Growing up, my family always prided itself upon its Kashmiri heritage. My father would often reminisce about his home-town, as if to inculcate in me the same passion for the place that he felt. So one evening when he asked me, "how would I like to visit Kashmir?” I half-heartedly said I don't mind the idea. I knew it was too far-fetched and I safely presumed the plan would not materialize. Within couple of weeks, we were packing our bags. I had mixed feelings about visiting a conflict stricken valley, which is always in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. A journey from Karachi to Kashmir, I joked to my dad, amounts to jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
Our family being Kashmiri state subjects we managed to obtain a special entry permit to visit our relatives in the valley. On our way to the occupied territories we traversed through the length and breath of the northern Pakistan finally stopping over in Azad Kashmir. Ensuing morning we hopped onto a bus, which took us to the border check-post along the Pakistani line of control. Once issued a clearance from the authorities at the check-post we proceeded to cross over into occupied territory. A small suspension bridge separates our borders, which we crossed by foot and entered the Indian occupied territories. We were greeted with custom officials at Indian check-posts whose faces betrayed their hostility. Each time they looked at us, their faces grimaced to convey aggression. Once through the immigration we boarded a bus escorted by men in military khakis equally impolite and at times blatantly rude. After a short commute we reached our destination: a picking spot designated for the foreigners in Srinagar. We traversed through a chameleon terrain interspersed with hilltops and valley, expansive and lush green meadows; and in the backdrop, the glow of the sun capped mountains in the mid-afternoon sun loomed onto the canvas of the bright blue sky. I felt so completely absorbed by my surroundings that it felt more surreal than a 4d roller coaster ride. I momentarily forgot I was in a garrisoned valley at the mercy of armed men who indicated through their words and actions that they harbored nothing but ill will towards, I quickly learnt, not just towards my family but everyone that called Kashmir their home. My visceral observation quickly took me to Azad Kashmir. What really sets apart Azad Kashmir from occupied territories is the military presence. The sight of men in khakis is ubiquitous across the valley. A legion of soldiers, armed to their teeth, imposed upon defenseless people, elicits emotions of both fear and sympathy in those visiting the valley for the first time. Along the LOC, once we set foot in the occupied territories, I saw armored vehicles, military trucks carrying more than 50 soldiers at a time and even military tanks. That was the first time the absurdity of Indians calling Azad Kashmir Pakistan occupied Kashmir, or POK, really hit me because Azad Kashmir was really indistinguishable to me from any other part of Pakistan. In Azad Kashmir, there was bare minimum of military presence, check posts were few and far between, and people lived as free citizens, without fear and apprehension.
Inside the Indian occupied valley, every furlong or two, armed soldiers will be seen patrolling the area and then there were check posts every half mile or so where armed soldiers will ask you to pull over, search your vehicle, they will rummage through your luggage and then you’re asked to step outside the vehicle, often escorted to a nearby compound where everyone is interrogated about their whereabouts, itinerary details, etc. This isn’t some special treatment that is meted out to those visiting the valley from across the border. This is part of the everyday experience of every Kashmiri living under occupation. There is an air of hostility and the attitude of the soldiers towards the locals is condescending and outright humiliating. You could see contempt in their eyes.
One of the most striking features of the valley, apart from the general hospitality of the Kashmiri people, which is unrivalled, is the high level of literacy and lack of gender disparity in literacy levels. A young woman, pursuing doctorate level studies, is pretty much a norm, not the exception, in the valley. All credit goes to the Kashmiri people and not to the government who would rather keep an entire Muslim population locked under curfew.
This is really in stark contrast to how the people of occupied Kashmir are depicted in the popular media, especially Bollywood films. Kashmiris are fiercely proud and protective of their culture and heritage and share not a single common denominator with the people occupying them illegally.
I visited Kashmir during the best of the times and now with the revocation of article 370 and subsequent imposition of curfew which remains in affect to this date I keep wondering how drastically the situation must have deteriorated. If those were the good times one shudders to think what the situation would be like now.