Insight on Kashmir

Poonch House- a mansion fit for a king


Poonch House- a mansion fit for a king

The façade of Poonch House on Adamjee Road, Rawalpindi. Once this mansion was a rest house for Kashmir’s Maharaja; today it presents a picture of neglect.  — Photos by Tanveer Shahzad The façade of Poonch House on Adamjee Road, Rawalpindi. Once this mansion was a rest house for Kashmir’s Maharaja; today it presents a picture of neglect.

The 150-year-old Poonch House standing in the heart of Saddar on Adam Jee Road, Rawalpindi has served as a rest house for kings and princes, an office and home for prime ministers of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and even housed military courts.

Balconies made out of walnut wood, in traditional Kashmiri style, overlook the main hall. The upper galleries allowed women a view of the performances in the hall below.
Balconies made out of walnut wood, in traditional Kashmiri style, overlook the main hall. The upper galleries allowed women a view of the performances in the hall below.

It was built by Raja Moti Singh, the ruler of Poonch, to serve as a rest house for Rajas of Poonch. Later, in 1914 when Poonch became a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Poonch House became the property of the ruler of Kashmir Maharaja Gulab Singh. After Pakistan came into being, in the 1950s it was the home of AJK’s first prime minister and camp office of AJK president and prime minister.

Windows and skylights built into the wooden ceiling to light the narrow passage below without electricity.
Windows and skylights built into the wooden ceiling to light the narrow passage below without electricity.

“When General Ziaul Haq imposed martial law in 1977, military courts were set up at Poonch House where prominent politicians and political workers were tried,” said former district nazim Raja Tariq Kayani.

The majestic mansion combined the best in European and Indian architecture. It incorporated intricate Kashmiri woodwork with fine masonry.

The outer wall of the women’s chamber. The door leads to the narrow passage which connects the two parts of the building.
The outer wall of the women’s chamber. The door leads to the narrow passage which connects the two parts of the building.

The complex included separate living quarters and courtyards for men and women. The main hall was where the Maharajas held court or hosted grand parties.

The walls were embellished with intricate artwork and beautifully carved wooden balconies. The Maharaja’s own chambers were located on the upper storey along with small rooms for his servants.

A stylised arched window with broken glass panes represents the dilapidated condition of Poonch House today. This was once part of the men’s chamber.
A stylised arched window with broken glass panes represents the dilapidated condition of Poonch House today. This was once part of the men’s chamber.

Once the grounds of Poonch House spread over 37 kanals, but today the area has been reduced to 23 kanals.

In 1983, a 10-storey building was constructed in the lawn of Poonch House and bits of land were sold by the government until Prime Minister Junejo in 1986, imposed a ban on sale of Poonch House land.

A recently renovated room, with whitewashed walls, is being used as the office of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Properties administrator. This area once served as the durbar of the Maharaja of Kashmir.
A recently renovated room, with whitewashed walls, is being used as the office of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Properties administrator. This area once served as the durbar of the Maharaja of Kashmir.

The colourful history and past grandeur of this old building are fast fading. The derelict old building is serving as the Sub-office of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Properties and Azad Jammu and Kashmir Election Commission office.

The main hall where music echoed late into the night, now houses offices where telephone bells ring instead. Whitewash covers the artwork on the walls and cement has been filled in where decorative tiles are missing.

This section of Poonch House, which today serves as AJK Election Commission Office, once housed the military courts set up by Ziaul Haq. Here a number of politicians and political workers were tried.
This section of Poonch House, which today serves as AJK Election Commission Office, once housed the military courts set up by Ziaul Haq. Here a number of politicians and political workers were tried.

Masroor Ahmed, administrator AJK Properties Sub-office, told Dawn that Rs0.5 million have been allocated by the government for restoration of the exterior of Poonch House and work will begin at the end of the month. (The article was first published here in daily Dawn.)


Media war in Kashmir

Saudi clerics and Pakistani news anchors are being beamed direct to Kashmiri homes, and are stoking the fires of ‘azadi’. Over 50 Saudi and Pakistani channels, including Zakir Naik’s banned Peace TV preaching Salafist Islam, and others indulging in anti India propaganda are running without necessary clearances via private cable networks in Kashmir. All this is happening under the nose of the PDP-BJP government, which even subscribes to these cable services in some of its offices and buildings.

