Analysis

Across the LoC and the Oceans: First Movers – The Mirpuris

Away from the home front, raging conflicts do resonate with diaspora across continents. The Kashmir imbroglio is no exception. In the first part of the four-part series, the author focuses on the role of Mirpuris who live across the Line of Control and are scattered across Europe. 

In 2011, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s arrest of Kashmiri-American Council Executive Director Ghulam Nabi Fai shed light on the transnational nature of the Kashmir issue.

But much before Fai uprooted himself from Kashmir, Yousuf Buch, the Srinagar-born aide to Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah in Muzaffarabad, moved to the United States in 1953. In New York, he ran a Kashmir Centre from 1957 to 1972 and was the Senior Advisor to the United Nations Secretary General for over 18 years.

Also before the 1989 insurgency, England was one of the earliest vanguards of cross LoC transnational activity. Out of 1.2 million British-Pakistanis, 700,000 are mostly immigrants from Mirpur, Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK).

Plus, it was the kidnapping and murder of Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre in Birmingham by the founding members of the Kashmir Liberation Army that led to the hanging of Maqbool Bhat. Luv Puri writes in his book, Across the LoC: Inside Pakistan Administered Jammu and Kashmir, “Britain has remained the center of activity for many pro-independence activists. In 1971, a group of Mirpuris formed the United Kashmir Liberation Front and another created the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front in Britain, which spread its influence in other parts of the world. Three members of the PAJK diaspora-Raja Abdul Qayoom, Jehangir Mirza and Majeed Ansari-came together and formed the Kashmir Liberation Army.”

In 1965, Maqbool Bhat and Amanullah Khan formed the militant underground wing of the Plebiscite Front known as the Jammu Kashmir National Liberation Front (JKNLF). Almost a decade later, Khan rechristened the JKNLF as the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front in Britain. In the UK, the Mirpuri Diaspora’s financial support and political clout in legislative bodies could not have been more integral to the armed revolt in the Valley.

ALSO READ: What fuelled Kashmir’s Maqbool Butt

Throughout the trajectories of the Kashmir conflict, such forces have remained active both in and out of tandem. Alternative narratives from the Kashmir Valley’s Pandits, Jammu’s Dogras, and other non-Jamaat-e-Islami affiliated PaK parties have made their presence felt in foreign lands as well.

Founder of the Amsterdam-based think tank, European Foundation for South Asian Studies and son of founding JKLF member Hashim Qureshi, Junaid Qureshi elaborates, “It is much easier to say what you want to say in vibrant democracies and distance gives you a clearer perspective. Also, traveling to America without a passport is easier than making the shorter Srinagar-Muzzafarabad trip.”

These barriers prevent South Asians from familiarizing themselves with this diversity of thought. Even the Banihal tunnel that gives Jammu and the Valley access to each other is also symbolic of the ideological gulf between the two regions. In Europe and North America, one is more likely to get exposure to perspectives and people from the different regions that straddle the Line of Control.

The pan J&K diaspora figures into the overall conversation around the conflict only during certain instances. These include overseas South Asians who “welcome” visiting Indian and/or Pakistani dignitaries or when prominent figures like Fai experience legal troubles. This diaspora is a distant microcosm of this diversity of culture and aspirations within Indian and Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

Toronto-based commentator and Rawalakot native, Barrister Hamid Bashani reveals an interesting facet about PAJKians, be it the Jamaat associated Mirpuris or the socialist Jammu Kashmir National Awami Party UK members. “The Azad Kashmiri in London may not live in his/her homeland, but Azad Kashmir more than just lives in him. They migrate for financial reasons but they live, breathe, and eat Azad Kashmir,” Bashani conveys.

Furthermore, he alludes to the birardi system that figures heavily in their culture, lifestyle, and their pan-Kashmir centric political activities. Bashani states, “The basis for affiliation within these Azad Kashmir groups are tribes such as Chaudhrys, Sudhans, etc.” The Barrister also opines, “The way many British Kashmiris welcome a visiting politician from home is similar to the medieval traditions where subjects of an empire’s principality gave haazri (mandatory attendance) to the Emperor’s Governor.”

Clearly, the multi-faceted diaspora adds many layers to this patchwork of ethno-linguistic and political diversity that is Jammu and Kashmir.

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Before and after 1947, there have been many waves of migration from what is present-day Pakistan Administered Jammu and Kashmir to England. During the early 1900s, numerous PAJKians migrated in droves to Britain and took up jobs as seamen in coal-ships. The second wave came as a result of the Mangla Dam construction in Mirpur that displaced many and limited the agricultural landscape. Since there was a need for cheap labour, the British granted work permits to this population. Remittances, existing support systems in the form of early migrants, and economic success stories fueled more mass migration from all over the region to the UK.

Mirpur, Pakistan Administered Kashmir.

Naturally, the sheer numbers of tightly knit “Azad Kashmiris” in cities like Birmingham, Bradford, and London began to wield political influence in their parliamentary and local constituencies. They raised the Kashmir issue not only as legislators but also as activists.

One of these policymakers is Baron Nazir Ahmed of Roterham, better known as Lord Nazir. He emphasizes, “Some people don’t even want to call me a British Member of the Parliament. I’m not even a Pakistani, I’m a Kashmiri from Mirpur, Azad Kashmir.”

