December 2004 News

Gilgit Valley Searches For Identity

17 December 2004
Asia Times Online
Sultan Shahin

Gilgit: Surrounded by three famous mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Karokorams and the Hindukush, Gilgit Valley is perhaps the most fascinating and spectacular part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. But the visiting India media personnel had hardly been able to take a deep breath at Gilgit airport, trying to soak up the breathtaking beauty of the valley, when we were confronted by a demonstration by the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF - Amanullah group) that seeks the third option of independence from both India and Pakistan. (The other options being either accession to Pakistan or India.) The JKLF demonstrators were cordoned off and not allowed by the airport security to meet the visiting media. This was no major loss as we had already met their chief, Amanullah Khan, in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad. But as soon as we reached our government-run motel, the proponents of a fourth option were awaiting us. They are seeking the independence of the Gilgit-Baltistan region designated by Pakistan as the Northern Areas [1] from India, Pakistan and even the state of Jammu and Kashmir. In their view, this paradise for mountaineers, climbers, trekkers, hikers and anglers has a separate identity and needs to be an independent country. They include the neighboring Ladakh and Kargil across the Line of Control [2] in Indian- administered Jammu and Kashmir also as part of their country, which they variously name as Balawaristan and Bolor. Though an interaction with local nationalist leaders was not a part of the official itinerary, we were allowed to meet the proponents of the third option, like the JKLF cadres, and also proponents of the fourth option, members of organizations like the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), the Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum, the Gilgit Baltistan United Action Forum, the Muttaheda Quami Party and the Karakorum National Movement. JKLF president (Gilgit-Baltistan) Zia ul-Haq, said the Northern Areas (NA) had been denied the right to self-rule. He complained that the state's rules that give a distinct identity to this region have been grossly violated in the NA, and outsiders (mainly Sunni Pashtuns) have been settled in the region. Like several other nationalist leaders, he expressed the fear that the demographic character of the region was being deliberately changed with the settlement of outsiders. BNF leaders Ali Mohammed Taj and Mohammed Rafique, too, complained about the scrapping of state subject rules and complained that outsiders were settling in the area. They said that Pakistan and its 'agencies' were suppressing the nationalists and crushing all expressions of nationalist ideology. They revealed that nearly 150 of their workers were fighting cases of treason and sedition. A senior JKLF leader revealed that nearly 300 Kashmiri youths are currently in jails in Azad (Free) Kashmir. The NA consist of the northwestern part of the erstwhile J&K state wedged between Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and Xinjiang in China. It has a population of 2.8 million and has been divided administratively into five districts, Gilgit, Shardu, Diamir, Ghizer and Ghanche. Other more senior leaders of this group had met us in Muzaffarabad, though interaction with them was not a part of the official itinerary. Indeed, our South Asian Free Media Association organizers were not happy with some of us spending too much time talking to these people. Clearly, while Pakistan is willing to deal with the third options, the fourth option is too much for it to stomach. This despite the fact that President General Pervez Musharraf's recently articulated formula gives some hope for these regions also to get their political status changed. There has been widespread discontent among the people of the NA for quite some time. The most prominent group agitating for self-rule or freedom is the Balawaristan National Movement. Since 1999, there have been demands by dissidents for an independent republic of Balawaristan, including the NA regions of Gilgit, Baltistan, Chitral, Shhenaki Kohistan, and Indian Kashmir areas such as Ladakh and Kargil. The movement has been led by the BNF and the All Party National Alliance (APNA), an umbrella organization of political groups from Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PAK). Balawaristan leaders argue that if the people of the region cannot vote for the Pakistani parliament, then how can and why should Pakistan apply its laws in the NA? Asked why so little public support has been demonstrated for their position, they said that there was a climate of fear created by what they called 'agencies', referring to the myriad intelligence organizations monitoring their activities. They even pointed to some people right there who they said were from the 'agencies'. This, they said, stifled the voices of the people. The climate of fear became apparent when even an elected member of the district council, Mohammad Javed Mirza, of the Karakoram National Front, felt unable to give his home telephone number. He told this correspondent that telephones of all politicians and activists were tapped. He said: 'We are being ruled by force. We were even stopped from meting you. But we have come at great risk.' 