) at about 6:00 am. The pangs of hunger compelled me to stop every five minutes to rest for five. Discerning my discomfort, some onlookers strongly suggested that I hitch a lift on a passing wagon (Toyota passenger vehicle). It was too much effort for me to explain my self-imposed necessity of travelling either on bicycle or on foot.
By about 8:00am, having passed the market of Dheerkot with it's seemingly luscious array of edibles on display and without a single morsel to my name since yesterday afternoon's hospitality at the Pakistani captain's mess, even the downhill surge towards Muzaffarabad wasn't enough to lift my spirit.
Recipe for Disaster
Indeed, as I race downhill on a bike with dodgy brakes and a narrow track, all that is left for disaster to strike is a heavily-laden truck to venture uphill and hog the narrow strip of road. Without enough space even to use my feet to skid to a halt, I have no option but to utilise the remaining bit of rough that is just wide enough to squeeze my bicycle and I between the bushes and the truck. As I pass the truck at break-neck speed, I am in no position to avoid the rocks and ditch that lie ahead.....
Having been unconscious for about 20 minutes, it takes about 4 to 5 people at the nearby mechanic's yard to drag me to a chair and supply me with a gallon or two of fresh water. They insist on taking me to the nearby hospital immediately. I, in turn insist that they let me rest for about ten minutes so that I can get a sense of where I am.
The accident has most definitely jolted me, cuts and bruises are everywhere. Most disturbing and serious is a fracture to my right shoulder. Everything else appears to be intact though, even my glasses and bicycle have withstood the shock. Furthermore, nobody has stolen any of my valuables, unlike my "Ride for Movement & Peace" in 2007, when my N95 was stolen. That incident pretty much crushed me at the time.
Anyway, the hospital medics were great. The doctor gave me a pain-killing injection, treated my cuts and bruises and a local bought me an apple juice which I drank flat within 3 seconds (This was my first form of 'food' since yesterday afternoon). I requested that the doctor let me rest in the hospital for an hour or two, after which I would resume my journey. he recommended that I shouldn't; rather I should go home and rest for a few weeks before continuing my journey.
That wasn't possible. I was on the verge of completing my journey. Muzaffarabad was less than a day away. I had covered over 200 kilometres of harsh, mainly uphill, high-altitude territory. The remaining journey wasn't much more than 70 kilometres of mainly downhill and plain terrain. I wouldn't give up now. I needed to keep up the momentum.
My luck had suddenly turned for the better as not only did the doctor insist on non-payment for medical treatment but the nearby mechanic insisted on joining him for food. To top it all off, he got his mechanical assistants to fix my bicycle brakes for me.
My experience this morning raises my confidence level sky-high and I feel I'm ready for any outcome that may befall me in the days to come.
|The benefits of power in AJK ensure you can name welfare projects after members of your family|
While I'm busy writing up my previous day's blog in the masjid that so kindly gave me accomodation for the night, I can hear children from an adjacent school shouting political slogans of "Kashmir Banega Pakistan" (Kashmir will become Pakistan). This is of course part of the state school curriculum in Azad Kashmir.
As I'm riding on my way to Dheerkot,I notice the Pakistani army is busy constructing the road ahead. It isn't long before an army captain in an ubiquitous 4x4 off-roader halts by the side of the road and invites me to his depot for snacks.
At the beginning of the conversation, he exclaims his surprise at my determination to attain fitness and lauds my attempt to analyse the social dynamics of Azad Kashmir, except that he assumes that I'm a blind adherent of the Pakistani nation State.
Once my "brash" views of the region register on his radar, he does well to contain himself and suggests that despite the 180 degree difference in our perceptions, that he wishes me well in my quest to define the region of Kashmir as a neutral territory, immune from the heavy political baggage that India and Pakistan have thrust on it.
What also emerged from our conversation was the perception that the people of Kashmir have a higher sense of awareness about their environment as compared to Punjabis. For example, the Azad Kashmiris had a better sense of the width that the road being built should have and were closely monitoring the road's progress. Confirming his perception, I lamented that it was a pity that the Kashmiri couldn't proceed and develop on their intelligence; that they were cruelly restricted in terms of their movement, ability to trade and creative thought. India and Pakistan have a moral obligation to set them free.
By evening, I'm getting a bit sick and tired of people telling me that the journey ahead was too difficult to complete, they feared that a constant incline would prevent me from proceeding. Each time I was at pains to point out that I had already completed almost 200 kilometres of similar terrain and that one should be confident and determined in achieving the most difficult of tasks. If people could climb snow and ice decorated mountains with as much as 50-60 kilos of luggage attached to them, my task was pretty modest compared to theirs.