Since the late 80s, he has taken up the issue with zeal. As the (counter)-insurgency caught steam, he worked with former European Parliament member Norman West. Nazir reminisces, “We were able to change the Labour Party’s policy. Hence, for the first time in British history, Kashmir was discussed on the floor of the conference. It was an honour to lead that debate alongside Robin Cooke, Claire Shaw, and Max Maddon who were prominent politicians of that time.”

ALSO READ: Dr. Farooq Abdullah: The ‘Independent Kashmir’ baiter’s brushes with ‘Azadi’ camp

For many conflict-ravaged regions of the Middle East, there seems to be no dearth of experts who are vocal at various fora. Nazir believes that there are very few for Kashmir. This is where certain realities regarding constituencies come into play when it comes to garnering support. Direct lobbying sometimes is effective only if one can sway the legislator’s constituents by building awareness from the grassroots among voters.

The Jamaat-backed Tehreek-e-Kashmir UK from Birmingham has even been instrumental in facilitating dialogue between Mirpuri-dominated constituencies and their MPs. “Ultimately there are 70 or 80 MPs in the House of Commons who are voted in or out by their constituencies,” exclaims Nazir. Of course, not every constituency contains an Azad Kashmiri or even a South Asian population.

Lord Nazir Ahmed.

In the West, ordinary citizens can influence policy from the periphery. They may write detailed letters to their MP not just for their own domestic concerns, but regarding foreign policy as well. For instance there is one All Party Parliamentary Group, an unofficial multi-partisan body beholden to House rules and oversight by parliamentary standards, which is devoted to Kashmir. They have drawn some attention to various laws such as the Public Safety Act and Armed Forces Special Powers Act since the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir. The group was a boon for current Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi this past February and a bane for his then Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj.

Generating awareness on Kashmir is not solely limited to the legislative arenas. Consular and Embassy Buildings are battlefields of sorts. The Mirpuri diaspora has played its part in organizing the 2018 Republic Day protests outside the High Commission in London and commemorative rallies for Maqbool Bhat and Burhan Wani.

ALSO READ: Five Kashmiris enter British Parliament through snap elections, What does it mean?

Some of these campaigns have been held in and out of tandem with prominent entities from the Kashmir Valley. These different groups might have their respective set policies and agendas, but there is an understanding between them as they sometimes speak at each other’s events and coordinate whenever they can. The current World Kashmir Freedom Movement President, Muzzammil Ayyub Thakur, spoke at the rally outside of the Birmingham City Council House to mark the one-year anniversary of Burhan Wani’s killing in 2017.

A week before the rally, Indian diplomats were successful in prompting the Birmingham City Council to cancel the rally due to the content of the event’s marketing collateral.

In spite of that, ‘Burhan Wani Day’ went ahead as planned.

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The constituencies’ voters do generate a certain amount of media coverage in Europe and the subcontinent. Yet, there remain mixed opinions as to whether such activities go beyond just raising awareness. There are debates as to whether British lawmakers have been thoroughly convinced to pressurize India. However, despite the APPG, PAJK-origin legislators, or non-South Asians who are vocal on Indian Administered Kashmir, there is a certain fragmentation within these campaigns. Some attribute this to the dominance of elderly males and birardi hierarchies.

In her book Between The Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-Administered Kashmir, Anam Zakaria’s conversation with researcher Marta Bolognani is quite illuminating. Bolognani spells out the dynamic between those indigenous to the Valley (sometimes referred to as “Maqbooza Kashmiris”) and PAJKians below.

“ ‘The Punjabis have always looked down upon them because the area does not really fall in Punjab and the Kashmiris have always looked down upon them because they don’t share the rich cultural essence, the language, the traditions, that the rest of Kashmir does,’ Marta said to me over Skype, a few days prior to my trip. ‘The Kashmiris see them as Punjabis and the Punjabis see them as Kashmiris. They don’t fit in anywhere.’ ”

Despite their influence and numbers, Lord Nazir attributes this to education catching on much later among the Azad Kashmiri diaspora. “I don’t mind admitting that the majority of the people from Azad Kashmir were uneducated,” he confesses candidly. “When my parents immigrated to Britain, they could not read or write and they had no idea about politics. The majority of the people hailing from the Valley are educated. While capable, some politicians in Azad Kashmir are not exactly savvy in presenting the cause. They have been making the same speeches for 15 years,” Nazir deplores.

He stresses that young British Kashmiris should further the previous generations’ efforts, especially since they have been embedded in the British socio-political fabric longer than their elders. However, there is an abundance of savvy littérateurs, academics, and diaspora organizations from the Valley. These are people who are very effective in articulating as well as amplifying resistance efforts.

Recalling an encounter with a Kashmiri-American lady at an ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) conference, she asked Lord Nazir, “Brother, which part of Kashmir do you come from?” He replied, “Mirpur, Azad Kashmir. What about yourself?” She responded, “Real Kashmir.”

Both in Europe and across the Atlantic Ocean, there have been many Kashmiri figures that have contributed to the discourse on J&K from abroad.

Almost four decades ago, two men from the Valley would begin a journey that spanned four countries across the globe. They would become persons of interest for Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC, American as well as British politicians, and numerous government agencies.

To be continued…

 

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