Kashmiri journalist-activist Tanveer Ahmed was arrested from Dadyaal, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) by Pakistani security forces on August 21, 2020 for taking down the Pakistani flag from Maqbool Bhat Square. In this interview with Vivek Sinha, Editor-in-Chief News Intervention, Tanveer Ahmed describes why he had to endure psychological and physical torture by the Pakistanis, and how his arrest has changed the political landscape of Kashmir.
Vivek Sinha: You were arrested in August 2020 for taking down the flag of a foreign country (Pakistan) from Dadyaal public square. In the video (which went viral across social media platforms) it can be seen that you did not insult the Pakistani flag rather you accorded due respect to it. Why were you arrested, despite raising genuine concerns of Kashmiris?
Tanveer Ahmed: I was arrested because I was essentially challenging Pakistan’s hegemony over this territory. Pakistan has always wanted the people of this territory to concentrate on the human rights violations occurring in the Indian controlled Valley of Kashmir, for a variety of reasons including maintaining a perception that it was the sole political entity in the world that remained in ‘selfless solidarity’ with the people of ‘Kashmir’. Raising questions about Pakistan’s role in Jammu Kashmir & Allied areas (JKA) is something that the Pakistanis have never been prepared for, let alone acknowledge. Come the 14th of August 2020, the Pakistani State had been particularly aggressive (compared to previous years) in having its flag hoisted in various parts of the territory, locally described as AJK. It even had a massive Pakistani flag draped over the Supreme Court in Muzaffarabad, which initially dwarfed the AJK flag on the 13th of August and then made the latter totally disappear on the 14th.
In Dadyaal, this was a public square dedicated to Maqbool Bhat (preeminent independence icon popular in both AJK and the Valley of Kashmir) and Pakistan had conducted their ‘fair share’ of persecution of this individual, including charging him as an ‘enemy agent’. By hoisting their flag on this square, the Pakistanis were essentially giving the message that AJK was their sovereign territory. By taking down the Pakistani flag, their ego was jolted and deflated, hence my violent arrest.
Vivek Sinha: After your arrest, why did you resort to hunger strike within the Mirpur Central Jail?
Tanveer Ahmed: I had to resort to a series of hunger strikes (13 in total), initially for 52 hours at the public square in Dadyaal, to get our local administration to understand the sensitivity of Pakistan’s aggression. Then a further 12 in custody which were conducted periodically, and gradually increased in length from 60 hours to 152 hours. The purpose was two-fold: One to alert our people (here and in the diaspora) that the Pakistanis were controlling the judicial process to prevent bail and then depriving me of the right to a fair trial. Secondly, to send a message to the rest of the world and particularly the UK government (which we feel had unnecessarily created this political/territorial conflict in 1947) and thus were responsible for inflating Pakistan’s ego, which in turn was the reason why I was being persecuted. As our struggle for rights is strictly peaceful, hunger strikes are a major form of resistance which may not stir the Pakistanis into reflection but they should stir the UK government into reflecting on this dilemma they created, whereby the Pakistanis through a monopoly on sheer force have been given carte blanche to do whatever they want to keep this territory (and Gilgit-Baltistan) under their control.
The UK government should also reflect on the Indian freedom struggle which was led by M. K. Gandhi, who used hunger strikes as his major weapon of resistance against an almost identical adversary, certainly in terms of a monopoly on sheer force.
Vivek Sinha: What atrocities did you endure in this infamous ‘flag case’?
Tanveer Ahmed: I was punched, thrashed and dragged from the scene (at Maqbool Bhat Shaheed Square in Dadyaal) and continued to be beaten en route to the police station. This violence was intensified at the police station for a further 30 minutes or so. My right to bail and a fair trial being denied have already been mentioned. While in custody, the Pakistani clandestine agencies tried to exert pressure on my family to convince me to agree to leave this territory. When that failed they tried to get me to apologise. When that failed too, they got someone to break and enter my house to try and create a sense of siege in my family.