People's limited outlook on the capabilities of human-kind is probably the achilles heel of this nation. If they cannot or will not push the boundaries of what is possible, then fulfilling their potential will always remain a pipe dream.
Saturday, 16 May 2009
Perhaps for the first time during this trip, I have somewhat of a lie-in; Waking up about 09:30 am. When you consider that at home during the past year, there were times when I woke up at 5:00 in the evening, 9:30 isn't really a lie-in.
Despite the sumptous meal last night, by about Jumaa time (The main Friday prayer) I am in the throes of hunger once again. As I'm keen to move on from Bagh, I had to lie about breakfast and lunch to those that asked. Riding a bicycle on a full stomach is the art of the impossible.
Two weeks into my ride, I finally am able to get a beard trim without having to explicitly ask. when the electricity had gone at the hotel, I ventured out to the bazaar to try and get some vox-pops (voiced opinions from members of the public). One of those that I interviewed insisted that I take the barber's chair.
A clear picture of the public's disenchantment with Pakistan is emerging. One ex-serviceman (a Kashmiri who served in the Pakistan army) went to the extent of saying that, "Pakistan is finished - end of story." Others cited the example of the quality of flour now coming from Pakistan. Not only is it expensive and beyond their means, most of it is also unedible, difficult to bake and once prepared, turns to crisp within a matter of minutes.
I notice an increased interest amongst the public as I whizz passed many of them from bazaar to bazaar. At times I am forced to stop and accept their offers of juice and fruit. Having no breakfast or lunch meant that I had to adhere to their sincere offers.
I decide that I must reach Muzaffarabad by the 17th. An outspoken politican of Azad Kashmir (one of very few, I should add) by the name of Abdul Rashid Turabi (Jamaat-e-Islami) will be in Muzaffarabad on that day and I wish to exchange notes with him.
I cannot complete this daily blog without another case of injustice associated with earthquake relief. In a highly publicised offer of housing donated by the Saudis at the time; many of those who had lost their homes and were genuinely entitled to these "quality" homes were deprived of them. rather, people who already had 3 or 4 homes were given them.
The above is a familiar feature of how society is developing in Azad kashmir.
I stay in a mosque that has such an idyllic setting, it's virtually impossible to resist staying in. The drawback that I come to realise later is that the mosquitos troubled me no end last night. Where there's a lot of greenery, all sorts of flying insects follow. This creates an irritable tendency in me which provokes me to snap at some people along my journey to Bagh.
It's been 23 long years since I last had to wash my own clothes (When I was at Maddrassah in the UK). It was a real humbling experience but I enjoyed it no end, gaining the satisfaction of utilising nature to cater to my basic needs, not least the gushing water stream (for washing) and ample sunshine (for drying).
Throughout my time here in the region, a common request from so many young people is to ask me to facilitate their exit abroad. The reasoning is of course mainly economic if not social and political. Woe on that nation or country whose youngsters are straining at the leash to escape the misery that they feel they've been born into. What I always suggest to them is to make an effort (difficult I admit) to improve their country/region through creative activism within a peaceful framework. The people of Kashmir are highly intelligent as I've mentioned before; the region is highly abundant in natural resources and if the rest of the world (including India and Pakistan) allow it to adopt a neutral political stance (a la Switzerland), it could become one of the best performing economies in the world. Then our youngsters will have little difficulty in obtaining visas for wherever they wish to go. Applying for a visa from a struggling or worse, disputed territory is always going to be hard work.
I find it pleasantly surprising to find that there are many other Kashmiris who agree that partition was a massive blunder and in light of Pakistan's current scenario, it would be best for it to re-merge with India. Abul Kalam Azad was spot on in his analysis all those years ago.
The plight of earthquake afectees is a common theme in this region as I've entered that region which was heavily affected. Many afectees claim to have not received any money at all. Furthermore, many amongst the public analyse that there was huge wastage involved in the co-ordination of NGO's in bringing relief to the people. Just what they spent on diesel, covering a particular area more than upteen times rather than doing a comprehensive survey form one single visit. I was truly amazed at how much driver's salaries had shot up post-eartquake; from an average of 3 to 4,000 rupees (c.30 pounds) per month to as much as 75,000 rupees (c. 700 pounds)! One can imagine how much more was spent on other essentials, leaving many afectees gasping for respite.
From the above, it is absolutely clear that the Pakistani government hadn't a clue what was going on (in terms of organisation) and the concept of central co-ordination was abysmally absent.
Apart from a reasonable breakfast at Hummahmohra, I had nothing to eat by about Isha time (9:00pm). I was compelled to ask a street vendor to give me a piece of lime, this I sucked on for dear life.
As no food or accomodation was yet foreseeable, I decided to walk through the city and reach for the final mosque which happened to be a Sufi mosque of Barelvi persuasion. Gathering that I'd been accomodated by Deobandhis in Palandri and Rawalakot; I thought, why not see the reaction of Barelvis to my struggle/plight/mission.