Although satellite television service providers like Tata Sky, Airtel digital TV and Dish TV, are available in Kashmir, most people subscribe to private cable. A cable operator, who did not want to be named, said that there are over 50,000 private cable connections in Srinagar alone, and only because these broadcast Pakistani and Saudi channels.

Besides Naik’s Peace TV Urdu and English channels, private operators air Saudi and Pakistani channels like Saudi Sunnah, Saudi Quran, Al Arabia, Paigham, Hidayat, Noor, Madani, Sehar, Karbala, Hadi, Sehar, Ary QTV , Bethat, Ahlibat, Message, Falak, Geo News, Ary News, Dawn News, and many others, which cannot be accessed through satellite television service providers. None of these channels is permitted to air in the rest of the country by the I&B ministry .

“No cable operator, any where in the country, including in Jammu & Kashmir, can run any channel other than the ones approved by the Union I&B ministry. If it is not in the permitted list of channels on the ministry website, it is being illegally broadcast. Even if it is a free-to-air channel, a private cable operator must get approval from the ministry,” director of broadcasting, I&B ministry, Amit Katoch, told TOI. He asked TOI to send a written complaint so that the ministry could verify and take appropriate action.

Some of the Saudi channels broadcast the same kind of rigid, fundamentalist and patriarchal interpretations of Islam and Sharia that invited a government ban on Peace TV .Wahhabi clerics on these channels often sermonise that women should surrender before their husbands and obey their commands completely.

For example, a woman should not step out of the house without the permission of her husband, a cleric preached on Saudi Sunnah.

Most Pakistani news channels refer to the terrorists of Hizbul Mujahideen, Lashkare-Taiba and other groups as “martyrs” and counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir as “human rights violations”.

People in Kashmir have historically preferred Pakistani news and drama. “Love for all things Pakistan has a political history but love for Saudi religious channels developed in the ’90s,” said Muzaffar, a Srinagar businessman, whose employees are avid watchers of Saudi Sunnah channel.

Saudi channels are one of the biggest media of propounding the Salafist version of Islam in the Valley , Shahid, an Islamic scholar in Anantnag, said. “It is radicalising youth and adding fuel to the violent separatist movement that is being mobilised by invoking Islam. Wahhabism has stoked Islamist extremism and terrorism across the world.” However, a police officer said there was a wide range of religious channels, including those that preach moderate Islam.

Amjad Noor, the owner of Site Entertainment Network (SEN)-the biggest local cable network in Srinagar which has been running for the last 20 years and is subscribed by some government offices, said all Saudi and Pakistani channels were “free-to-air” and “legal” because Jammu & Kashmir has its “own constitution under Article 370 and a separate law, Ranbir Penal Code”.

“We have been beaming these channels ever since these were launched because Kashmir is a religious place. We also broadcast Hindu religious channels even though there are hardly any Hindus living in Kashmir. Also, these channels are running not just in Kashmir but in Jammu via other cable operators,” Noor said.

J&K home secretary R K Goyal was unavailable for a comment even after repeated phone calls to him. Another top government official in Kashmir admitted the channels were running illegally. “We have started the process to check how this is happening. Television is a problem here,” he said.

Last year, following massive violence in the valley, the J&K government, under the Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995, had asked cable TV operators to stop broadcasting five Indian news satellite channels, KBC, Gulistan, Munsiff, JK Channel and Insaaf, claiming that their daily Kashmir exclusive programmes had provoked youth into mob violence and stone-pelting.

“These are not Saudi or Pakistani but Indian channels. Yet, they show mostly anti-India propaganda news in favour of separatists and against J&K police and the government,” a police officer said. Source: Times of India

PaK: Ethnicity, Democracy and Islam

(An excerpt from article “PaK: Ethnicity, Democracy and Islam” taken from book titled “Of Occupation and Resistance, Writings from Kashmir) By Mazhar Iqbal//

The successive governments in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir (PaK), have cleverly manipulated the media to publicise stories of good governance, democratic success and people’s unflinching allegiance to a particular branch of Islamic faith. But the fundamental issues related to Pakistan’s xenophobic and authoritarian attempts at controlling people’s political and civil rights, and the weaknesses of a socio-political system which is based on religious dogma have never been openly addressed.

