June 2005 News

Kashmir's Scapegoats?

25 June 2005
The News International
M. Ismail Khan

Islamabad: The historic visit of All Parties Hurriyat Conference leaders, led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, to Pakistan and Azad Kashmir has been a significant development in many ways. After the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road, the visit has been termed as the biggest turnaround in confidence building measures for Kashmir - an area once described by the US Administration as the most dangerous part of the world. It was amazing to see Kashmiri leaders, who in the recent past had difficulty moving around within Kashmir, mingling with Pakistani leaders and public. The credit for this watershed event can be given to all three parties involved: India for seeing the light, Pakistan for changing its course, and the Kashmiri leadership for its understanding. Nonetheless, conspicuous by its absence on the agenda of the Kashmiri leaders was the issue of the neglected areas of Gilgit, Baltistan and the Northern Areas (NA). The mountainous region and its million-plus people have been quietly bearing the denial of their basic political and constitutional rights for the last 57 years - only, it seems, for the sake of the Kashmir issue. The Kashmiri leaders' visit has given the impression that their politics remain centred around the concerns of the Valley; this renders Hurriyat claims of representing the entire state and the subjects of Jammu and Kashmir debatable. Having been the seat of the Raj and Kashmir's Maharajas past, the thickly populated Valley, and its capital at Srinagar, do hold special historical importance, but the Valley does not, and indeed cannot, represent the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, in terms of geographical spread, it is several times smaller than many of the six districts of the Northern Areas. In his book Danger in Kashmir, Joseph Korbel, Member of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP), says, 'The term (Kashmir), as is generally used (for the whole state), is actually not accurate. It applies (only) to one part of the entire country, the official name of which is the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The state consists of several regions. The famous Vale of Kashmir, south of it is the Jammu province, to the east is Ladakh, and north of it, Baltistan; farther north are the regions of Hunza and Nagir, and west of them, the Gilgit agency, composed of several political districts. West of the Vale are the districts of Muzaffarabad, Riasi, Poonch and Mirpur. The final shape of J&K state, therefore was articulated during the regime of Ranbir Singh, and was administratively divided into provinces of Jammu; Kashmir; Ladakh (including Baltistan); and Gilgit and Frontier Ilaqas (Regions).' Therefore, a final settlement of Kashmir, without taking into account the overall geographic contours and wishes of the state of J&K, would be, to say the least, an exercise in futility. It is of some concern that the Hurriyat leaders opted not to visit Gilgit-Baltistan. Perhaps they are resigned to the fact that, notwithstanding the historical bounds and linkages between rulers of Gilgit- Baltistan and Kashmir's Dogra Rajas, the geographic and ethnic composition of the region does not fit into the Kashmiri nationalist movement for self determination. Also, they may have realised that since NA is safely in the hands of Pakistan, it would be better not to bring this region into the critical on- going discussions pertaining to the final status of Kashmir. Whatever the motives of the visitors or their hosts, the issue is likely to accentuate the sense of political deprivation in the Northern Areas. In fact, it adds insult to injury for an already marginalised people, whose constitutional status remains in ambiguity because of the unresolved Kashmir issue. It is strange that while Kashmiris on both sides of the divide enjoyed and spurned political representation in their respective state assemblies and in the parliaments of India and Pakistan, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have not been provided representation in the parliament of their own country since they won their freedom from Dogras in 1948. Many in the Northern Areas fear that the APHC leaders' cold attitude towards their region will widen the distance between mainland Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This will only cement the linguistic, cultural, geographic, and even historical, barriers and boundaries and strengthen the voices of the region's nationalist elements. These elements have been arguing that unlike Kashmiris, who waited for the Sikh Raja to decide between accession to India or Pakistan, the people of the Northern Areas rose in rebellion against the Dogras, threw them out, and joined Pakistan. Today people in the NA are demanding a clear policy statement from Pakistan regarding integration of the region in the federation. They also wonder why letters of accession from the Rajas of Nagar and Hunza, signed by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself, were not accepted as legal basis for integration. Indeed, it is a difficult task to find an explanation about why the government of Pakistan decided not to accept the accession and the will of the people in 1948, and have instead kept the constitutional status of the region in a limbo pending a decision about the rest of Kashmir. It is on that pretext that the people have been deprived of the basic political and human rights granted to other Pakistani citizens. Token political institutions like the Northern Areas Legislative Council, and the district and local councils clearly lack the power required to legislate and govern the area. Many disgruntled segments in NA complain that hydro-electric, tourism, mineral, and trade revenues of the region are being drained away to the federal coffers and used by other provinces, which in their view is tantamount to exploitation. These elements have also been complaining about the high-handed tactics and manipulation of non-local bureaucratic establishments by self proclaimed guardians that the local residents struggle to hold accountable. In this uncertain political environment, the Hurriyat Leaders' visit has further complicated the situation. 'Kashmir is not a border quarrel between India and Pakistan. It is not a battle between Hindus and Muslims. It is not a fight for autonomy. It is about human rights and the right of self- determination of 13 million people of Kashmir. And they have not conferred on any sovereignty the power to bargain away these priceless possessions,' declared Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. But then why are we talking about borders, lines of control, Siachen and other options in the first place? Haven't the people of the Northern Areas also been pleading for these very rights - political rights, right to statehood, right to justice, the right to be an equal citizen in their country of birth, and the right to participate in their country's democratic processes? If the Kashmiris themselves are not bothered about NA, its legal status, its people and their sacrifices, why is this region being kept hostage to the Kashmir issue? Even if Kashmiris themselves have lost interest in the NA region, why would Pakistan's Foreign Office recommend the repression of the basic political rights of the people of Northern Areas; and why does it think that any change in the status quo in NA would weaken Pakistan's claim for Kashmir in international forums? It is incredible that while Pakistan maintains that Northern Areas are a disputed component of the State of J&K, the people of the Northern Areas have been totally excluded from the on going process, discussions, and decisions regarding Kashmir. Worse still, clear decisions of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, recommending grant of due political and constitutional representation of NA in the Parliament of Pakistan, stand ignored. Even though the Northern Areas remain mired in poverty and conflict, and are too sparsely populated to carry out a concerted campaign for political equity, the more the Kashmir issue moves into the spotlight, the more untenable Pakistan's position on NA will become. However, there are still quite a few options available. One can guess that many Hurriyat leaders must have brought up the issue behind the scenes, and used it as a bargaining chip. At the moment, a majority of the people in Northern Areas are in favour of joining Pakistan as its fifth province. There are a few, who think that Northern Areas' future lies with Azad Kashmir. Some border tribes prefer integration of the region into the NWFP, and the fourth option would be to make it a part of the 'United States of Jammu and Kashmir'. Other, less realistic, possibilities are being discussed, such as giving up the Northern Areas to India in exchange for the more populous Valley of Kashmir. But then, will Pakistan agree to hand over 72,400 sq kilometers of its most critical strategic point, and the area's abundance of frozen water, hydroelectricity potential, minerals, and, most importantly, a vital road link to China and Central Asia in exchange for a few million more impoverished and desperate Kashmiris? Highly unlikely.

 

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