Sixteen books on various aspects of Kashmir have been banned by the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) including my booklet ‘Maqbool Bhat: Life and Struggle’.
My initial reaction to the news was a kind of amusement as all of my articles included in the booklet are freely available online. However, after reading the text of notification closely the amusement gave way to some serious questions about the reason for the ban and the nature of relationship between ‘azad’ Kashmir and Pakistan. The fact that the notification is also copied to the sub commander of the Intelligence Services of Pakistan (ISI) adds to the seriousness of the matter. So let’s start with an objective analysis and rationalization of the text of the notification.
The notification (H2(13)/15) is issued by the Home department of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Government which reads:
“In exercise of the powers conferred by section 23 of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council Registration of Printing Press and Publication Act 1991, the president of Azad Jammu and Kashmir has been pleased (sic) to accord approval to impose ban on purchase, sale, import and exhibition of following books in whole Azad State of Jammu and Kashmir with immediate effect and all the copies of the same be confiscated from the market under above mentioned law if founded (sic) anywhere in AJ&K”.
The Home department issued the notice exercising the powers conferred to it by the Kashmir Council and then the AJK President approved the notification. So which is the supreme authority here? Obviously, the Kashmir Council which conferred powers to the AJK Home department. But what is the source of powers for Kashmir Council? Before discussing this question I think we need to see if we can trace the reasons for the ban.
Apparently there is no reason given in the notification. However, reading between the line, and resisting the thought that the ban is just to clear the ‘Azad’ Kashmir market of any literature produced independently by ‘azad’ Kashmiris, it appears that the ground on which the ban is imposed is in the clause 23 of Kashmir council which requires Registration of any printing press and publication business. All 16 books banned are published by the National Institute of Kashmir Studies. The NIKS is a Mirpur based private institute established by Mr Saeed Asad who is employed in the welfare department of AJK and has been suspended and reinstated several times in the past few decades and faced ban on many books including those he personally authored, compiled and published and also those he published by other authors including mine, the one which is banned and ‘Azad Kashmir and British Kashmiris’ that is not yet banned.
So to clarify matters I asked Saeed Asad about the registration. He informed that he did apply for registration but was told (he is not sure if verbally or in writing) that to get registered he has to take the word ‘national’ out and either change the name or leave the ‘Institute of Kashmir Studies’ as no institution or organization in AJK should use the word national with it. When he argued that he had been publishing material for many years under this name he was told that he could carry on doing so without registration but if he wanted to register the institute he had to have it done without the phrase ‘national’. He carried on without registration which of course is breach of Publication Act utilized to impose ban on the books.
However, Saeed Asad is not the only person publishing books in AJK. There are several others. Has anyone else been reprimanded for breaching the Publication law of ‘azad’ Kashmir? Yes. Khawaja Rafiq of Kashar Publisher (KP) is also Mirpur based. Few months back the KP was not only raided but one of its employee Talat Ansari was arrested and Khawaja Rafique was initially gone into hiding to avoid arrest and later presented himself before police and was bailed after few days in custody. So the books are banned because the publishers are not registered? I would have accepted that argument had other books by these publishers and books by all other non-registered publishers been banned also. They are not.
So are the books banned because of their content?
Apparently yes, as all books banned cover one or the other aspect of Kashmir. However, I am surprised that my book ‘Azad Kashmir and British Kashmiris’ published by NIKS and includes detailed and critical history of ‘azad’ Kashmir is not amongst the banned books. So on what grounds the books are banned? The books which contained radical and rebellious material mainly on Maqbool Bhat? But then why ban ‘Kashmir under the Sultans’ written before 1947 and has no reference about Maqbool Bhat? So all books on Kashmir? I think at this point the rationalization of this notification gets exhausted.
We need to consider the wider context. Let’s first look at the Kashmir Council that has powers regarding the Printing Press and Publication through Act 1991 clause 23. What is the source of its power? According to what it says about itself on its website the Kashmir Council “is a constitutional body established under section 21 of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir interim constitution Act 1974. The Council has clearly defined executive, legislative and judicial sphere enumerated in the third schedule of the Act”.
So Council was established under the AJK constitution and draws its power from the Azad Kashmir Constitution. Then why the Home Ministry of Azad Kashmir writes in the notification that the powers to exercise the ban are conferred to it by the Kashmir Council and why the President of AJK pleasantly blesses the notification with his approval?
One might think that the Council is some Kashmiri body set up by ‘azad’ Kashmiris or at least in consultation with Azad Kashmiris? No it was not. The present interim constitution of Azad Kashmir was authored by the legal man of PPP Dr Abdul Hafeez Peerzada in 1974 and the Council was one chapter of that constitution. Ostensibly it was aimed to democratize the relationship between Pakistan and Azad Kashmir but actually has been a colonial like structure in its powers and functioning. It is chaired by the head of Pakistani state with Azad Kashmiri President as Vice Chair. It has five ministers of Pakistan and AJK prime minister and six members of azad Kashmir legislative assembly as its members. Although composed of elected members from Pakistani and azad Kashmiri governments, the Council was actually bestowed with whatever little and feeble autonomy the AJKG enjoyed under the 1970 Act. The Interim Act 1974 conferred 52 affairs of any significance to the Council including nationality, citizenship, migration, emigration, stock exchange, banking, mineral resources and insurance and of course Press and Publication etc. So the sources of powers of the Council is the Pakistani government that conferred powers to the council through Azad Kashmir interim constitution.
