By Siddiq Wahid
Muzaffarabad isn’t quite the forbidden city of PoK that it is made out to be
AFEW weeks ago a friend in Srinagar remarked that I seem to have fallen in love again with my State of Jammu & Kashmir (J& K).
It was an astute observation and I have rolled it over in my mind several times since. My childhood was spent largely in a boarding school in the eastern Himalayas; my adolescence in a high school in New Delhi and my middle- age in North America. In that context, the last ten years have been a true homecoming — socially, politically and intellectually.
So on receiving an invitation from the University of AJK in Muzaffarabad to discuss “Kashmir in Emerging Global Perspectives” it was an opportunity to expand on that growing affection. To be candid, going to Muzaffarabad was not much of a priority for me. Since it was not “Kashmiri” in the ethno- linguistic use of that word, there was not a sense of any familiarity with it. Besides, my secret motivation in accepting the invitation was to use it to visit Gilgit- Baltistan which, while being the least accessible to those of us on this side of the LoC, held the promise of familiarity for me.
The visit to Gilgit- Baltistan did not materialise but, once reconciled to that disappointment, I began to look forward to the Muzaffarabad visit.
The first thing that strikes a person on the road to Muzaffarabad is how similar it is to the road between Jammu and Srinagar.
A gradual climb, then a forest of trees as one reaches Murree. The descent from Phagwari in Murree District into the valley is astonishingly like the descent from Patnitop; the forest, much less ravaged, seems completely familiar.
IF I had slumbered on the way up to be awoken in the middle of the curving highway, I would have looked forward to soon being in Batote! The highway on this side has a series of slogans that proclaim New Delhi’s implicit ownership of “Kashmir to Kanyakumari”. The walls along the 140 odd kilometres from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad are replete with graffiti that say “ Aao Kashmir chalein ”. That slogan seems to imply that it is a separate entity and one appreciates the concession, even if it is notional.
“But”, as the driver of the car tells me, “we are still in Pakistan”. Then soon the Jhelum becomes visible and the driver, pointing to the other side of it, says, “That is Kashmir!” And as we cross the bridge at a place that could easily be mistaken for Ramban, we are asked to show our passports. When I ask if Pakistanis are required to do so, I am told not. The de facto similarity between the two sides of the LoC is now clearer. A polite fifteen minutes later we are on our way. Approximately an hour later we have covered the 35 or so kilometres of highway to enter Muzaffarabad town.
En route, at a spot where the road has been washed away by the hurtling waters of the Jhelum, the driver’s frustration-laced voice remarks how this happens every year. “They should just give it to the Chinese then it will be fixed! But that won’t happen, because the Chinese build only what is in their interest! Just like the Neelam – Jhelum Dam Project.” The remark stirs my curiosity. The reference is to a project not far from Muzaffarabad and soon we come upon a sign announcing this USD 2.16 billion project near Chattar Klaas which houses a small township of approximately 700 Chinese workers and is expected to generate 5.150 million units and an “Average Head”, whatever that means, of “420”. Quite apart from the discovery, for me at least, of this largish presence of the Chinese so close to Srinagar, I cannot help but reflect on the potential meaning of the last number and its symbolism for South Asians! In 2005 I was in Hiroshima on the 60th anniversary of its bombing — organised to remind the world of how savagely human beings can ravage each other. I had approached it with some trepidation, not knowing what to expect after a city had experienced such devastation. I approached Muzaffarabad similarly, fearing evident scars from the loss of life and the material wreckage of the 2005 earthquake.
But as in the case of Hiroshima I was pleasantly surprised, yet again, by the resilience of human endurance for suffering. Muzaffarabad is not as beautiful as Srinagar; but it is a town in which its residents clearly take pride. It has been completely rebuilt in these six years. There is no moan of selfindulgence and no real scent of rampant corruption (although one does encounter signs that proclaim an ‘Anti- fraud hotline’).
And, above all, it is infinitely cleaner than Srinagar. Muzaffarabad may not be “developed” or its polity not as “sophisticated” as that of Srinagar, but its understanding of life is beautifully nuanced and mature. It gave me one more reason to understand the urgency of a resolution to the J& K dispute. The two sides of the LoC can learn much, and equally, from each other’s experiences in the last sixty- three years.
One of the startling features of the landscape in Muzaffarabad is the presence of mosques with Ottoman architecture — gentle domes with “ pencil minarets” like those in Istanbul! Quietly, Turkey has been at the forefront of helping Muzaffarabad recover from the 2005 earthquake.
They have helped build hospitals, schools, mosques and more. In conversation with Dr. Muharem Hilmi- Ozev, a political scientist from the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul — invited to attend the conference — I discovered that Turkey sees Pakistan as being, along with itself, one of the “ two most important Islamic countries in the world today.” Inevitably, the conversation veered towards the J& K conundrum and regional comparisons.
TURKEY does not see Pakistan from the limited prism of “terrorism” and “securitisation”. Dr. Hilmi- Ozev spoke of the importance of recognising those in Pakistan, and indeed South Asia, who do not see “ secularism” and a faith- based view of life ( in this case Islam) as being mutually exclusive. He pointed out how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and most of his senior colleagues were products of “official” religious schools. He described, albeit briefly and tantalisingly, how Turkey had evolved a model of internal politics and inter-nation relations that has transformed its position in the world. Less than ten years ago almost all of its neighbours, Greece, Syria, Iran, Russia, Azerbaijan and others, were hostile to it. But Erdogan, under the influence of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, followed a policy of transforming these relationships into friendships so that today Greece, historically an adversary, is one of its principal advocates for admission into the EU. No wonder Turkey has become a model for many Muslim countries.
Surely, this transformation of adversarial neighbours into friends holds a lesson for New Delhi to emulate in its own neighbourhood.
The author is former vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science & Technology at Avantipora, J& K
Source: Mail Today