I wasn't disappointed.
I was given a sumptous meal by a Jamaat-e-Islami friend of the Barelvi Imam and of note within our invigorating conversation were two major issues of societal concern to the sufi Imam:
1) That there was a concerted effort within the Pakistani establishment to martialise Kashmiris and make Kashmir an area of instability, not unlike FATA.
With the Pakistanis judging that their "strategic" aims will be fulfilled thus.
2) NGO's, (particularly foreign) were using subtle means to target women and change traditional concepts of society and the role of women. He qualified his views by saying that subjugation of women was obviously a point of concern but to cajole women into licentious behaviour by stealth was unacceptable.
Thursday, 14 May 2009
Perhaps I should take my words back about the impersonal nature of interaction in towns compared to villages in Azad Kashmir. I've been overwhelmed by the kindness and time devoted to me by the citizens of Rawalakot.
Last night after evening prayers, I was in a similar predicament to the evening before; no place to stay and no evening meal in sight. That was until I decided to venture out to a mechanics yard to see whether he would allow me to charge my phone. There I met a budding young moulvi who was highly enthused by my motives for riding a cycle to Muzaffarabad. His colleagues where I stayed were equally passionate and receptive to my ideas of how important it was to be all-inclusive about society i.e don't just think about the welfare of Muslims, rather of all sections of society and to make our thinking more broad-based and to conduct original research that analyses modern developments in human behaviour.
Elsewhere, conversations revolved around the inflated price of essential goods. A family of seven needed to spend over 2,000 rupees (c.16 pounds) a month on just flour for making roti (a 40 kg bag of flour that in actual fact only contains only 34-35 kg - another element of fraud - costs close to a thousand rupees, lasting hardly 15 days). The average wage for a labourer per month isn't much more than 5 to 6 thousand rupees a month.
Another disturbing of Kashmiri society is the apprehension that many people show in narrating issues on the record. They cite the notorious hounding behaviour of intelligence agencies who prevent them from standing for truth and justice.
I had the opportunity of making an impromptu speech in the main square that is surrounded by the courts and local administration. The occassion: a public sector employees strike to enforce a promise made by the AJK Prime Minister Yaqoob Khan to give a "big city" status to Rawalakot. What transpired from the push and pull involved betwen the two camps (for and against) was that the people of Azad Kashmir, despite their undoubted high level of intelligence, failed to grasp the nous required for reaching a consensus on matters of socio-political importance.
The moulvis that I stayed with last night had insisted that I lunch with them in a local hotel before proceeding towards Bagh. Therein, I took advantage of having a thorough discussion with a seasoned journalist who conceded that the vast majority of public sentiment centred on an independent Kashmir, yet he felt habits, a false sense of dependency on Pakistan and certain vested interests stood in the way of change. I noticed that he was still using a fax machine to send his daily reports to the various newspapers that he writes for!
While proceeding through the main thoroughfare that takes one out of Rawalakot, I learnt that the San Francisco style road that went down and rose sharpl was "officially" levelled by a bridge, except that the bridge didn't exist. Anotother case of "Funds paid, no bridge made."
Just in case I've failed to adequately mention beforehand, the 130 or so kilometres that I've completed thus far have mainly been covered walking. My rear tyre has repeatedly punctured itself and I'm resigned to finding a new tube. I don't have any money of course and when I suggest to the cycle shop vendor to give me a tube on deferred terms, he rightly explains that he cannot afford such liberties.
I trudge along resigned to the possibility that I may have to walk the remaining 150 kilometres or so to Muzaffarabad. That is until i walk past a mechanic's shop (unaware that I've just past the junction for Bagh), he approaches me and asks why I'm walking with a flat tyre. After my lengthy and long-winded explanation, without a hint of hesitation he takes my bike off me, puts it in the boot of his car and tells me to wait there until he returns with a new tube, fitted and ready to go!
As I ride downhill towards Bagh, I can't help but feel exhilarated at the opportunity of finally riding my bike after many days of blistering labour.
In what has been an eventful day, it should come as a major surprise that a policeman insisted on buying me a drink (mango juice of course) and praised me for standing up for people's rights.
Before signing off for the day, a note on the foxy Bashir (ref. yughayar.net). I got a call from the concerned police inspector that Bashir's lawyer had a date in court. Apparently, with a different judge and a different lawyer defending him, the conclusion remained the same; Bashir was looking for more time!
at May 14, 2009
Wednesday, 13 May 2009
After that miracle last night when food and accomodation looked a certain imposibilty, I'm boosted by that experience as I march on towards Rawalakot, punctured tyre in tow.