In jail, I didn’t have access to appropriate healthcare (although this is something that all prisoners suffer from and indeed most of the public outside jail in AJK also suffer from). In jail, I had to sleep under the glare of lights which I was never accustomed to for such a prolonged period of time, This affected me immensely and it took me a couple of months, after release on bail from jail, to recover my senses. After conducting a series of hunger strikes, various requests to be hospitalised were repeatedly denied and on the couple of occasions when I was taken to the hospital while on hunger strike, it was a hurried affair without any consideration for what I was going through. On one of these occasions, I was taken to the hospital and brought back without even being checked!
On the 3rd and final occasion that I was taken to hospital after my 13th and final hunger strike of 152 hours, I was given very heavy medication (and I have hardly ever taken any kind of medication throughout my life) and also injected. After a few days, when I stopped taking the medication I gradually became semi-paralysed. I couldn’t move my limbs freely, there was constant froth in my mouth and I struggled to even speak. That, along with being permanently handcuffed to a hospital bed was perhaps the biggest test of my endurance. It became so painful remaining in hospital that I preferred to return to prison, where at least I wouldn’t be permanently shackled to a bed.
The following two weeks were painful for me and in this semi-paralysed condition I was forced to appear at my trial and sentenced, despite informing my lawyer that I didn’t have confidence in the judge during my trial. It later became apparent that this judge (from a refugee quota of those who had migrated from the Kashmir Valley and were living in Pakistan, not AJK) was specifically brought in to hear my case. The original judge had been transferred, and a few days after my trial had ended this judge was also transferred once again. It should be pointed out that Pakistan’s clandestine agencies do not trust local judges when ‘push comes to shove’ and for such matters prefer to use judges who they can influence or control relatively easily, hence the placement of a judge from the refugee quota living in Pakistan. It was even more painful to learn — in the condition that I was in — that my bail had been rejected once again (the 5th time) when my case went to appeal at the Sessions Court, despite a doctor’s reference.
Even when I finally obtained bail from the High Court (currently my appeal against my sentence is at this court) the Pakistani clandestine agencies tried their utmost to prevent my release. They succeeded in delaying it for a few days and then when I was released, they tried to get the Supreme Court (through using the Dadyaal Municipality as a proxy) to cancel my bail.
In summary, the Pakistani State tried all foul means to disgrace and force me to ‘tow their line’. They tried their utmost to recover their imposed perception as ‘all powerful’ on the one hand and benevolent to the cause of justice on the other. I endured all the above and could have easily lost my life just for the sake of a neighbouring country’s self-serving presence in this territory. No country on earth — that all depend on the people they govern for their sustenance — should be afforded such liberty. They have to be made accountable by those very people.
Vivek Sinha: There were widespread protests and demonstrations across POK demanding your release. Did the news of massive support by locals reach you while you were in jail? If yes, then please share your thoughts /emotions about those Kashmiri brethren who came out in large numbers to express solidarity with you.
Tanveer Ahmed: Yes, various people coming to meet me in jail did brief me on what was happening outside and I remained reasonably abreast of developments. I felt this to be the plus side of the equation. For all that I endured in question 3 above, the dividends were a sharp increase in awareness and mobilisation of our people. Even in jail, the jail administration as well as fellow inmates were aware of the situation outside and this effectively conferred celebrity status on me. I was well looked after by all according to the extent of everybody’s limited capacities.
This emboldened me further and gave me a heightened sense of responsibility to my people; who had devoted their time, energy and resources to something of significant public interest. It made me think of all those weaknesses and frailties that handicap our freedom struggle against occupation in general and in normal circumstances. This flag case had not only exposed Pakistan’s intentions (to submerge this territory into Pakistan’s federation), it had also instigated a surge of interest and introspection in our people. It made them understand. I feel that we can overcome all those vulnerabilities that have always tended to drag us deeper into the quagmire we have found ourselves in.