'Even Amanullah Khan was beaten up here last year for seeking to organize a demonstration,' said another disgruntled JKLF leader. The NA are ruled directly from Islamabad through what is called the Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC), which is headed by Pakistan's minister for Kashmir affairs. A chief executive, normally a retired Pakistani army officer appointed by Islamabad, is the local administrative head. The NALC is headed by the minister of Kashmir and the Northern Areas and meets only when it is convened by the minister. There is great dissatisfaction with the current system. As Zia ul-Haq of the JKLF pointed out, it has hardly any powers to set either legislation or development priorities. The NALC members who met with Indian journalists found it difficult to justify their constitutional status. In fact, there was so much confusion, even the speaker of the NALC, Malik Mohammed Miskeen, had to retract his statements several times as they were immediately contradicted by other members and proved to be wrong. All they were able to agree on was that the situation was far from perfect, though they said it was improving. Another point of confusion among the NALC members was on the question of the NA being a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. While the speaker said it was not a part of J&K, the former deputy chief executive, Fida Mohammed, and several other members said it was part of the 'disputed' state. Indeed, the speaker later appeared to be on the verge of retracting from this statement as well. There appeared a clear disconnect between the publicly stated view of an elected member and his privately expressed view. Several elected members of the NALC profess their pro-independence or pro-fourth option (independent Balawaristan) view in private. Pakistan maintains an ambivalent stand over the status of the NA in the context of its demand for the resolution of the Kashmir issue through a plebiscite, as per United Nations resolutions of 1948. It has never clearly defined the constitutional status of the NA. Pakistan clearly desires to integrate the NA into Pakistan, distinguishing it from Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). It seeks to differentiate between NA and Kashmir in the expectation that, in case such a plebiscite is ever held, the NA would vote for Pakistan. Significantly, while the NA comprises 72,495 square kilometers, the AJK consists of only 5,703 square kilometers. There is one piece of recent history that almost everyone in NA, particularly the pro-independence group, never tires of recounting. Frustrated over the years with the stonewalling tactics of the government of Pakistan over granting autonomy to NA, three public representatives of the NA, Malik Maskeen, Hajij Ameer Jan and Sheikh Abdul Aziz, filed a writ petition under section 44 of the POK (Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir) interim constitution act of 1974 with the POK high court on October 16, 1990. In its verdict on March 8, 1993, the full bench of the Azad Kashmir High Court declared the NA to be a part of the territory of Jammu & Kashmir. The chief justice of the court, who delivered this judgment, now retired Justice Majeed Malik, heads a political party in AJK, demanding independence from both India and Pakistan. He gave visiting Indian journalists a copy of his historic judgment published in the form of a book. This book has become a kind of Bible for independence-loving Kashmiris in Pakistan. People quote chapter and verse from it to prove that NA belongs to Kashmir and not to Pakistan. This is a point to which even pro-establishment politicians have to show allegiance. It is difficult to find anyone in AJK or NA who doesn't agree with the court judgment. Even the pro- Balwaristan people agree with the judgment to the point that they say NA is not a part of Pakistan. They, however, have their own version of history that proves that NA is not even a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Mirza Nadir Hasan of another fourth- option party called Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum, which is also part of the all Parties National Alliance, distributed a research paper seeking to prove that NA becoming a part of the Jammu and Kashmir state was essentially a part of British conspiracy. The paper says: 'It [Pakistan] also accepted the independent republic of Gilgit-Baltistan created on November 1, 1947, in all its official national and international correspondence but blundered because of its evil intentions and is facing the music now.' In their interaction with local journalists in Gilgit, Indian media asked about the level of freedom of the press in the NA. The local press appeared to be free to report on anything, provided it was first cleared by the authorities, particularly the home secretary, who also functions as information secretary. The independence of the media thus depends entirely on the tolerance of the local administration. There are no laws to protect journalists, and some of the journalists, such as the editor of K2, Raja Hussain Khan Maqpoon, had been jailed for expressing a view that went against the state's ideology. Another major complaint is about Islamabad apparently encouraging sectarian violence. The paper accused Pakistan of following a policy of divide and rule in the manner of the colonial British rulers and said Pakistani 'agencies' were creating Shi'ite-Sunni tensions. It is not very difficult to create these tensions as NA is described as a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups (Baltis, Shins, Yashkuns, Mughals, Kashmiris, Pathans, Ladakhis and Turks), of languages (Balti, Shina, Burushashki, Khowar, Wakhi, Turki, Tibeti, Pusto and Urdu) and sects (Shi'ites, Sunnis, Ismailis and Nurbakshis). Shi'ites constitute about 55% of the population, Sunnis 25% , Ismailis 15% and Nurbakhshis 5%. The NA faced a lot of trouble in 2003 over the Islamic textbooks that the Pakistan Ministry of Education had issued as a part of the curriculum for schools in the region. According to Shi'ite community leaders, the textbooks promoted Sunni thought and values and their introduction was an attempt to promote sectarian hatred between the two communities. A large number of protest rallies were organized in Gilgit and hundreds of primary and secondary school students boycotted classes. There is no way of verifying the level of public support for the NA (or Balawaristan that includes Indian parts like Kargil and Ladakh) gaining independence from all three - India, Pakistan and Kashmir. But there can be no doubt that a section of Gilgit-Baltistan's political thinkers and activists are seriously preoccupied with searching for the region's separate identity. Notes [1] Pakistan has divided the parts of Kashmir under its control into two administrative units: Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) of 5,703 square kilometers and the Northern Areas (NA) of 72,496 square kilometers. (The total area of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is 222,236 square kilometers. Pakistan controls approximately 78,000 square kilometers of the state.) AJK, with an estimated population of 2.5 million, comprises six districts of Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Kotli, Poonch, Bagh and Bhimber. NA consists of the northwestern part of the erstwhile J&K state wedged between Afghanistan, North West Frontier Province in Pakistan and Xinjiang in China. It has a population of 2.8 million and has been divided administratively into the five districts of Gilgit, Shardu, Diamir, Ghizer and Ghanche. NA is described as a kaleidoscope of ethnic groups (Baltis, Shins, Yashkuns, Mughals, Kashmiris, Pathans, Ladakhis and Turks), of languages (Balti, Shina, Burushashki, Khowar, Wakhi, Turki, Tibeti, Pusto and Urdu) and sects (Shi'ites, Sunnis, Ismailis and Nurbakshis). Shi'ites constitute around 55% of the population, Sunnis 25% , Ismailis 15% and Nurbakhshis 5%. AJK has always claimed the NA a part of the territory controlled by it in 1947. The NA have, however, been annexed by Pakistan and are under its administration, described by dissidents as 'colonial and repressive'. Regardless of their distinct cultural and historical identities, the dissidents point out, sub-units such as Nagar and Yasin have been unilaterally integrated within new district boundaries. Many people in Pakistan and AJK have urged that NA be treated as part of AJK. When the interim constitution of Azad Kashmir was proclaimed in 1947, the Muzaffarabad government took the line that the Karachi Agreement, which had temporarily placed the NA under the control of Pakistan, had lapsed and that this region should de jure and de facto revert to Azad Kashmir, to which it legitimately belonged. The federal government of Pakistan resisted that effort and has maintained that the NA are an integral part of Pakistan. Pakistan maintains an ambivalent stand over the status of NA in the context of its demand for the resolution of the 'Kashmir issue' through plebiscite as per UN resolutions of 1948. It has never clearly defined the constitutional status of the NA. Pakistan clearly desires to integrate the NA into Pakistan, distinguishing it from AJK. It seeks to differentiate between NA and Kashmir in the expectation that, in case such a plebiscite is ever held, the NA would vote for Pakistan. Nothing could make Pakistani intentions regarding Kashmir clearer than the ambiguity about NA. Pakistan would clearly like to keep this mountainous portion of the state in its own control, even in the event of Kashmiris exercising their third option of independence, the other two options being accession to India or Pakistan. Frustrated over the years with the stonewalling tactics of the government of Pakistan over granting autonomy to NA, three public representatives of the NA, Malik Maskeen, Hajij Ameer Jan and Sheikh Abdul Aziz filed a write petition under section 44 of the Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) Interim Constitution Act of 1974 with the POK high court on October 16, 1990. In its verdict on March 8, 1993, the full bench o the Azad Kashmir High Court declared the NA to be a part of the territory of Jammu & Kashmir. The chief justice of the High Court, who delivered this judgment, now retired Justice Majeed Malik, heads a political party in AJK, demanding independence from both India and Pakistan. He gave visiting Indian journalists a copy of his historic judgment published in the form of a book. This book has become a kind of Bible for independence-loving Kashmiris in Pakistan. People quote chapter and verse from the book to prove that NA belongs to Kashmir and not to Pakistan. This is a point to which even pro-establishment politicians have to show allegiance. It is difficult to find anyone in AJK or NA who doesn't agree with the high court judgment. Regardless of the wishes of the Kashmiri people, however, the people of NA are ruled directly from Islamabad through what is called the Northern Areas Council, which is headed by Pakistan's Minister for Kashmir Affairs. A chief executive, normally a retired Pakistani army officer, appointed by Islamabad, is the local administrative head. The council is headed by the Minister of Kashmir and Northern Areas and meets only when the minister convenes it. Complicating the Kashmir tangle further, Pakistan unilaterally ceded a part of the state to China. They concluded a 'Boundary Agreement' in March 1963 under which Pakistan handed over more than 5,180 square kilometers of territory under its occupation to China, ignoring India's objections. Pakistan gave away the entire area belonging to Hunza, south of the Mintaka Pass, to China. India challenged the locus standi of both parties to negotiate and conclude an agreement in respect of the territory of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, over which India had sovereign rights. India protested to both China and Pakistan, indicating that it would not recognize the illegal transfer of territory forming part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir. [2] The Line of Control (LoC) is a demarcation line established in January 1949 as a ceasefire line, following the end of the first Kashmir war. In July 1972, after a second conflict, the LoC was re- established under the terms of the Simla Agreement, with minor variations on the earlier boundary. The LoC passes through a mountainous region about 5,000 meters high. North of the LoC, the rival forces have been entrenched on the Siachen glacier (more than 6,000 meters high) since 1984 - the highest battlefield in the world. The LoC divides Kashmir on an almost two-to-one basis: Indian- administered Kashmir to the east and south (population about 9 million), which falls into the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir; and Pakistani-administered Kashmir to the north and west (population about 3 million), which is labelled by Pakistan as 'Azad' (Free) Kashmir. China also controls a small portion of Kashmir. Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.

 

Return to the Archives 2004 Index Page

Return to Home Page