The subject of hindu-Muslim relations is brought up in a conversation when an old man approaches me and stresses the importance of facilitating those Hindus who had to flee from this part of Kashmir. He wanted to use the medium I offered him to urge those Hindus and/or their offspring to return.
As I enter Rawalakot, I notice that cities and large townships have a different response to seeing a man with a cycle. As most people are busy trying to earn their daily bread, there is the sense of the impersonal. I refrain from approaching each and every person that I pass, fearing that I might be considered a madman for doing so. Nevertheless, pretexts are improvised on one basis or other to engage the public.
A lot of home truths emerge with reference to endemic corruption in the system. Replicating that of Pakistan and to a great extent India; Government employees are deliberately underpaid (Most of them also pay back-hand lump sums to secure their jobs too!) so that they can extract as much money as possible from the public. For example, a legal clerk demands 300 rupees (c.3 pounds) for each piece of legal document that is supposed to be freely available to the public. The state education system is a shambles: Most state teachers double up as political workers or even treble up as private tutors, leaving little or no time for poor children that can't afford private
education. Even in the privatised world of education, many see that as a money-making scheme; number of children equals set of fees generated, thus
"granting" poor-performing children the requisite grades for advancement is a common allegation.
Delving further, most medicine that is available in the market is not genuine. From personal experience, tablets that I bought for my Naani from a reputable store in Saddar, Rawalpindi were very different from the fake replicas that I bought in my home town (Sensa).
It's important that the earthquake is also touched upon. The government of Pakistan pledged to pay 1.75 lakh rupees (c. 1500 pounds) for each family that suffered material loss. Till date, many have received upto 1.25 lakhs in staggerred amounts of 25,000 / 75,000 / 25,000 with 50,000 still outstanding more than three and a half years after the disaster. The payments that they have received were subject to them having to pay "inducements" of upto 30,000 to government officials for the release of their money.
All in all, who has told me about these home truths? A layman who has a family member in hospital, giving him enough time to lament on his frustrations of living within such an unjust system.
at May 13, 2009
Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Today has by far been the most exhausting, strenous and testing day thus far. I'm having to rely on what I eat at the wedding yesterday evening, Barring a cup of black tea and a 100 ml drink of apple juice, I had to tow my cycle uphill for more than 17 kilometres. It wasn't until I prayed Maghrib (evening prayer) on the road, after which I made a hearty supplication to the Lord to give me food and rest that immediately as I wrapped up my prayer mat, a young lad with a green turban approached me out of nowhere and asked me to accompany him to his house for food.
In Hajira, as per my habit of not specifically asking for food, accomodation or other necessities, I was unable to get my tyre repaired. Hence, the uphill march towards Rawalakot on an empty stomach.
Not only did I find habitation enroute relatively sparse, I noticed that I wasn't getting as much attention as I had been accustomed to thus far. Rarely did people ask me if they could assist me in any way and it wasn't surprising that it took until evening for my agony to end.
There happened to be a convention in Rawalakot today held by the nascent pro-independence party NAP (National Awami Party). Yes, it could have been useful if I were to make it there. After all, networking and exchanging experiences is part and parcel of what I am doing. Alas, pushing a bike for 27 kilometres on an empty stomach was a bit too ambitious an aim.
I've also noticed graffiti which emphasises the need to maintain and protect the environment today. Re-planting trees is just one of the messages for the public. The environment is of course Kashmir's strongest selling point.
Bearing in mind today's gruelling ordeal, I didn't hesitate for a second when the young man with the green turban suggested that I stay at his home as I tackled the food that he brought out for me.
These experiences are pretty humbling and an opportunity to praise Allah for his mercy. Hope and despair are permanent companions on this ride for justice.
When the price of essential (and non-essential) goods has risen so fast in the past year or so, it's highly inspiring to see people of modest resources feed you as best they can, give you the best room in the house, wait on you and phone you every few days to see how you're progressing.
I just hope I can conjure up some inititatives to make these people's lives easier and more hopeful.
Sunday 10/05/09 Day 9 I'll start with a quote that I picked up from somewhere, I can't quite remember where but it's perfectly attributable to this region, albeit perhaps in varying degrees to India, Pakistan and the two governments on either side of Kashmir. "A government that suppresses opportunity for entire generations cannot expect prosperity or peace."
It's pretty much downhill all the way to Hajira, except that my rear tyre punctures once again (third time now). The fact is, the inner tube and tyre are of very low quality; it's difficult to expect any better from products made in Pakistan. The subject of lack of justice and merit is repeated many a time as I converse with people along my journey; frustration all too apparent. On a positive note, the literacy rate amongst females is over 75%. They are keen on religious education too. Unfortunately, they are generally unable to impart that education through work as most of them get tied up in domestic life after marriage. Utilising their skills in society (within reasonable limits of course) is necessary for the growth and progress of society. It's hardly surprising that males don't fare so well in education as they are easily sidetracked, they are also well aware that the workplace has very little to do with merit. Rather that nepotism and underhand dealings hold sway over society.