There are a number of stories, myths and legendary statements about ethnic diversity, religious harmony, ideal political and social situations, democratic successes and a peaceful and harmonious balance of power between the ruled and the ruler in PaK. It is stated that PaK is not officially administered by Pakistan. But in reality, both territories of PaK, the Gilgit-Baltistan region and the areas between the districts of Neelum and Bhimber, are officially, administratively and manipulatively controlled by Pakistan. Though they are not formally regarded as being part of Pakistani territory, and the political, judicial and administrative systems adopted by these territories are labelled as being independent and separate from other federating units of Pakistan, the strategic influence of the federal Pakistani government is evident everywhere in the affairs of the state.

Prior to August 2000, all Pakistani provinces were made up of administrative units called divisions, and these were further subdivided into districts as the fourth level of government. In August 2000, divisions were abolished as an administrative tier, and the provinces are now directly divided into districts. But in PaK, in order to ensure stricter control, the second tier of government is formed by just two administrative divisions with a third tier of districts.

According to the 1998 census, the population of only one district of Pakistan (Lahore) was 6,318,745. Interestingly, the population of the whole of PaK (excluding Gilgit-Baltistan) in 2008 was 4,567,982 (estimated) and there were 10 district governments to control this population. If area is the main consideration for administrative control then the total land area of districts like Chaghi, Kharan and Khuzdar in Baluchistan is three times larger than all 10 districts in PaK. So why is Chaghi, measuring more than 50,000 kilometres, not further subdivided into 10 or 12 districts? The reason is obvious: The population density in Chaghi is only 4 people per kilometre.

In fact, the federal government not only exercises significant control over the structure of government, and the appointment of judges, top bureaucrats and other functionaries, but also effectively creates sectarian, political and ethnic differences – and it is all done under a legal cover. The most influential bodies like the Kashmir Council and the Gilgit-Baltistan Council are composed of both federal officials and members of the local assemblies and headed by the prime minister of Pakistan.

There is widespread misconception that the part of Jammu and Kashmir state, which is under the control of Pakistan, is now free and liberated from ‘foreign’ rule. This claim is supported by references to the Interim Constitution Act of 1974 (the document in accordance with which PaK is governed), and the arrangements made under this legal framework. One often hears the boast that the Interim Constitution gives wide-ranging powers to the people of this region. But in reality, the federal government of Pakistan is empowered to supersede laws passed by the assemblies of these areas and its decisions are not subject to judicial review, even by the superior courts of the country.

This Act has been strongly rejected by Kashmiri leaders in a recent meeting with Pakistan’s minister of Kashmir affairs in Islamabad. This, even though all those who attended that meeting were handpicked and already in the good books of Islamabad. They declared that the Act, in its present shape, was not acceptable to them.

Pakistan has always boasted about the success of its democratic institutions, the efficacy of its administrative system and the continuity of democratic governments in PaK. Yet, the picture on the ground shows the colours to be less bright than they seem from a distance, and the democratic face reveals itself as one that is painted.v

Walking around the Famed Meadows of Sonamarg & Thajiwas Glacier

A boy who travels

The heart was finally calm after the locals had given fate a twist by deciding to make me stay in their home. I was in Sitkari village (pronounced Sitkadi) and an entire gamut of emotions was going through my head. Kids were running around causing much needed happiness while my brain was still in shock after the many rides in the scare of travel during curfew time in Kashmir.

DSC_9456 A bird’e eye view of Sonamarg as I climbed up to the first mountain. Don’t really have words to explain the calm I felt at that moment.

The ladies of the house had given me cup-fuls of chai and I had drank them with morsels of chapatis. Sindh river flowed past the houses of the village, it was a pristine atmosphere. Men went out to pray in the nearby mosque and the sound of azaan reverberated in the Kashmir valley…

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Empowering women in traditional Kashmiri culture

A narrow path winds through Kashmir’s Valley of Pearls (a name given to scenic Rawalakot valley) towards 13 tin-roofed shops hidden in a rickety row, a women-only market that doubles as a space for those seeking help against the violence of Pakistan’s patriarchy.

The market, in a small village outside the main city of Rawalakot in a conservative corner of Azad Kashmir, began simply as a place run by women for women.

Embroidery shop Rawalakot azad kashmir

There they could buy and sell sewing supplies, visit clothing boutiques or train as beauticians — a welcome outlet for many struggling with the restraints on women in the deeply traditional Muslim area.

Social worker Nusrat Yousuf, who works with victims of domestic violence through the non-governmental organisation (NGO) she heads, helped persuade a generous landlord to provide the land to set up the market in 2011.

Women in the area, she says, are forbidden by their families to work in the main markets in the area’s towns and cities.

“They become frustrated when they can’t get jobs and spend their lives at home,” the 48-year-old widow tells AFP.

The market, from which men were at first banned, provided a way around conservative beliefs, making women “economically strong”.

Yousuf describes it as a place “where they can visit and freely discuss all their issues — such as childbirth, menstruation, cooking, and domestic issues, and we find solutions”.

Women discuss issues with NGO head Nusrat Yousuf in women's market Rawalakot.jpg

That increasingly includes how to help divorced women and victims of domestic violence lodge complaints with police and fight their cases in the courts.

Women have battled for their rights for decades in Pakistan. Hundreds are murdered each year — usually by male relatives — in so-called “honour killings” and disfiguring acid attacks are still common.

Rights groups and politicians have for years called for tougher laws to tackle perpetrators of violence against women in Pakistan.

“Police were not arresting an influential man who cut off the nose of his wife three months ago,” she says, describing just one of the cases she has handled from her office in the market.

“She approached us, and our NGO staged a protest against police,” Yousuf explains, adding that she then met with police officials and lodged a complaint. “Now the culprit is in police custody. We have hired a female lawyer to fight the case,” she says.

Razia Bibi, a 35-year-old mother of two whose husband divorced her five months ago, described how Yousuf is helping her navigate the courts to seek alimony from her children’s father.

“I am hopeful that the verdict will be in my favour,” she says.

Yousuf says her NGO, the Pearl Rural Support Programme, which brings together women’s organisations in seven local villages, is also lobbying the government for a separate desk for women at every police station, where they can speak to a female officer “more comfortably”.

Yousuf says that, originally, men were banned from entering the market. Now they can enter — but only in the company of a woman.

The market has made life easier, says customer Ayesha Bibi. “We had to travel to the main markets for such things in the past, and we needed the company of a male family member to go there,” she explains.

It is also providing economic opportunity for those such as computer graduate Sara Rasheed, whose family refused her permission to work in any area dominated by men.

She convinced them to allow her to open a beauty parlour and a garment shop in the market, she says. “I am earning a good income and saving lots of money for my future and family,” she adds proudly.

Khurshid Begum, a 42-year-old widow and mother of four, opened a tailor’s shop and teaches sewing to young girls there.

“My business has flourished… My income has increased,” she says.

“We are trying to make more and more women skillful in future,” Yousuf says. “I am very happy that I am achieving my goal.”
The article was first published here in daily Dawn.

Gilgit-Baltistan: NOCs for tourists

The Legislative Assembly of Gilgit Baltistan have strongly opposed the Pakistan government’s decision to introduce NOCs for foreign tourists to Gilgit Baltistan.   Pakistan government has barred foreign tourists from visiting the disputed region of Gilgit-Baltistan without obtaining the no-objection certificate from the Interior Ministry.

According to the local media that the Interior Ministry had imposed a ban on visits of foreign tourists who don’t carry NOC with them at the time of visit.

The Gilgit-Baltistan government recently received a letter from the ministry saying that foreigners were frequently visiting Gilgit-Baltistan without obtaining an NOC or security clearance from the ministry, which is against the rules.

The letter asks the authorities concerned to take concrete measures to curb the practice.

The Pakistan Association of Tour Operators (PATO) has opposed the government move and said the order was tantamount to the “economic murder” of GB.

Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed area in Pakistan’s northernmost administrative territory that borders the disputed Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Recently, Pakistan has announced its intention to declare the region as its fifth province.

However, India flatly rejected this move claiming that Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of its territory.

Internet Seige in Kashmir

Kashmir: The Poetry of Nature

e-curfew in an electronic zoo
Internet had become backbone of the modern economy. From social networking sites to online shopping, from banking to online ticket booking and from institutional to industrial use, internet had been in wide use to reach remotest of the places. India had started to fill the digital gap by introducing Digital India Programme, promising its citizens to provide full access to high speed internet to promote micro as well macro scale business units. The introduction of 4G internet facility attracted many small scale business entrepreneurs to bridge the gap between its customers and service providers remotely. Promising to go cashless, Indian economy tried to provide remote access by providing facilities like POS (point of sale) Digital Wallets, Net Banking etc introducing a new mode of financial inclusion; in other words Digital Financial Inclusion. Internet had shortened the distances by widening the horizons. One cannot think of…

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Saved By Words


Before I started studying my family’s genealogy, I had very little ability to retain the dates of important events in United States history. Then, once it became personal, I began to connect particular relatives with particular larger events. A depression explained one family’s relocation. The Chicago fire dislocated a great-grandfather. History came alive for me.

