by Syed Shujaat Bukhari
Located at a distance of 180 kilometres from both Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Muzaffarabad has been a lesser known destination for many decades. But the armed uprising in Kashmir took it to the headlines, since the militant groups referred to it as “Base Camp” for “struggle for Azadi” after 1990.
It also suited Pakistan government to shift the focus of its pro-Kashmir activity to this mountainous city. It was in 2005, Muzaffarabad was in news for a long time, as it became the epicenter of devastating earthquake that hit erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir and parts of Pakistan.
My impression about the other part of Kashmir, referred to by Indians as “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir” and Pakistanis as “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” remained vague until I visited the area in December 2004. It was during that memorable visit to Muzaffarabad, Mirpur and Gilgit Baltistan, the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) decided to draw a line to avoid controversies in pushing the process of “understanding” on both sides. So came the lesser irritant jargon -Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) for Pakistani side and Indian Administered Kashmir (IaK) for Indian side. However, most of newspapers in both countries stick to their “occupation” like reference in reports about Kashmir.
During the previous visit there was not much to discover in PaK for paucity of time. For any Kashmiri visiting Muzaffarabad at that time the immediate comparison would be with a district headquarter like Kupwara. This was true not only because of the topography but also its the less population and importance Muzaffarabad had been getting in erstwhile state before 1947. I always felt that comparing it with a historic city like Srinagar would be unfair. To a very large extent I proved myself right.
The population of Muzaffarabad is less than that of Srinagar. It has been a city at the edge of LOC that divides Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Perched on hills, Muzaffarabad, after the earthquake, has emerged as a beautiful city with new designed houses. A high class Pearl Continental Hotel, on a peak gives a magnificent look of city during both day and night. Confluence of Jhelum and Neelum rivers adds to city’s beauty.
It is, unlike Srinagar, which bustles with business on all “normal days”. With tourists swarming in Kashmir, Muzaffarabad and other major towns do not get tourists except the locals who sometimes take a break to visit picnic spots.
But the city is cleaner, roads are good and the power supply is not as bad as we experience here. I was told that all the villages even at the top of a mountain are connected through black-topped roads and have power supply. The budget allocation for PaK government comes from Islamabad, though the state is considered to be “Independent” if one goes by the nomenclature of the state and those heading it.
Besides the President, Prime Minister, the PaK has its own Election Commission and Supreme Court. But in real sense the problems between Muzaarabad and Islamabad are of similar nature as we see between Srinagar and New Delhi (read between governments).
The Kashmir Council headed by Pakistan Prime Minister is seen as a parallel government body, which many believe “overshadows the Independent structure in PaK”. Share in the hydel power produce and the taxes have been bone of contention between governments in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad. Grapevine has it that former prime minister Raja Farooq Haider had to “sacrifice” power for “taking on Islamabad” on these “critical issues”.
While I was in Muzaffarabad the campaigning for the Assembly elections scheduled for June 26 was at its peak. Surprisingly, the issues of local governance and development are missing from manifestos of political parties. They also harp on the much “abused” slogan of Kashmir and make a bid to drive home a point that they would “ensure Azadi for Kashmir”.
Whether they would be able to accomplish this “cherished goal” is not the question. But their return to power largely depends on this “emotional card”. Governance has surely not been up to the mark though PaK does not seem to be lacking in economic development, but linking the elections to resolution of Kashmir problem, I was told has always “overshadowed the issues concerning a commoner”.
About the fairness of elections, the Pakistan Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani had to assure the people from the podium of International Conference organized by Azad Kashmir University that they would be free and fair.
In one sense the scene is no different from this part of Jammu and Kashmir where Indian leaders have umpteenth time held out such assurances. So the credibility crisis of such electoral process have always cast a shadow over them.
Not only the elections, the academia and scholastic community in PaK are more informed about Kashmir problem than the critical issues of that part like economy, health, education and poverty.
The state has an impressive literacy rate touching 70 percent, which is higher than any other major area of Pakistan but converting it into an opportunity of reaching out to much higher level is yet to unwind. Healthcare facilitates in the state have also been shored up during past few years.
The changing face of Muzaffarabad owes its credit to generous aid from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emeritus and Turkey who have pumped huge money to reconstruct the place. A new university campus at a whopping Rs 700 crore is coming with the full funding of Saudi Arabia. A state of art hospital has been built by UAE, and Turkey is building one fourth of the city. This time I could find that there is much more than meets the eye in Muzaffarabad.
(to be continued)
(The author is a senior journalist with THE HINDU. He was recently in Pakistan and PaK)