It is little wonder that the independence movement is gaining momentum in Azad Kashmir. Hajira appears to be a stronghold for fervent nationalism as public graffiti amply suggests.
A look at the economic relationship between Pakistan and Azad Kashmir may prove illustrative: (Some of the figures are a few years old and cannot be taken as exact, they should just be seen as a general guide) What Pakistan gives to Azad Kashmir - AJK Annual Budget 2200 Crore (c. 183.3 million pounds) What Pakistan receives from Azad Kashmir - -43% of foreign exchange that comes into Pakistan comes via Azad Kashmir (excluding hundi and hawala etc.) - Forestry 1600 Crore (c. 133.3 million pounds) - Mangla Dam (Royalties from electricity) 10,000 Crore (c. 833 million pounds) - Government Sales Tax (indirect taxation) ? (Pakistan has a monopoly on the Azad Kashmir market; only goods/services produced in Pakistan or which come via Pakistan are sold in Azad Kashmir. - Direct Taxation ?
Despite all the above, every year when Pakistan "donates" it's budget to Azad Kashmir, endless advertisements in most (Pakistani) newspapers felicitate and thank the Pakistani President and Prime Minister on their "kindness" to Azad Kashmir.
There is a great misperception of dependency on Pakistan. Azad Kashmir has no direct link to the outside world and the cross-LOC movement and trade, restricted though it is, is deemed by many to be Azad Kashmir's first step to Independence from Pakistan. Pakistan's monopoly meant that an 11kg gas cylinder could sell for as much as 1000 rupees. Cross-LOC trade could possibly import 13kg gas cylinders for as little as 300 rupees.
As people's conciousness, education and global awareness grows; the more assertive they'll become with their political demands. The growth of pro-independence parties despite their legal restrictions on entering the electoral fray give an indication of the future. This evening I also attended the second wedding of my tour.
Monday, 11 May 2009
Saturday 09/05/09 Day 8 I've sinned again. Last night was the third time that I stayed at somebody's house. I found it difficult to resist because my host was a human rights activist, an active member of a prominent independence party (PNP - People's National Party) and a former political secretary to one of Azad Kashmir's political icons viz. Sardar Ibrahim Khan.
The potential as well as the problems and pitfalls of the Kashmiri freedom struggle were discussed in all it's aspects. He vehemently agreed with me that Kashmir had the potential to be Switzerland x 20. It had a lot more land mass than Switzerland, a lot more sunshine and a much vaster market to target (being in the heart of Asia and being pretty much surrounded by four nuclear-armed rapidly developing economies, namely India, Pakistan (though it's economy will be stunted for a while), China and Russia. The potential of a politically neutral state that focuses on education and economy rather than defence has enormously positive implications for the people of Kashmir.
As I'm now well into my cycle ride; the fact that I've been able to complete my journey thus far without having to spend a single rupee, where virtually everyone I meet is eager to shower hospitality on me and a reasonably clear picture of people's sentiments are made apparent to me, my decision to embark on this adventure into the unknown has been vindicated. Today's evening is spent with a family whose origins lie across the LOC and who are commonly referred to as Mahajirs. I find that they are perhaps more efficient than other locals in terms of how they utilise resources at their disposal. For example, they till the land at their disposal more productively as well as put an emphasis on their children's education. They commonly live in a joint family system pooling their resources together.
A common yet harrowing story that I've become familiar with is the skinning alive of Sabz Ali Khan and Mali Khan of Mang (an area not too far from where we are) in 1832 by Ghulab Singh, who was to become the first Dogra ruler of Kashmir in 1846. At the time, he happened to be a military commander in the reign of Ranjeet Singh, who at the time ruled most parts of Punjab as well as Kashmir. The locals describe this event as history's first example of skinning alive of people who stood for freedom and justice.
Views on Pakistan and it's impending break-up also feature highly in many conversations. Common thoughts include the view that Pakistan has never really had a national vision, those who did were marginalised. The nexus between the army and feudal class prevented meritocracy, intellectual progress and inventive ideas and products from entering the market. The fact that feudals to this day have their own justice system with their own arbitrary courts and jails, the manner in which they prevent the education of those people that they control are all examples of anathema in a rapidly progressive and globalised world order.
At this stage, I still have my doubts over whether the Kashmiri people have the capacity, discipline and dexterity to run their own affairs. By the time I reach Muzaffarabad, I hope the picture will become a lot more clear.