In summary, I felt it all vindicated my action of August the 21st, 2020 and created a reference for us to progress further in our struggle for collective rights. This was not stage managed, this was spontaneous and a clear slap in the face for the occupier. The Pakistani State had committed a faux pas by trying to persecute me. It had woken many of our people from slumber. Pakistan’s actions had derived the opposite of what it intended and it was clear for the world to see. The cat had finally been ‘belled’!
Vivek Sinha: How do you look at nationalism amongst locals in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir? Do you see a surge in nationalist feelings amongst youngsters and youth of POK?
Tanveer Ahmed: Nationalism has gradually emerged since at least the mid 1950s in what you describe as POK and I describe as AJK (what you use is also correct and the letter A in AJK is suspect for very obvious reasons but we are using it to bring it into public debate and enforce the freedom that Pakistan pretends that we have), ever since people started suspecting that the UN mechanism was simply a cover and a ruse to solidify India and Pakistan’s presence in JKA.
It’s just that our people have had trouble aligning their self interest with public interest for the past so many decades. We have always been our own worst enemy and have always naively thought geopolitics is a benign framework; where supposedly civilised countries will reprimand supposedly less civilised countries and come to the rescue of the enslaved masses. We have devoted all our energies to sharing our problems with the world and expecting them to listen and act accordingly. We have not worked on creating solutions for ourselves and giving an opportunity to our neighbours and the rest of the world to examine the practicality of those solutions. We have also tended to support one neighbour against the other, imagining that this will bring us deliverance from our plight. To date, we have not acted democratically to enforce a democratic outcome and have not acted legally to enforce a legal outcome. Both of which will assist us more than anything else to realise our goals.
There has been a surge in nationalist feelings amongst the youth here particularly since the widespread availability of social media platforms. This has in large part covered for the absence of such education in schools and in traditional media (both very closely monitored and indoctrinated with the Pakistani narrative). In the past there have also been surges when various student nationalist outfits dominated college and university campuses throughout AJK, until student unions were banned in 1994. However, the current social media infused surge is more sustained and is more widespread than just among the youth. Many traditional ‘ilhaqis’ (those favouring accession to Pakistan) have also become despondent with Pakistan for a number of reasons. The Pakistani State’s own economic and diplomatic woes for example are corresponded with Pakistan’s manner of looting resources from Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK without permission or procedure and its inability to do anything for the Valley of Kashmir. Most people are now convinced that both India and Pakistan are in tacit agreement to submerge their respectively controlled parts of JKA into their own federations. They are livid with Pakistan for selling them the ‘freedom struggle story’ of the Kashmir Valley while looting them and depriving them of rights, only to capitulate for their own survival.
Vivek Sinha: Do you have a strategy to organize the local POK youth in a political set up or you would like to continue your struggle as a journalist/researcher?
Tanveer Ahmed: I would say I’ve always been an action oriented journalist cum public policy researcher ever since I arrived back in my motherland in 2005. Particularly, given the sequence of activities that I have conducted especially since 2009, when I was able to fulfill the original purpose of coming here in 2005 viz. to re-unite with my Naani (maternal grandmother) with her siblings living on the Indian controlled side of JKA.
Just to give you a snapshot of this sequence:
1) Pilot study conducting a series of civil society forums throughout most urban areas of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan from 2009 to 2012.
2) Conducting a representative public opinion survey of the population of AJK — canvassing at random 10,000 people with 10 questions — between 2011 and 2016.
3) Creating an internal political process in AJK to derive political consensus in converting public opinion into public policy, from 2017 onwards…
4) The final leg of the sequence will be constitutional changes and legislation driven by a Public Assembly, which may or may not include the current supposedly legislative assembly in Muzaffarabad, largely depending on how it interacts with the Public Assembly.
In summary, I have adopted a sequential strategy since 2009 and aim to use the vehicle of the Public Assembly to create a genuinely representative political structure in AJK. I am using whatever experience and knowledge I have derived from journalism and research to convene that Public Assembly.
