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What freedom means in Kashmir

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Srinagar

A pro-freedom procession in Kashmir
People have raised Pakistani flags in recent demonstrations

The newspaper headlines in the mainly Muslim valley in India-administered Kashmir say it all.

'Freedom is sweet, no matter how it comes', says one. 'People pray for freedom,' chimes another, reporting on Friday prayers in the valley.

A row over transferring land for a Hindu pilgrimage escalated into a nationalist upsurge in the valley in recent months. Some 30 people have died after security forces fired on protests here. Many say the relative calm at present is just the lull before another storm.

In the eye of the storm is the demand for azadi (freedom) for people living in the valley; the latest bout of unrest has brought the contentious issue back into the limelight again.

For many Indians the demand strikes at the heart of the 'idea of India', of a nation that is capable of handling diversity and staying united.

State of mind

But for many of the majority Muslims living in the valley, freedom is the only way to get their pride back. It is the only way, they say, India can redeem itself in the hearts and minds of the Kashmiri.

No wonder, the streets in the valley were agog with cries for freedom during the huge protest processions that the recent crisis triggered off.

People have waved Pakistani flags and belted out pro-Pakistani slogans although, as Booker-prize winning writer Arundhati Roy says, it "would be a mistake to assume that the public expression of affection for Pakistan automatically translates into a desire to accede to Pakistan".

This time, the call for Kashmiri freedom is coming from a generation of young and restless men and women who grew up during the troubled 1990's when the valley was wracked by separatist insurgency.

On Kashmir streets, the yearning for freedom is a state of mind.

In a middle-class neighbourhood in Budgam where two young men were killed by security forces during recent protests, Sheikh Suhail, a 24-year-old mass communications student, makes no bones about it.

"We want azadi," he says, days after he buried a friend who was shot down in the protest.

A Srinagar resident being frisked by Indian troops
People say they want 'freedom' from Indian forces
"Nobody quite knows what it will mean for us. We don't know whether we will survive it. I only know that we want freedom from both India and Pakistan," he says.

Across town, in the bustling Dalgate area, Sayed Zubair, a government school teacher, is seething after the security forces shot down his elderly neighbour during a recent curfew.

"We live in fear. A free Kashmir is the only solution to make us feel safe," he says.

His neighbour, Hilal Ahmed, a bank manager, says freedom can help Kashmiris get rid of a twin "stigma".

"India says it is the biggest democracy in the world. Living in Kashmir, we do not get any sense of that. Being a Kashmiri is a curse, being a Muslim is a crime. So we are doubly disadvantaged in these troubled times.

"The only way to set things right is to India get out of our lives and leave us free."

So what does freedom mean for most Kashmiris?

Does it mean a sovereign state? Or does it mean greater autonomy? Many people here say that they prefer a form of self-rule. Does freedom from India mean accession with Pakistan? Or does freedom mean India pulling out its half a million or so troops in the state?

Eroded autonomy

For people like Suhail freedom is an intense sentiment. It is, they say, a breaking off from the "oppressive shackles" of the Indian state. For others like political scientist Dr Noor Ahmad Baba and women's activist Dr Hameeda Nayeem, it is something more substantial.

Many analysts say that the autonomy that Kashmir enjoys under the Indian constitution has been eroded considerably and it is time that the Indian government worked out a new deal for its people.

Dal Lake in Srinagar
Tourism is a big draw in Kashmir

Dr Noor Ahmed Baba says that when most Kashmiris say they want freedom, they do not necessarily mean seceding from India.

"The overwhelming people here want independence. But it does not mean a sovereign state. It could be a higher degree of autonomy rooted in a larger understanding with India and Pakistan, both of whom who would pledge not to interfere.

"For us freedom also means more choices about reviving our old trade, cultural and economic roots. We want to come out of seclusion," he says.

Dr Hameeda Nayeem says Kashmiris want self-governance and great internal sovereignty - that is what freedom could essentially mean.

"Let us define self-governance. Whether it will be more autonomy or self-rule. Our borders could be jointly managed by India and Pakistan. We want soft borders and free flow of goods."

She points to the example of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan and wonders why Kashmir cannot have the status of a "protected state" of India like Bhutan.

How could a beautiful valley - with an approximate area 15,520 sq km, only a sixth of the size of Bhutan - cope as an independent country?

'Not realistic'

Omar Abdullah, head of the mainstream National Conference party, admits that that "freedom sentiment" is serious, but has grave doubts about its feasibility.

"How realistic is it? Will Kashmir ever be really free even if it becomes independent, surrounded as it is by India, China and Pakistan?" he wonders.

A pro-Kashmir protest in Kashmir
Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir

"How free can it be? What happens to Pakistan-administered Kashmir?

"Freedom is not an option. I have yet to see a model of freedom which convinces me that Jammu and Kashmir as a viable independent entity".

The irony is that nothing that is being debated in the valley is new.

The builder of modern India and its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke about a plebiscite in Kashmir and independence for the state with its defence guaranteed by both India and Pakistan.

And Mr Nehru's letter to the maharajah of Kashmir four months after India's independence in 1947 was also chillingly prescient.

"It is of the most vital importance that Kashmir should remain with the Indian Union," he wrote.

"But, however much we may want this, it cannot be done except through the goodwill of the mass of the population.

"Even if military forces held Kashmir for a while a later consequence may be a strong reaction against this.

"Essentially, therefore, this is a problem of psychological approach to the mass of the people and of making them feel they will be benefited by being in the Indian Union.

"If the average Muslim feels that he has no safe and secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view, or else we fail."


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