Day 7 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
My ride starts early today, at 6am, except that my rear tyre is punctured once again. Bearing in mind that I'm travelling with 0 rupees, all I can do is ask the nearest tyre repair shop waala (vendor) to pump up my tyre and hope that he doesn't ask me for the standard 5 rupees.
One of my first meetings enroute is an interesting case of human rights: It exemplifies the pawn-making role of the Indian and Pakistani States. Nasir Mehmood s/o Sakhi Mohammed (of Gorah tehsil Palandri district Sudhnoti) went to Indian-administered Kashmir in 1994 on a visa. He decided to stay there and give moral support to the freedom struggle. According to his brother Mohammed Latif, he was never involved in violence. Nevertheless, he was arrested in 1996 and has been in Tihar Jail ever since. I assured the bereaved family that I would contact a couple of activists in Delhi and lobby for his release. I am of the belief that India should open a separate diplomatic channel with Azad Kashmir, bypassing the Pakistanis who for too long have caused India to lump us with them.
The fatal assumption being that the people of Azad Kashmir are synonymous with Pakistanis.
To my relief, the tyre waala doesn't ask for any money and waves me on. Thereby I'm able to cycle for a couple of kilometres before it's time to walk again with cycle in tow. Today's walk is by far my longest daily walk yet, c.20 kilometres. I must've met at least 50 people on the way who insisted that I allow them to put the cycle on a vehicle. On each occassion, I explained at length my purpose of cycling (walking) the distance from my village to Muzaffarabad. The mental anguish of the past 4 years needed to be repelled by physical exertion, while the method of travel that I had adopted gave me maximum exposure to the people of Kashmir etc. etc.
As the time for Jummah (Friday Prayers) approaches and I am yet about 8 kilometres from Trarkhel, I am invited for lunch by a local who I soon realise is a close business associate of a cousin of mine. A small world indeed!
At Jummah prayers, I quite enjoy the moral appeal of the Imam for societal reform yet I'm disappointed that in his after-prayer supplication, he had to wish for the destruction of Jews and Christians. Blaming others for your own collective weaknesses has been a convenient excuse for the post-colonial muslim world, preventing it from pinpointing it's own reluctance to reform and progress.
As I edge closer and closer to Trarkhel (close to the original capital of Azad Kashmir viz. Junjal Hill), I meet a group of young activists who ultimately represent the JKLF (Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front). They show a lot of enthusiasm for independence, have strong public presence and numerical strength. Despite that, they lack in modern political approach, cannot convert public opinion into useful public policy and are content with outlining their (veritable) objectives.
Making a difference in a society which suffers from rampant corruption and lack of merit for it's citizens should have been a primary aim of theirs; sadly, they appear to be waiting for independence before they get to work on the nitty gritty issues that affect people's day-to-day lives.
|Horses between Palandri and Trarkhel|
Day 6 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
The total distance covered today is a mere three kilometres. At this rate it could be months before I reach Muzaffarabad,
The student at Palandri maddrassah sends me a text message describing me as a 'foreign' intelligence agent and commands me to fear Allah and ponder over my apprehension in the after-life.
A major talking point for people that I meet along the route from Palandri to Trarkhel is the state of the road. Everybody seems to have a different version on the level of corruption involved. The figure varies from 18 Crore rupees to 22 Crore Rupees (c. 2 million pounds). Apparently, according to government records, the money has been spent and it's a 'super road'. In reality the 31 kilometre stretch of road is barely fit for a donkey to travel on!
A local in utter contempt of his own people, strongly feels that most non-muslims have better morals and ethics than us, "We are the worst of the worst".
Where there is despair, there is also hope. I find this in the form of a local activist who echoes so many of the sentiments that I've been grappling with since 2007 (Most of my time has been spent in Azad Kashmir since then). Namely, the absolute necessity of Azad Kashmir to become self-sufficient and be capable of feeding itself. The over-abundance of water, sunlight, greenery and fertile soil leave little excuse for it's people to import basic foodstuff from Pakistan.
He makes a telling comment that throughout history, rural areas have been responsible for feeding urban populations. In Azad Kashmir, it's the total opposite.
He practices what he preaches (a rarity in this region) by showing me practical examples of vegetable growth, fruit plantation, a road built with the help of locals after government refusal, re-planting of forestry etc. etc.
The walk from the bazaar to his home is a steep as well as a stiff task; more than two kilometres of steep incline. This somewhat compensates for the lack of road mileage done today. My daily physical exercise quota since day one has remained incessant.
Thursday, 7 May 2009
|Almost an aerial view of Palandri city|
Day 5 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
After two mornings of laxity, I am up before Fajr (dawn prayers) at 4:30am. A clear advantage of staying in the maddrassah.
What most people (liberals) fail to acknowledge is the virtue of performing the compulsory rituals that Islam has prescribed, tending to 'throw out the baby with the bathwater'. One of the distinct benefits of the maddrassah system or venturing out with 'the tablighi jamaat' is the strict adherence to compulsory rituals, without which understanding the essence of Islam becomes difficult. Everybody and everyone should be judged on their merit in a balanced manner and I suppose tolerance and context are absolutely essential.
Meanwhile, the student (effectively my host) is swift in ensuring that I make my exit and resume my journey, almost cutting short my recitation of the Quran which I've been trying to incorporate as a daily morning ritual.
Realising that I need to make sure that I've had maximum exposure to the people of Palandri, I decide to venture out to the district courts. If you're keen to gauge the standard of justice in a society, it's more than apt to visit the centre of responsibility viz. the courts.
At 7am it's a bit early and despite the court's gate being open, I trigger a security alert when a court official notices me sitting in the coffee room trying to power up my laptop. A few moments later, a couple of undercover policemen approach me and ask me in a haughty manner for my ID card. I respond by commanding them to lower their tone and adopt a civilised approach, explaining that I'm not responsible for their lax security and that they must locate the culprit(s) from amongst their own fraternity.
If it hadn't dawned on me yet, an abundance of examples of injustice lay in the stories of appellants and defendents alike. Most cases were associated with land disputes where the administrative department for land (mahakma-e-maal) was ascribed with notoriety for selling the same piece of land to more than one willing buyer.
The case that struck me the most and is still haunting me is the rape of a girl, not yet 4 years old and her gruesome murder and concealment by the alleged culprit's mother. Furthermore, the police in their standard approach, sought benefit from the accused by confiscating their livestock, selling it and pocketing the proceeds.
The Kashmiri people's perceptions on justice are so nuanced that hardly anybody considers that the victim's family will obtain justice. I decide to delve more into the story and meet the victim's uncle. After hearing all the gruesome details over a bottle of cold orange juice that he buys for the both of us, I feel sick and embarrased. This is a point where I regret not bringing any money with me.
I've made a pledge to do whatever is necessary to highlight this issue and obtain justice for this poor family.
Quote from one of my other blogs:
"Oh global civil society and in particular, those of you (abroad) who originate from Kashmir, it is time that you took interest and responsibility in ensuring that justice prevails in this beautiful land, that ugly crimes against humanity are vanquished once and for all."
|A jungle on the outskirts of Palandri|
Day 4 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
As I feared, being fed well and accommodated in a homely atmosphere delays my rising. It's 8:30am once again.
On the bright side, Palandri is not too far away and I'm eager to set foot in the first major town on my way to Muzaffarabad. I'm keen to seek the difference (if any) between rural and urban Azad Kashmir.
Another point of pleasure is that I've met so many people. Some have tried to enforce despair on me while others have inspired hope. My host of last night can be categorised amongst the latter. Drawing on his rich experience of living in various parts of Pakistani Punjab and the Tribal Areas, he exemplifies the strong aspiration of most Kashmiris: to be independent, self-sufficient, refraining from entangling in enmity with others and I suppose most comforting to me was the realisation that violence has been a futile exercise for Kashmir(is).
His parting words were in the form of giving me a strong recommendation to join the political fray. "Genuine politicians who lead by example are precisely what we lack", he summarised. I imagine he was just being too kind to me.
Entering Palandri was a different experience as anticipated. I was led by a local activist into a shop where a swarm of journalists and activists descended in no time and threw a barrage of questions at me. My pre-existing notion that most media people in Kashmir are a part of the power structure rather than a kinetic force for postive change was re-confirmed. Publicity here is bought as opposed to journalists ethically seeking information in the public interest.
The evening in the town provides an hitherto unfaced dilemma. Bearing in mind that I left home without a single rupee in my pocket, rural hospitality had overwhelmed me thus far. Now, a student from the maddrassah who happens to hail from my local region (Sehnsa) suggests that I ask a local hotel to give me a room 'on tick'. Despite my insistence that some facility will emerge as the evening progresses, he is adamant that I approach the hotel manager. The Manager in turn explains that it's only a matter of 150 rupees (just over a British pound) and he wouldn't be willing to wait on it as a debt, payable on my return from Muzaffarabad. The young student (reluctantly) suggests that he will make some arrangement for me to sleep in the Maddrassah.