Vivek Sinha: Do you see any impact of Taliban rule in Afghanistan over Jammu & Kashmir?
Tanveer Ahmed: I sincerely hope not and not just because I am committed to a strictly peaceful struggle. Our region is far more strategic — for its high sloped water resources and geographical location — than Afghanistan. We have a much higher level of diversity in population on all counts viz. religion, region, language, race, culture etc. and have a much larger sustained and diversified military presence here. Embroiling ourselves in violence will not clarify military superiority of any one party, it will exacerbate conflict and make allegiances even more ambiguous than they are. Thankfully, most people here are not predisposed to violence and most do not share the Taliban’s version of Islam or governance.
Vivek Sinha: You had conducted a detailed survey amongst locals which was promptly banned by the local POK govt. Please share the findings of this survey/report?
Tanveer Ahmed: I published a 20 page summary of the public opinion survey in July 2017 and haven’t yet published the lengthier 200 page academic version of the report for a number of reasons. They will be elaborated on when the detailed report will be published. Suffice to say at this stage that since the survey was not an end in itself, it requires the people to perform a set of actions in line with the findings before the lengthier version is published. Not least to preempt the roving clandestine agencies of the Pakistani State, which are hell bent on diverting public opinion in their own favour, by hook or crook.
Security/Enduring National Question:In short, an overwhelming majority wanted the State of JKA to be reunited and most people (almost 73%) preferred the Kashmiri political identity compared to Pakistani or Indian. If I had framed the question in a more obvious manner the Pakistani agencies would have been even more alarmed than they were.
Governance: The overwhelming majority of people also considered the system of governance here a variation of bad and weak and felt the need for accountability.
Economy:On the economy answers were more varied but people veered towards the private sector and felt opening routes within and beyond the divided State as most preferred policy changes required.
Culture: Finally, on the key question of whether Muslims can co-exist with non Muslims the majority were in favour, while an overwhelming majority believed in equal rights for all citizens.
Note, there is a gap between what people believe in as an opinion and what they do in practice. Bridging that gap is important for any serious reformer of society. Overall, good intent to fulfill the criteria of co-existing with the world does exist here but it needs to be more visible in the collective actions of society. It will then become easier to implement as public policy. It was clear after publishing the summary report that our people were not yet ready to transcend the existing status quo. They needed a bit more time to adapt. Positive political changes are seldom achieved instantly or overnight, progressing in gradual phases is more appropriate. Particularly, in this heavily contested region and also given its history.
Vivek Sinha: Do you think CPEC and its projects will bring development in Kashmir/ Gilgit-Baltistan?
Tanveer Ahmed: It is unlikely. The opportunity cost for whatever development will take place maybe far too great for the local inhabitants. Not least because it is not inclusive or even participatory. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK have not been consulted by either China or Pakistan.
The Chinese describe themselves as the people’s republic and whether or not the people of China consider themselves owners of China is a matter for Chinese people to decide but it is certain that China has not given an ounce of importance to the people of AJK or Gilgit-Baltistan.
The Pakistanis say they separated from a Hindu majority India in 1947 because they felt that they would be marginalised and ignored. They are doing precisely what they supposedly feared to the people of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Given the immense strategic value of Gilgit-Baltistan and JKA as a whole, the current non-inclusive manner in which CPEC is developing will most certainly give ideas and inspiration to the Americans to counter or at least slow down China’s advance. What is also likely is that on top of an Indo-Pak territorial conflict we may have to factor in an US-China territorial conflict too.
The USA, China and even India might be able to ride out whatever repercussions may occur given their large economies but Pakistan will be crushed under the weight of the loans it has taken from China and JKA’s miseries will also intensify.
This is an opportune time to reopen the neutrality debate aka Switzerland. It was a similar scenario albeit different era and geography that initiated Switzerland’s neutrality in 1515. I wrote a declaration of neutrality while in Mirpur Central Jail in October 2020.