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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Of agencies and confidants

I had originally wanted to title this article as 'Engaging with the ISI' but I think the newspaper publisher thought better of it.

One remains cognizant of the fact that 'freedom of expression' is a casualty in a conflict zone. If we genuinely believe that we are emerging out of that horrid phase, then writers and artists must take the lead in navigating society out of the quagmire that it has endured.

In Pakistani-administered Kashmir, the mere citing of the word 'agency' in public triggers caution, alarm or even fear amongst most inhabitants of this region. There is a seemingly tacit understanding that one must not invite or provoke their attention. "You must work quietly and unobtrusively for change - if you want to succeed that is", is a suggestion I've heard more than once in my time here. 

The agencies are most certainly considered to be above the law and are assumed to be indisputable guardians of Pakistani national interest. In a recent engagement with them at their request, they were visibly startled by the concepts of 'rule of law' and 'freedom of expression' as emphasised by yours truly.

A widely quoted hackneyed phrase in reference to their power is that even a junior officer in their organisation holds more authority than the prime minister of AJK. One cannot help imagining the analogy of a prison full of captives incarcerated indefinitely without due process. The PM acting as the confidant in chief ensuring that nothing untowards is cooked by the rest of the inmates. In this vein, cross LOC initiatives on people's movement and trade could be considered as reluctant concessions afforded to the hapless masses. 

It's a common perception that pressure from intelligence agencies slows down the process of movement towards a more natural form of existence for the people of Kashmir. This is manifested in the delays in obtaining cross-LOC permits for aspiring relatives as well as in the many hurdles that are encountered by traders on either side of the LOC. It appears that the agencies are there to secure the interest of the large constituencies in either country that are suspicious of any change, irrespective of how minute. Understanding that most activity partaken by these clandestine agencies is assumed to be un-wise, if not un-safe, to bring into the public domain, also precludes the possibility of civil society adopting a collective approach to lessen their influence.

An organisation that has been trained and geared for dealing with anti-national sentiment in a conflict zone is at direct odds with an increasingly vociferous generation that realises that conflict stands in the way of their future prosperity. The youth of today are more concerned with officially sanctioned (or at least tolerated) graft that surely affects 'national interest' in a more insidious manner. 

In my conversation with the agents this week, that is the theme that I tried to get them to understand. In a society where there is no mechanism for institutional accountability, it is difficult to expect individual responsibility for safeguarding 'national interest'. Further, if a society becomes aimless and valueless, there is little point in taking a national security approach to addressing it's ills.

One remains cognizant of the fact that 'freedom of expression' is a casualty in a conflict zone. If we genuinely believe that we are emerging out of that horrid phase, then writers and artists must take the lead in navigating society out of the quagmire that it has endured. Breaking convention is a must and one cannot expect the 'powers that be' to fulfill that duty. Creative outlets and initiatives must be undertaken by today's generation to ease 'agencies' out of the binary conflict mind-set. Otherwise, the future will remain uncertain and under the shadow of conflict.

Like everything else in this day and age, even 'national interest' is subject to economic vagaries. One cannot be expected to starve for the sake of protecting their neighbour's 'national interest', particularly if that interest continues to keep avenues of commerce closed, less they induce a change in the status-quo. 

There-in lies the crux: If people decide to use their own creative faculties to understand and solve the problems in their given society, it is considered to be an affront to the 'powers that be' and an existential threat to their survival and supremacy. The citizen is expected to supress nature for a 'greater inexplicable good' and is painstakingly outmanouvered from the oxygen of political action. 

Self-destructive altruism is the result, irrespective of whether one abides or rebels.

The analogy of the confidant in chief at the prison is further exemplified by the AJK prime minister's assertion that the ideology of Pakistan, borders of defence and social limits are his most important responsibilities and the freedom movement of Kashmir was his first priority. Couple this with Part 7(2) of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974 which clearly states, "No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to the ideology of the State's accession to Pakistan" and the over-arching influence of agencies in Pakistani-administered Kashmir - since 1947 - become crystal clear. It should be added that they have been consistently successful in their efforts to contain any form of meaningful resistance. 

The danger has seldom surfaced from people espousing a desire for accession to India, rather it has invariably emerged from those people who have expressed a desire for independence and the re-unification of their State. Amongst countless examples of coercion and mis-treatment, in 1957 Pakistan resorted to police action in AJK to quell a public meeting that was seeking direct action to create a United Kashmir.

While the clause cited above has been roundly and repeatedly criticised by all nationalist parties in AJK as well as by international human rights groups; with a general assembly election looming, there is still no indication that the clause will be repealed. Remembering that no viable solution to the Kashmir issue can exclude the exercise of fundamental civil and political rights for the people of Pakistani-administered Kashmir - in an environment free of coercion and fear - it is difficult to imagine cutting through the impasse that exists between the State of Pakistan and the citizens of AJK. That is, unless a mature approach is devised between the 'agents' of Pakistan and civil society here.

An open society not only evolves mechanisms for countering the ills in that society, it also searches for means of maximising economic opportunity. If the structure of AJK remains the same without constitutional and administrative reform, it will not be a society worth living in, just a mere territory on a map only useful for the natural resources that can be extracted from it. The process of reform cannot begin without unfettered ability by it's citizens to carve out a consensus on national objectives. That in turn requires 'freedom of expression/association' and collective adherence to the 'rule of law'. That cannot happen if a society is not permitted from taking responsibility for it's own development. 

The threat of intimidation, blocking of economic lifelines, incarceration and worse is firmly etched on the minds of the people of AJK. In this era of global change, expecting them to blindly conform to undefined objectives will only multiply the pile of problems that Pakistan and Pakistani-administered Kashmir are currently enduring. 

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Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com.

This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 13th of April 2011

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I received the following comment from Dr. Syed Nazir Gilani in response: 


(Note: He similarly used to write a weekly opinion piece for the English daily 'Rising Kishmir' in Srinagar) 

Dear Tanveer Ahmed

Salaam. Your article published in Rising Kashmir today is exceptionally very important and lead contribution on the subject. It should enhance the constituency of understanding. It is for the first time that a writer based in the area has decided to be on the side of his People. I congratulate you.


Regards

Dr. Syed Nazir Gilani
Secretary General of JKCHR – Jammu and Kashmir Council for Human Rights
- An NGO in Special Consultative Status with the ECOSOC of the United Nations

- Established in 1984


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