Azad Kashmir- the area controlled by Pakistan of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir- is the smallest part of the state as compared to Gilgit-Baltistan (Pakistan) and Jammu & Kashmir (India). Yet, the extent of multiplicity in religious, political and socio-cultural factors is enormous. Particularly, various contradictory undertones of social, political and religious systems run parallel in the tiny state of Azad Kashmir.
In recent years, people have been struggling to achieve a greater blend of pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-cultural identities. However, all of these underlying movements have faced a resistance stemming from fear of intimidation and a sense of alienation from various sides. For instance, political identity in Azad Kashmir was once considered an offshoot of tribal identity. It is not true now in most parts of the area. People do not necessarily observe a strict political affiliation and change their backing of political parties as and when they feel comfortable with it.
The motives behind such change of mind-set are various. A change in people’s economic conditions have also impacted the political and social spectrum. Agriculture based economy of Azad Kashmir has shifted towards a services and remittances- based economy- the education sector being a major employment service sector. The 2012-13 labour force survey of Pakistan suggested that informal services sector accounts for about three-fourth (73.5%) of non-agricultural employment and is currently a main source of income generation in Azad Kashmir.
The statistics provided by the government also tally the literacy rate figures on advancement of education compiled by private organisations. For example, the data by Alif Alan indicated that in 2015 all districts in Azad Kashmir had a high education (literacy) score between 70 and 79. Therefore, the economic gains associated with a highly influential agriculture-based tribal, feudal, exploitative and abusive system have now been surpassed by an increased dependency on the role of personal income generation opportunities, beurocratic hurdles, consumption based economic activity and foreign remittances of thousands of local people employed abroad.
Political landscape is messed up with a plethora of various pressure groups which act as branches of mainstream political parties of Pakistan. They tend to seek advice, guideline and cooperation from their political masters in Pakistan. None of the major political forces in Azad Kashmir which is allowed to participate in elections can be identified as an independent political party that has its roots in the area. The worst kind of social, political and state resistance is faced by those groups who identify themselves as pro-independence.
Big rallies of Pakistan’s mainstream political parties are a common spectacle. Although, a political struggle blended with a militant approach based on religious identity was the prime force behind the creation of the tiny state of Azad Kashmir, the religion was not as forceful in the area in the past as is now. However, the dark side of such advancement of religion is the propagation of an environment of increased intolerance.
Once identified as a highly harmonious population of followers of Shia and Sunni faiths, the whole region of Azad Kashmir is now a hotchpotch of various offshoots of Islamic identity. However, none of the followers of various sects of Islam can boast now to be in identical ethos of harmony and tolerance.
Similarly, social trends, traditions and rivalries associated with tribal and ethnic identities have also been challenged by a broader and inclusive approach adopted by an aspiring younger generation.
Traditionally, the marriage was preferred within the caste in Azad Kashmir, though, in recent years, a rise in marriages between people of different castes and tribes has been witnessed. Similarly, the socialisation trends in Azad Kashmir four decades ago were influenced by an agriculture and labour-based economy. A culture of manual labour where people would work in farmland, small flour-mills, bakeries etc. is vanishing now.
People tended to interact with each other in a relax environment which was free from coercion and fear of persecution. Despite of a fact that the cultural norms were dependent on local, tribal and ethnic identities, the only reason to interact with each other was a sense of locality and similarity. There is no more such social harmony and tolerance in the society.
In the age of social media, private education and the display of personal affiliations or belongings, people tend to interact on basis of religious, political, tribal and ethnic identities. Most features of social organisation have seen a vivid change in the name of kinship, family, caste, wealth and educational attainments. Various tribes are further grouped into smaller clans.