Free Balawaristan movement gains momentum

By Sultan Shahin

Pakistan misadventure in Kargil has caused many a problem for the country. Some of the long-term consequences are only now beginning to unfold. Several politicians and social activities in the Kashmir valley are surprised to have received recently letters of greetings and calls for help from the leadership of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF) which has been spearheading a movement for independence in Gilgit and Baltistan (jointly called Balawaristan) in Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Even at the Human Rights Conference in Geneva recently the BNF distributed memoranda alleging massive human rights violation of the Balawari people of Pakistan and calling for its independence.

Pakistan's refusal to take back the dead bodies of the Kashmiris killed just a year ago in Kargil and its eagerness to accord all military honours to the bodies of the Punjabi soldiers has given a powerful fillip to the independence movement in the region. Also, the Balawaris are greatly confused by the pictures of Indian Army and BSF jawans risking their lives to bring the bodies of the Pakistani dead soldiers and giving them a proper islamic burial followed by prayers for their salvation in the hereafter. They are confused because this completely negates all the Pakistani propaganda stories they have been told about the cruelty, if not total inhumanity of the way Indian security forces conduct themselves in Kashmir. The television pictures of these burials on Indian soil of Balawari soldiers that pakistan has refused to take remained the talk of the town in Gilgit and Baltistan for days on end and appear to have destroyed the very raison d'etre of the conflict with India in their minds.

The BNF presentation at the Geneva conference makes the following telling points, among other things :

1. Mr Khan Abdul Hamid , chairman of the BNF, sought to draw the attention of the Geneva forum towards what he described as "the fastest deteriorating human rights situation in occupied country," on behalf of two million people of Balawaristan. He said : "Our great nation is reeling under the stifling control of the Armed Forces of Pakistan and its security agencies like the ISI. Our innocent people are being treated as subjugated slaves. They have been deprived of all basic humans, economic culture and political rights for the last 52 years due to the worst colonial system imposed by Pakistan in the name of religion. As a result, our simple folks are living likes animals in this civilised world even at the draw of 21st century".

2. "In the past 52 years a number of our countrymen have been brutally killed by Pakistan forces. But ours is the only part of the world where the highest court works on the basis of the contract and where no written petition is allowed against any human rights violations."

3. "Pakistan intelligence agency ISI has been forcibly sending our innocent youth across the LOC to Indian occupied Kashmir for terrorist activities. Those who refuse to work for ISI are picked up and killed. In 1999 alone Pakistani occupation forces used our innocent people as cannon fodder against India in its Kargil misadventure . More than 400 young men of our nation lost their lives , about 1,000 were wounded and approximately 40 are still missing."

The BNF documents also provides a list of names and addresses of the "civilians who were sent by the ISI across the LOC in 1998-99" and another list of " unemployed youth who were killed by ISI and Jamaat-e-Islami near the LOC when they refused to go across for the terrorist activities."

These are serious charges and backed as they are by specific information appear to be quite credible.

Pakistan's military rulers, too , seem to be aware of the growing disenchantment of the Balawaris. This is what explains General Pervez Musharraf granting on March 4, 2000, an additional 20 crores to the development budget of the Northern areas for the current year. But it is difficult to see this announcement making any positive impact. General Musharraf is remembered in the Northern Areas is the young Brigadier of the SSG who had been chosen by General Zia-ul-Haq in May 1998 to quell the Shia insurrection in Gilgit. Musharraf has recruited several thousands of of Sunni tribals from the Afghan borders, an area he know well as he had worked with the Mujahideen before. He had also brought truckloads of tribals from the Shilas and Khoistan. He had then let these tribals loose upon the Shias . The massacre that ensured remained unparalleled in South Asia until the recent Taliban massacre of Shia Hazaras in northern Afghanistan. The Balawaris also remember Musharraf as the man who played a key role in changing the demographic composition of the area. He brought large numbers of Sunni businessmen from Punjab and the NWFP and helped them to set up business in the Northern Areas.

Pakistan was believed to have ruthlessly suppressed the BNF as it had earlier silenced the Tanzeem-e- Millat led by Johar Ali Khan. The BNF was in dog house particularly since its leader Khan Abdul Hamid has faxed his statement to the international media from Karachi a couple of years ago, virtually demanding independence. He had said then: "The people of Gilgit and Baltistan have been betrayed by pakistan and made slaves in their own land. We no longer have the rights that we had been under the Dogra rule which we struggled so hard against. We do not have political the political freedom people have either in Indian Kashmir or POK. So we want the fourth option, which is to liberate our people from all foreign occupation."

Describing the plight of the Balawaris , he had said : "We are not only deprived of fundamentals and constitutional rights but we do not have rights that animals enjoy in some countries. " India has been made the excuse , he said , "Of installing a rule by Pakistani military and civilian administration that has made us slaves in our own land.

Nothing much was heard of the movement since this outburst known officially as Northern Areas , the region comes in the news mainly when Shia-Sunni clashes takes place there. Balawaristan has a population of 2 million, about the same as POk that has been designated as "Azad Kashmir", but the people live over an area of about 28,000 square miles seven times larger than so-called Azad Kashmir. There is no local government there despite the despite solaced package deal for a kind of autonomy announced by the Pakistan government some times ago, "in an attempt", according to Khan Abdul Hammed, "to hoodwink the international community."

The suppression of human rights of the Balawaris come to international attention for the first time in 1994 when a Belgian human rights activist Ms. Claire Gale was able to visit the Northern areas along with the solaced Ad Kashmir part of the poke. "You are the first western we met since 1947," She was told by several people. "A young man told her that he was keeping his government job just by declaring that he was a member of Jamaat-e-Islami as its stand for accession of the poke to pakistan. Describing their plight to me in the Hague recently , Ms Gale who had been arrested in poke on the orders of Sandra Qayyum Khan , the then Prime Minister of "Ad Kashmir", recalled the overwhelming presence of the Army and other security forces in the region. "Entire population is alienated and Pakistani authorities to keep the people divided by fueling Siha-Sunni differences. All top positions there are held by Pakistani nationals," She added.

It is not just visiting human rights activists and local dissidents who speaks of unspeakable atrocities on the people of Balawaristan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan too carried a special study of the situation in the Northern Areas (NA). It is monthly newsletter for January 1994 reported.

"The governments of Pakistan governs the NA through the Kashmir and Northern Areas Division (KANA). Authority behind KANA has remained vague. The executive head is the chief commissioner appointed by KANA and only answerable to it. The place is totally under bureaucratic rule. There is no industry in NA.

" The Judicial Commissioner does not have wit jurisdiction and, as the people of the NA do not have any fundamental rights , the Judicial Commissioner does not have jurisdiction to enforce them."

" The Judicial Commissioner has no say in the appointments and the transfers of subordinate court judges , which are done by the KANA division.

"The people of the NA have no say in what laws should govern them. The KANA divisions exercises the powers of the provincial government for the NA and by notification extends laws of pakistan and such amendments as its think fits to the NA. