Friday, August 05, 2005

INSIDE PoK : The Gilgit Grumble

“We have nothing in common with Pakistan, neither identity nor culture, nor for that matter do we have any constitutional link with Pakistan. We are under occupation…the oppressive and repressive regime of the army and the agencies have reduced us to being slaves…we have the support of the masses, but they are afraid to support us openly because even if we hold a demonstration cases of sedition and treason are slapped on us…what we want is our right to self-determination”. These are the words of Nawaz Khan Naji, the charismatic leader of the Balawaristan National Front. The BNF represents the nationalists from the Gilgit-Baltistan region (better known as Northern Areas) and is spearheading the demand for an end to Pakistan’s control over the region. The meeting with the BNF and other nationalist elements from both parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (“Azad” Kashmir and Northern Areas), took place first in Muzaffarabad and later in Gilgit.
More than “Azad” Kashmir, the sense of alienation, deprivation and marginalization is very strong in the Northern Areas, where issues of economic deprivation and denial of political freedoms have coupled with sectarian tensions to create an explosive mix. And articulating the grievances of the people in a very logical and coherent manner are people like Nawaz Naji.
The BNF doesn’t consider Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Kashmir. They lay claim to the entire swathe of land from Ladakh to Chitral as a separate region – Balawaristan – which has nothing in common with rest of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Naji is, however, pragmatic enough to realize that unless they place their demands within the context of the larger Kashmir issue, their voice will get stifled. This, Naji said, is the only way that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan can bring their case on to the world stage and get recognized as a party to dispute. He considers the Balour people as the fourth party to the dispute – the other three being India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris.
But Naji is very clear that as and when the demand for the “right to self determination” is granted to the people of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan cannot be clubbed with rest of the state. The reason for this is simple and lies in the demographic character of the state. Naji said that there are only 2 million people (the official figure is 1 million) in Gilgit-Baltistan, compared to 5 million in Kashmir and some 4 million in Jammu region. He said that it would be gross injustice if the future of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is to be decided by the overwhelming numbers of Jammu and Kashmir regions. This is the reason why Naji welcomed General Musharraf’s proposal to identify seven regions in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and treat them all separately. This was perhaps the first time that the Northern Areas were included by Pakistan as part of the Kashmir dispute.
While Naji has no love lost for Pakistan, he accepts that Pakistan's position on the Kashmir dispute suits the people of Gilgit-Baltistan more than the Indian position. He said the Indian position talks of a united Kashmir in which the smaller nationalities and communities tend to lose out. On the other hand, Musharraf’s latest proposal takes into account the demands of the smaller communities.
Unlike most other people in PoK who are in denial over the communal underpinnings of the Kashmir issue, Naji openly accepts that Muslim majoritarianism is the guiding force behind the Kashmir dispute. He believes that the partition of India was the result of communalization and doesn’t mince his words in saying that when countries come into existence on the basis of a sectarian/communal ideology, this pernicious ideology then gets state sanction and pervades the psyche of the people. Despite opposition to Pakistan, Naji is under no illusion that if the choice before the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is limited to choosing between India and Pakistan, then geography and religion will ensure that the people choose Pakistan. However, if there is an option of independence, then an overwhelming majority will opt for that.
Naji is convinced that there is no shortage of secular and nationalist forces in Kashmir, but these forces are suppressed through fear, harassment and terror by the radical elements that operate under the patronage of the state. He said that while Indians talk of communalism only in terms of Hindu-Muslim differences, in Gilgit-Baltistan the issue was of sectarian – i.e. Shia-Sunni – tensions. He claimed that as a proportion probably the same number of people have dies in sectarian clashes in the Northern Areas as have dies in the insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. He is convinced that without international intervention these forces will never be reined in.
In no area under Pakistan's control is the Shia-Sunni divide as deep as it is in the Northern Areas. Everything in the Northern Areas is seen in terms of the sectarian divide. According to the local Balawaristan National Front leadership, the Pakistani agencies use sectarianism as a tool in its policy of divide-and-rule. They claim that the situation is so delicate in the region that even a small spark can set off a communal conflagration. The BNF leadership is convinced that the virus of sectarianism has affected the entire body politic and will take a long time before the region regains a semblance of sectarian harmony.
Mirza Nadir Hassan, a member of the Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum, believes that Pakistan has deliberately deprived Gilgit-Baltistan the right to self-rule because it fears a Shia state might come into existence. He alleged that the entire top civil and political administration in Gilgit-Baltistan was in the hands of the Sunnis and the government of Pakistan had brought in the Frontier Corp (overwhelmingly Sunni in composition) to ostensibly maintain law and order, but in reality to keep a check on the Shias. So virulent is Hassan’s opposition to Sunni domination that he even called the current Chief Executive of the Northern Areas (the minister for Kashmir affairs sitting in Islamabad) Faisal Saleh Hayat a “so-called Shia”. He complained that the class composition of the Northern Light Infantry had been changed after the Kargil war. The local component in NLI was reduced to only 45% and 90% of NLI units have been shifted down-country so that non-locals could be recruited in this regiment. As a former army officer, he appealed to the Indian government to put pressure on the Pakistan government to accept the bodies of NLI soldiers who died during the Kargil conflict. He even alleged that while bodies of Punjabi and Pashtun soldiers were accepted by Pakistan, it refused to accept the bodies of the NLI soldiers.
The sectarian divide aside, the real problem in the Northern Areas appears to be the denial of all civil and political rights. As a member of the BNF put it, if the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have no right to vote in the Pakistani parliament, then how can the Pakistani laws apply in the region? How can any Pakistani law be imposed in the Northern Areas if the territory is not covered by the Pakistani constitution. In other words, the denial of the right to vote and right to self rule lies at the heart of the political sense of deprivation that pervades the region. Dr G. Abbas, Convenor Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum points to the double talk that the Pakistani establishment indulges in when the demand for self-rule if put forward. He says that on one hand Pakistan argues that there is no dispute over the future status of the Northern Areas, while on the other hand when self-rule is demanded, Pakistan says it is not possible as the area is part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir.
According to Dr Abbas although “Azad” Kashmir is under Pakistan's occupation, that territory at least has an elected prime minister and legislature. He wonders why a similar right has been denied to the people of Northern Areas. He derided the so-called Northern Areas legislative council and said it has no real powers to pass any legislation. In the last five years the NALC has not been able to pass a single piece of legislation. He alleged that elections in Northern Areas are completely rigged and only the favorites of Pakistan are allowed to win in the polls. He expressed the fear that these ‘lackeys’ of Pakistan will in future be used to decide the genuine representatives of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Compounding the problem created by denial of political rights is the lack of sensitivity of the Pakistani state towards the identity, culture and aspirations of the local population. Being a sparsely populated area, the people are very particular about maintaining the demographic character of the region. This was ensured to an extent by the state subject rules that did not allow anyone from outside the Jammu and Kashmir state to settle in the state. Over the years, however, while the state subject rules have survived in “Azad” Kashmir, in the Northern Areas they have been violated and outsiders (mostly Sunni Pashtuns) have been settled in the area, changing the demographic character of large parts of the region.
Dr Abbas articulates this grievance and says that the Pakistani establishment has tried to erase the identity of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan over the last 50 years by calling the region ‘Northern Areas’. He alleges that the culture of the region was sought to be changed by settling Pashtuns in Gilgit. He gives the example of the historical market in Gilgit that was demolished and a new market built in which over 90% of the shops were allotted to ‘outsiders’. He lamented that all heads of departments are non-locals who in turn dole out favors to their friends and relatives as far as the lucrative China trade is concerned. He points to the development statistics – over 60% of people living below poverty line, literacy level among the lowest in Pakistan, no major infrastructure except the Karakorum highway – and accuses Pakistan of deliberately keeping the region backward.
The demand for greater political rights so that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan can govern themselves and maintain their culture and identity, has now reached a point where it has transformed into a demand for an independent state. That this has happened in a region whose people took pride in the fact that they were the first in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to rise in rebellion against the Dogra rule and declare accession to Pakistan, speaks volumes for the Pakistani establishment’s efforts at national integration.
While both mainstream and nationalist political parties in Northern Areas have gathered together under the umbrella of Gilgit-Baltistan National Alliance to press for their demand for getting a political status similar to “Azad” Kashmir, the demand for an independent state is being articulated by the All Parties National Alliance (APNA), which represents nationalist parties from both parts of PoK and includes the BNF and Karakorum National Movement from the Northern Areas. According to the APNA Secretary General, Arif Shahid, for over fifty years the Pakistani state obstructed contacts between the people of Northern Areas and “Azad” Kashmir. The APNA is now trying to coordinate the activities of all the nationalist groups in PoK with the objective of evolving a consensus about the future political set-up in the region. The APNA is demanding the right to self-determination from both India and Pakistan. At the very minimum the APNA wants all restrictions of trade, travel, political contacts between the two parts of PoK and between PoK and Jammu and Kashmir to be lifted.
In recent years the nationalists have gained a lot of support for their cause in the Northern Areas. In the markets of Gilgit, the BNF and other nationalists appear to enjoy overwhelming support of the locals. Many of the journalists we spoke to would in private tell us that the nationalists are gaining ground and an ever increasing number of people are attracted to their cause. But the situation has still not reached a point of no return.
According to Eiman Shah, vice chairman of the Gilgit Zila Council, the atrocities by the Pakistani agencies and corruption of the bureaucracy has shifted support in favor of the nationalists. He said the sheer ineffectiveness of the NALC – it has no real legislative powers and cannot even pass a resolution without the concurrence of the bureaucracy, the Deputy Chief Executive (who is supposed to be the effective head of the NALC) has to seek an appointment to meet the Home Secretary and Chief Secretary and gets his instructions from the local ISI chief, the entire upper bureaucracy (from Assistant Commissioner upwards) is from ‘down country’ – has only contributed to the growing popularity of the nationalists. However, Eiman Shah is convinced that a solution to the problem lies in finding the middle ground between being part of Pakistan and becoming independent. He believes neither of the two extremes is possible.
There is no doubt that the pro-independence movement is gaining in strength in the Northern Areas. It is also clear that the nationalists are well organised and quite committed to their cause. But their support at the mass level is still unclear. The nationalists claim that the climate of fear that hangs over the Northern Areas prevents people from openly supporting the pro-independence movement. But if Pakistan was to take some steps that satisfy the political aspirations of the people, chances are that the pro-independence movement could lose a lot of steam.
Even otherwise, the nationalists suffer some very basic problems. Most of the leadership is based not in the Northern Areas but in Rawalpindi, right under the nose of the Pakistani military establishment. Already serious attempts are being made to break the fledgling alliance of the nationalists, APNA. According to Sardar Ishtiaq Hussain Khan, Secretary Information (APNA), many senior leaders have been bought over by either blandishment or blackmail. He said the close surveillance by the Pakistani agencies on those seeking independence and the plethora of cases (including sedition and treason) imposed on pro-independence activists has not allowed the demand for independence become a mass movement.
Sardar Ishtiaq’s remarks do raise suspicions even about organisations like APNA. For instance, the JKLF (Yasin Malik) faction is a member of APNA, even though Yasin Malik is known to be a known agent of the Pakistani intelligence agencies. On the other hand, the JKLF (Amanullah Khan) faction is not a member of APNA on the ostensible grounds that Amanullah Khan does the bidding of the Pakistani establishment. And this despite the fact that if there is one person who has suffered at the hands of the Pakistani establishment in terms of resources and patronage it is Amanullah Khan.
While the oppressive and intrusive role of the Pakistani state is a major constraint, the nationalists also suffer from a certain lack of clarity on what they want and how to get it. Apart from Naji, most other leaders we met were confused about how they could achieve their objective. For instance, Mirza Nadir Hasan believes that any solution to the Kashmir issue is not possible without the involvement of at least a score of countries – all the neighboring countries (including the central Asian states), all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, Iran as a representative of the Shias, Saudi Arabia as a Sunni state, the OIC as a representative of the Muslims, Nepal as a Hindu state and Japan to represent the Buddhists! Arif Shahid of APNA is realistic enough to understand that the demands of the nationalists are not going to be conceded in a hurry. But he believes that the way the situation is evolving, nearly 70% of their demands will be met. But ask him what he means by 70%, and there is no answer. Similarly, others talk of a United States of Kashmir, with three entities – Kashmir, Jammu and Gilgit-Baltistan. But how this fits into the aspiration for complete independence and freedom from the majoritarianism of the Kashmiris is not clear. The left leaning National Students Federation still sticks to the old imperialist conspiracy theory, and yet wants international intervention. Finally, there is confusion over what sort of struggle needs to be waged to get the Pakistani state to concede their demands.
Be that as it may, there is trouble brewing for Pakistan in the Northern Areas, where the apathy of the Pakistani state is fuelling the sentiment in favor of independence. Much of this trouble can be sorted out if the government of Pakistan was to actually follow the policy of ‘enlightened moderation’ and along with this respect the rights of ethnic minorities living under Pakistani rule. Moreover, a more liberal political set-up with elected and empowered legislatures will go a long way in addressing the political grievances of the people. But time is running short. Unless Pakistan moves fast to address the issues being raised by the nationalists, there is every chance of alienation with Pakistan growing to the point of no return in the Northern Areas.
Written on 15th March 2005


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