The Maddrassah's administration as well as the student have strong suspicions that I'm a foreign agent, ostensibly looking for evidence of links to terrorism. I feel that they hamper their own reputation and aid in perpetuating the myths inferred by foreign media. I know that most maddrassahs have no links to terrorism, I studied for 4 years in one myself (albeit in the UK). My major emphasis in my long-drawn out interaction with students and teachers alike was the anachronistic nature of their syllabus, it's narrow interpretation of Islamic texts and a distinct aversion for non-muslims. All serious issues which need urgent attention.
|A Chechan government school damaged in the 2005 earthquake unattended to|
Day 3 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
I have a lie-in, waking up at about 8am, as opposed to 4:30am over the previous two days. This makes me pretty despondent for a while, I feel I'm slacking. Noticing that my front tyre is punctured adds to the misery. I realise I now have to walk the fifteen or so kilometres to Palandri.
A local politician who is having tea at the hotel that I've been put up in, insists that I visit the local school and see an example of how public funds are misused. Upon seeing the dilapidated condition of the school and the faces of the young children who are expected to learn at the risk of everything crumbling over them, my anger at the state of affairs in Azad Kashmir and the task that faces political activists dawns on me.
It's amazing how intelligent our people are. Even those with a modicum of education show great potential. The major problem that they have living in a society which kills their potential is that they are deprived from modern methods of analysis. The training that they have in terms of social sciences is so basic that it affects how they relate their own living conditions to modern global advances. They either remain oblivious of modern trends or consume what they read in their own media as gratifying evidence of a global conspiracy against Islam. Introspection and intellectual progress are the fatal casualties.
I'm 'forced' to stay at someone's house. This is a first for me on this trip. I've planned to refrain from invitations to stay at people's homes. It would make me too comfortable and affect my mission. I decide to relent just this once.
|Where the road forks off from the Rawalpindi road at Holaar|
Day 2 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
It's gets better. The response and re-action of the Azad Kashmir public to my cycle ride appears increasingly positive.
Though today's journey only amounted to about 13 kilometres, it was pretty much uphill all the way, barring a couple of kilometres of descent. The level of my fitness necessitated that I walk with the bike most of the way. A local who happens to be my namesake insisted that I ride on his motorbike for the final 2-3 kilometres. Despite my adamant stance, I felt compelled to follow his suggestion as he turned out to be more adamant than me.
Riding a bicycle adds a couple of extra dimensions to this quest for justice. Firstly, everyone that notices me is keen to learn who I am, where I'm from, where I'm going and most importantly; what is my purpose for such voluntary hardship. Secondly, the mental agony that I've been through these past four years and the tension of the impending death of my Naani and/or her sister or brother across the LOC could turn me insane; the benefit of riding the bicycle acts as a great physical foil to my mental anguish.
The reaction to questions on corruption, justice and freedom from India and Pakistan have developed a familiar tune and the appreciation of my efforts are far more than the total feedback that I had to my 'Ride for Movement and Peace' in July/August 2007.
My namesake also took me to a local wedding in Dreyer. A town that had a majority Hindu population before 1947. Giving the Hindus of Kashmir security, opportunity and justice would be a key feature of my vision for Kashmir.
|A cool place to break near Holaar|
Day 1 of 'Ride for Justice' from Sehnsa to Muzaffarabad:
Completing the first day of my journey to Muzaffarabad has made me kinda euphoric. The reponse I've received from my local brethren is nothing short of fantastic and has solidified my resolve.
What started at 0500hrs ended at about 1100hrs 30 kilometres later. 22 kilometres in, my rear tyre burst, forcing me to walk the remaining 8 kilometres. It wasn't easy, my lack of physical training over the past year bit at me every kilometre or so.
Everybody I met was unanimous in saying that justice and rule of law was close to being non-existent. Those who were articulate enough, saw Kashmir as being at a total standstill in terms of progress: The dark cloud of India and Pakistan's military presence restricted them in every sense. They all had a 'natural inclination' to live in a just society that based individual development on merit. Many rued the fact that there was a distinct lack of 'collective thought' in society.
As I've felt many a time before, it seems that the people of Azad Kashmir are seeking a trigger of inspiration. Meanwhile, they resign themselves to the vicious circle of negativity and gloom that dictates their outlook on life.
Though people commend my effort of raising the issue of rule of law, they feel I am better off using a motorbike as the journey ahead involves steep inclines that cannot possibly be negotiated by bicycle. An estimate of the distance yet to cover is 300 kilometres.
Hospitality in terms of food, accomodation and even the puncture repair is exemplary and seemingly far more than I deserve. Supplemented by the regular availability of natural waterfalls, I am close to ecstasy.
I hope you enjoy the photos and short video clips while I try and come to terms with an aging body that aches at every joint.
2110hrs: I didn't finish the missing historic links of Sharda translation until 0900hrs this morning. I had been working on it intermit...
2359hrs: In the nick of time....as the cliche goes....maintaining a 99% daily diary output ratio for the year remains an achievable targe...
1315hrs: Almost 70 hours later, we are still at a standstill in reference to the Pakistani flags hoisted at Maqbool Bhat Shaheed Square...