Srinagar – Four boys, seated on empty nylon cement bags, battle for the most valuable point of carrom in a by-lane at Razaikadal area of old Srinagar, the summer capital of India-administered Kashmir. The lane leads to the area’s main road where Indian paramilitary troops, deployed in large numbers, patrol the side streets.
Atthar Pandit, 20, kicks off the game with a strike that scatters white and black pieces assembled in the centre of the carrom-board. Seconds later, he breaks the silence.
“The carrom queen is like Kashmir. Isn’t that true? Aren’t we aiming at the queen the way India and Pakistan are after Kashmir?” he asked.
Some of the boys nod their heads in agreement.
Pandit, a school dropout, said that he developed an interest in the Kashmir conflict because of the fifty-minute speech delivered by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September earlier this year.
“I’m his fan now,” Pandit acclaims.
Pandit was offering Namaz-e-Isha, the last prayer of the day, when his family switched on their TV to watch how Khan would make the international community aware about Kashmir's plight following the Government of India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had granted a degree of autonomy to the disputed Himalayan territory, on August 5.
“I left prayers midway to see whether or not Imran Khan would be able to deliver up to our expectations,” Pandit continued. “I, as a semi-literate person, understood the crux of his speech. It was brilliant. It looked like he had done his homework very well, unlike previous prime ministers,” he said.
“He spoke his heart out,” Pandit added.
On September 27, the day Imran Khan delivered his speech at the UNGA – most of which focused on Kashmir – the Indian side of the disputed territory rattled with deafening sounds of firecrackers and roared with the slogans: “Long Live Pakistan, Kashmir Shall Become Pakistan, We Want Freedom and Our Brother Imran Khan.”
People, especially in old Srinagar, took out rallies at night and set off firecrackers. Kashmir's anguished citizens – who at the time already been under strict curfew for over a month then, which persists into its fourth month – were happy with the way Khan highlighted the Kashmir issue at United Nations.
“Every time Imran completed a part of his speech, I clapped so hard that my hands turned red,” another young man among the audience, who identified himself as Faiq Fayaz said while interrupting the conversation.
“It was a referendum in the form of night rallies and protests, and firecrackers,” he told TRT World.
Sheeraz Mir, a University professor of history, said that Imran Khan's popularity had increased drastically following his promise to 220 million Pakistanis that he would become the representative of 8 million Kashmiris at global platforms.
“People were waiting for his speech for over a month,” Mir said, “People who missed the live speech somehow were desperately looking for the downloaded copies which travelled in laptops and mobile phones of people coming from different parts of India.”
Sheeraz attributes the rise in the fame of Imran Khan among Kashmiris to his “open stance against India.”
He said that previous leadership in Pakistan lacked courage. He argued that during the 2016 uprising, triggered by the killing of a famous militant commander Burhan Muzafar Wani, Nawaz Sharif addressed the UN but didn't call a spade a spade, and thus found no takers in Kashmir.
“Nawaz Sharif’s speech was scripted, and people could feel that whatever he was reading from a piece of paper was just a formality, unlike Imran Khan,” he said.
Political analyst and former Dean of the School of Legal Studies at Central University of Kashmir, Dr Sheikh Showkat Hussain, agreed that Pakistani politicians who “dare India openly” invoke a lot of attention in Kashmir.
To support his argument, Hussain said, Field Marshal Ayub Khan gained popularity because of his assertive approach vis-a-vis India taking advantage of the Indian defeat at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. “He launched operation Gibraltar,” he added.
Operation Gibraltar was aimed at triggering a rebellion in Kashmir against India. However, it triggered a full-fledged Indo-Pak war in the same year. The war ended through the efforts of the UN and the superpowers of the time, the US and the Soviet Union.
Indian and Pakistani leadership held a summit at Tashkent, in present-day Uzbekistan, agreeing that the forces of both countries would pull back to their pre-war boundaries which came to be known as the Tashkent Agreement.
