Freedom Call In Pakistan's North
26 January 2003
The Times of India
New Delhi: Even as Pakistan's Northern Areas emerge as a major safe haven for Al- Qaida and Taliban elements, the two million-plus people of the mountainous region, who insist on calling the area Gilgit-Baltistan, have stepped up their campaign for independence from Islamabad's rule. The federal government, they allege, has not only denied them democratic rights, but also neglected their economic development, while using them as human fodder for fighting. The Northern Light Infantry, that draws its soldiers from this region, is mostly used for campaigns not popular with the regular Pakistani Army, like the 1999 Kargil intrusion and subsequently, fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. The monthly journal Kargil International describes the Northern Areas as 'Pakistan's last colony', that remains economically most backward. It notes that while people from PoK leave the country, those from Northern Areas are denied this choice as they need an exit visa to go abroad. Originally a part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, the Gilgit-Baltistan region, then under the control of Gilgit Scouts, rebelled and declared itself as 'Azad Democratic Gilgit-Baltistan' in 1947. After 16 days, the Pakistani authorities established their control as Kashmir became a dispute before the UN. The late Zia-ul-Haq renamed the region Northern Areas. The Northern Areas have no status under Pakistan's Constitution now. They are neither a province of Pakistan nor are they part of the PoK. The region is directly ruled from Islamabad through a Northern Areas Council, headed by the federal minister for Kashmir affairs. Pakistan had ceded 5,180 square km of Northern Areas to China under a 1963 agreement. Mehboob Ali Khan, a leader from Gilgit-Baltistan, told a function held by the Karakoram National Movement and the Karakoram Students Organisation that this would not have happened had Northern Areas elected their own assembly. Ghazi Anwar Khan, another leader, said while Pakistan alleged rights violations in Afghanistan and J&K, it turned a blind eye to Gilgit- Baltistan.