Right now the same thing is happening to me because of this blog and the readers and writers I have connected with. One wrote about the impact of the sudden travel ban by our new President. Another is being affected by the government in The Philippines. I correspond with a graduate student in Turkey and avoid any political discussion lest I cause her trouble.

But the turmoil I was completely ignorant about is in the Indian province of Kashmir. I have been following a thoughtful Muslim young man from there who posts beliefs of Islam…

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India bans social media in Kashmir

Authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir have banned Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp after the Indian government said social media services were “being misused by anti-national and anti-social elements”. It is the first time the government has taken such a step, although it regularly blocks mobile internet signal in the Kashmir Valley.

Internet services were cut 28 times over the past five years, and in 2016 the Indian government blocked internet signal for five months. Wednesday’s block, a government order said was “in the interest of maintenance of public order”.

“The government hereby directs all internet service providers that any message … through the following social networking sites shall not be transmitted in Kashmir Valley with immediate effect for a period of one month or till further orders, whichever is earlier,” the order read.

The sites and apps which will be inaccessible also include Wechat; QQ; Qzone; Google Plus; Skype; Line; Pinterest; Snapchat; Youtube; Vine and Flickr. “[The ban] is to control the political space. The government is trying to control things in a military way which is not going to help,” Gull Mohammad Wani, a professor and political analyst, told the media. “The government is claiming it has taken this step to calm the situation down. In the absence of social media, rumours can be more dangerous as we have seen in past.”

Hundreds of student protesters have taken to the streets in recent weeks, many chanting anti-India slogans and throwing rocks at police. The students were angered by a raid earlier this month on a college in the southern district of Pulwama, in which police tried to detain the alleged ringleaders of earlier protests.

Authorities claim social media sites are being used to to rally support against the Indian occupation in Kashmir. Locals, including students, and businesses have been heavily affected by the block. “It [the internet block] adds insult to injury,” a university student told reporters.

“It gives birth to some kind of resentment inside, that we’re being subjected to continuous pressure and things that we don’t deserve.” Earlier this week, the leader of Jammu and Kashmir, the northern state that administers the area, held talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the developing crisis.

Local rebel leaders had called for a boycott of the vote, which was held to fill a vacant seat after a member of parliament resigned to protest against the killing of civilians during a sweeping security crackdown last year.

Voter turnout was 6.5 percent in the by-election, 26 percent lower than in the last elections held in 2014 and the lowest ever participation recorded in any election in the disputed territory, according to Shantmanu, the state’s chief electoral officer.

“Eighty-five percent of my work depends on the internet,” Taha Mughal, an architect, said. “So all I’ve been doing is practically moving from one place to another on foot – the old-fashioned way – to do the 15 percent. It’s like I’m in the 1930s.”
Kashmir witnessed deadly protests after a well-known separatist commander Burhan Wani was killed last year. The violence has killed at least 84 civilians and wounded more than 12,000 civilians and security force personnel.

Neighbours India and Pakistan claim divided Kashmir in full, but govern separate parts. Two of the three wars they have fought since independence from Britain in 1947 have been over Kashmir.

Last September, tension escalated as armed men killed 19 Indian soldiers at an army camp in Kashmir, an attack India blamed on Pakistan-based fighters.India accuses Pakistan of backing separatist fighters in the Himalayan region, a charge Pakistan denies.
The article was first published here in

Women Reporting the Kashmir Conflict


Baseera Rafiqi

Reporting from within a conflict zone requires an extra amount of effort and understanding to ensure that news is set in a proper context and perspective, to avoid misinformation and spreading rumours.

The two-decade long conflict in the Indian administered region of Kashmir has an impact on everything for people living there, from education to general lifestyle, and the field of journalism is no exception.

Over the years, more women have begun to register their presence in the field of journalism for a number of

reasons, and Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF) spoke to some of these journalists to explore how and why they have taken up this work, and the challenges they face.

Afsana Bhat has been reporting in Kashmir for around 15 years, and believes it has helped her to better understand general issues and to engage socially.

“Reporting helped me to know about many things…

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