Soon after the Tashkent agreement, former Indian Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri died while Ayub Khan faced stiff opposition from his charismatic Foreign Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His opposition led to his dismissal from Khan's government, but Bhutto was a rising star in Pakistani politics and started a political party, the Pakistan People's Party. The Tashkent Agreement compromised Khan's reputation and played a part in his fall from power.
Fast forward to the 1971 Indo-Pak war, Pakistan was dismembered, and Bangladesh gained independence, leading to the Shimla Agreement between the two rivals.
“Bhutto assumed power in Pakistan, opposed Indra-Abdullah accord of 1975 and invoked a lot of popularity within Kashmir,” Hussain told TRT World, “it was because of this popularity that Kashmir witnessed a lot of violent protests on his execution.”
Bhutto’s statement that Pakistan will fight for Kashmiris, even if it takes one thousand years, boosted his popularity at that time and it is still fondly remembered.
Once the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan, General Zia ul Haq decided to confront Soviet expansion by supporting the Afghan insurgency taking Pakistan out of the defeat syndrome it had plunged into after the 1971 war.
“General Zia Ul Haq conceived operation Topak to revive Kashmir's insurgency and succeeded in reviving Kashmiri aspirations for freedom towards the end of his rule,” Hussain said.
“It was because of his revived Kashmir-centric foreign policy that he too gained a lot of popularity among the Kashmiri masses.”
Ghulam Ahmad Kashani, a former bureaucrat, believes that Pakistan hasn't had a 'tough' leader since the former Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf, who made a name for himself during the 1999 Kargil war.
“After Musharraf's exit, India gained an upper-hand by linking the legitimate freedom struggle to terrorism,” he continued.
“Leaders like Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari were clueless about how to tackle the Indian narrative, but Imran Khan successfully turned the table in favour of Pakistan by showing the world community that they actually are the victims of terrorism, and Kashmir is the victim of state terrorism and Indian aggression,” he said.
Kashmir-born New Delhi based journalist, Umer Beigh, says that Imran Khan is seen as the main protagonist who went on kicking the bipolar dynastical system that had taken over Pakistan for decades.
“There might be some in Kashmir who would disagree with his political decisions, but even they can’t say he is corrupt. That is the main reason why Kashmiris are pinning hopes on him for the overwhelming power vacuum within the state [of Kashmir] as major Kashmiri leadership either remain in house arrest or in jails,” Beigh told TRT World.
Beigh said that Imran is playing his cards carefully and it helps him to send a positive message about Pakistan. “Whether you take his move of releasing the Indian pilot and de-escalating tensions between India and Pakistan, the opening of Kartarpur corridor, his stand on US-Afghan conflict, and his mediation in Middle-East crisis, Imran is sending a positive message about Pakistan which has dented the diplomacy of India, through its security clampdown millions of people has suffered and continue to suffer in the region,” he said.
Sheikh Showkat Hussain said that Imran Khan hadn't gained popularity just because of his celebrity status.
In the Kashmir valley, people loved Khan as a cricketer. His popularity reached new heights overnight when he led Pakistan to victory in the 1992 Cricket World Cup.
People established businesses using Khan's name - ‘Imran Coils’, a brand for electric heating coils sports a photograph of a youthful Imran Khan on its cover in his signature white shalwar kameez, are widely used in the valley and have become a household name in Kashmir.
Many parents also named their babies after him. Wedding songs comparing the grooms with Imran Khan were sung on the arrival of grooms.
“Every Pakistani cricketer is admired in Kashmir, but not every Pakistani politician becomes a celebrity in Kashmir,” Hussain said. “Imran’s current popularity has nothing to do with his cricket career,” he added.
Hussain says a lot depends on Prime Minister Khan's capacity to convert support into tangible gains.
“The undemocratic decision to abrogate Article 370 and the restrictions and communication blockade thereof has put India in an uncomfortable situation internationally. This is an opportune moment to test him since all eyes are on Kashmir right now with the international community in favour of dialogue to resolve the dispute,” Hussain said.
“Above all, he has to do it for the people of Kashmir who have pinned all their hopes on him to resolve the long-pending dispute once for all.”