Like the previous bans the reaction to current ban will more likely be confined to the pro-independence Kashmiris. Those who are installed in Muzaffarabad government to sign with pleasure such notifications (and many others including privatization of the resources and investment) will view this as a noble act of curbing the illegal and anti-‘national’ literature. But beyond the vested interests of some, three main perspectives can be traced amongst the majority of Azad Kashmiris all of which demand the abolition of Kashmir Council and Kashmir Ministry.
The proponents of independent Kashmir view the entire setup of AJK as undemocratic and unrepresentative of AJK people because they cannot participate in the elections without declaring allegiance to the Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. They also denounce AJK government as puppet and argue that the whole purpose of this set up is to serve the interest of Pakistani rulers. In return, the claim, the AJK rulers are given or allowed to stay in, ‘power’ that is nothing more than the privilege to access some financial benefits, show off their ministry flags on some imported cars and exaggerated protocol. From this perspective the actual control of Azad Kashmir is in the hands of Pakistani army and agencies that then play and manipulate a range of local dynamics to continue and strengthen their occupation.
Banning Books, according to this perspective is to clear the market of any literature or any initiatives which try to inform the people inside and outside of Kashmir of the narrative (story) of Kashmir that does not match with the Pakistani narrative. Their demand is that it is not only the Kashmir Council that undermines the power of AJK government but also the Chief Secretary whom they call Viceroy along with other lent officers who come from Pakistan and head all major departments of Azad Kashmir including Chief Secretary, Finance, Auditor Genral and Inspector Genral Police. They also claim that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs bullies AJK politicians to submission and silence. Any politician of AJK who makes any attempts for autonomy is internally branded as ‘nationalist’ or ‘pro-Indian’ and finds hard to get clearance from agencies for the next elections or any government post. Their demand is that AJK does not need Lent officers from Pakistan to run their affairs as they are capable of giving better governance than the current model headed by the Pakistani civil and military bureaucracy and politicians. They view Kashmir Council as a colonial like structure that needs to be abolished and all of the powers must be transferred to the AJK government. Here the pro independence actually become on the same page as the pro-autonomy perspective championed by the Civil Society of AJK.
The Pro Autonomy Perspective in AJK is relatively new development and is composed of activists who through education and exposure to modern institutions and processes have gained better understanding of governance in modern societies. Although closely associated with establishment of Pakistan and AJK government they have demonstrated great understanding of the flaws within the current setup and are advocating for the fundamental reforms in the current ‘master-servant’ relationship between the Pakistani and Azad Kashmiri governments. However, a gross root attempts to build civil society by a British Kashmiri Returnee, Tanveer Ahmed are constantly thwarted and it is alleged that he is in custody somewhere up in the Neelam area of Azad Kashmir.
Indeed those who oppose both Indian option and the independence option and choose accession to Pakistan do not call for merger of Kashmir state with Pakistan either but are only willing to hand over the foreign affairs, currency and defence to Pakistan. They are also for autonomy and have repeatedly asked Pakistan to curtail the powers of Kashmir council and transfer powers over internal affairs to the government of AJK.
The way forward
One way forward is that the AJK politicians carry on suppression of the voices for freedom and independence in AJK to continue to stay in power and feed to the freedom sentiment and frustration of pro-independence Kashmiris majority of whom is composed of excluded, youth and educated sections of the society. This was the approach adopted by the Indian occupied Kashmir governments of NC and Congress who are facing a whole generation risen against them. This silencing policy is not new in AJK either. Indeed from 1947 the pro independent Kashmir voices been constantly forced to silence. Comparison of their strength in 1950s with the present rise supports the claim I am making here that suppression does not weaken the resistance.
A better approach for the AJK government is to use their offices and negotiate with the Pakistani rulers through the support of expert and articulate ‘azad’ Kashmiris to introduce genuine reforms in the relationship between AJK and Pakistan and press upon Pakistan to stop the coercive intelligence interference in AJK and to abolish the above offices and bodies and actually constitutionalise the constitution of AJK and make it democratic and inclusive and play fair politics. It is only then the notifications by government will gain the credibility of law and will be followed by the majority of the people willingly and the ‘anti nationals’ who compare the governance of Indian occupied Kashmir with Pakistani Occupied Kashmir or those who call ‘azad’ Kashmir the Azab (torment) will stop doing that and if they don’t no one will listen to them. No books will be needed to ban. That will be the real Azad Kashmir.
Shams Rehman is Kashmiri writer and researcher based in Manchester, UK, whose book has also been banned by Pakistan-administered Kashmir.