The slogan Azadi first became prominent in Kashmir when Benazir Bhutto, former Pakistani prime minister coined the chant in a 1990 speech, the height of Kashmir’s insurgency where militants ran rampant in the streets urging Pandits to convert, flee or be killed. The slogan was said to articulate freedom from both India and Pakistan, thousands gathering to shout “hum kya chahte?” “Aazadi!” The chant comprised of three phrases in addition to hum kya chahte: chheen ke lenge, azadi (will snatch it, freedom), hai haq hamara, azadi (our right, freedom) and zor se bolo, azadi (shout forcefully, freedom). Over the years, it has become the anthem of the separatist movement in Kashmir and although initially seen to have a secular character, most of the groups chanting and supporting this slogan worked under and are separatist leaders and militants in Kashmir most whose ideology is radical Islamic fundamentalism which they systematically spread among Kashmiri youth.
In a recent interview, a Kashmiri Muslim activist Yana Mir spoke with a Pakistani journalist stating clearly that she is proud to be an Indian citizen and although Kashmir is now Muslim majority there is no reason it can’t be run by a secular government. Yana accuses Pakistan of aiding organizations like JKLF and the Mujahideen to radicalize Kashmiri Muslim youth. One Kashmir stationed police officer even states “Our challenge is not that 1,000 youngsters want to be martyrs; our challenge is to not allow them to be martyrs.” Yana stated that she believed Pakistan deliberately tarnishes India’s image, spreads misinformation and propaganda about Kashmir further fueling tensions between India and Pakistan. She believes current Kashmiri Muslim youth are being devastated and unnecessarily being involved in this conflict. Furthermore, Yana believes that its major propaganda that many push the story that Kashmir did not accede to India willingly and legally. Many Kashmiri Muslims like Yana understand the true meaning of Azadi and the extremists backing the Azadi movement. She explicitly states that she believes it is in the best interest of Kashmir to remain with India. It’s also important to consider that most Kashmiri Muslim ethnic minorities in both Jammu and POK also celebrated the abrogation and don’t support the extreme “Aazadi” separatist leaders’ demand from India.
Gujjar Bakarwals, a Muslim minority group in Jammu celebrated the scrapping of the article and hope it will bring more development to the area. POK activist Amjad Mirza recently celebrated the 1st anniversary of the article, releasing balloons into the sky and cutting a tricolor cake. He believes that the abrogation has “helped the people of POK to be a part of India…women are enjoying equal rights for the first time in Kashmir and 400,000 war refugees from POK living in shanty camps have been recognized as Indian citizens and JK domicile has been granted to them.” Muslim Baloch leaders additionally who are all fighting for freedom from Pakistan celebrated the abrogation and believed the articles were a tool used to enhance terrorism. It is clear that there are Kashmiri Muslims, Muslim minorities in POK, and Jammu who do not support Azadi. More importantly, we need to start recognizing that “the whole idea of Kashmir’s Aazadi is vague as the people who are demanding it are the ones who systematically exterminated the native population of the valley, annihilated their culture, demolished any traced of their existence, and hence altered the demographics of the region.”
It is also to be noted that those who do not seek Azadi are targetted by extremist elements in the region. Recently, Sarpanch Ajay Pandita, one of the last Kashmiri Pandits in the valley was murdered in Anantnag by terrorists from TRF (The Resistance Front), a Pakistan based terrorist group. Another BJP leader and Sarpanch Sajad Jhanday were shot in Kulgam. BJP leader Wasim Bari, his brother, and father were also all murdered by militants in Bandipora after Bari showed solidarity with Kashmiri Hindus by raising a tricolor flag and attending a Hanuman Chalisa prayer. Showing support for India and the return of Kashmiri Hindus have now become dangerous in Kashmir, the original homeland for Kashmiri Pandits.
It is also important to consider that the majority of those who live in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or “Azad Kashmir” are not ethnically or indigenously Kashmiri. The region is almost entirely Muslim and comprises of multiple communities such as the Gujjars, Jats, Sudhans, Awans, Abassis, Rajputs whose culture aligns more with Pashtun and Punjabi culture than Kashmiri.
Another prominent ethnic group, Mirpuris are also not indigenous Kashmiris but fled from persecution in Pakistan to cities in Azad Kashmir during partition. Additionally, Pakistan has been accused of deliberately changing the demographics of Gilgit, Baltistan, and POK. The three areas used to be Shia dominated where these groups spoke their native languages. Pakistan then encouraged Sunnis to settle in the area offering them jobs and homes.
Now, POK is dominated by Urdu and Punjabi speaking Sunni Muslims. Ethnic cleansing of Shias was also systematically carried out in 2012 (and continues to occur in POK and GB), scores of Shias being killed in Kohistan and Chilas. In Chilas, Shia Muslims were examined for Tatbir scars and subsequently executed. Since GB’s status remains ambiguous, the area doesn’t have protection from India. The estimates of deaths when Shias were targeted during this time are said to be about 400. In Chilas, Shia Muslims were examined for Tatbir scars and subsequently executed. In Kohistan, a bus was stopped where 18 Shia Muslims were murdered by militants from Jundallah, a Pakistani terrorist group. “Shias, Ismailis and moderate Sunnis are under threat in Gilgit Baltistan as ethnic cleansing is systematically being carried out by radical elements in Pakistani society. Due to the vital link to China through the Karakoram Highway, GB is a strategic asset for Pakistan. The demographic change it seeks to do there is with the aim of bringing the region into its iron grip with total disregard to human rights and international law.” (ANI)
To put it simply, “The whole idea of Kashmir’s Azadi is vague as the people who are demanding it are the ones who systematically exterminated the native population of the valley, annihilated their culture, demolished any traces of their existence, and hence altered the demographics of the region.” – Kunal Dhar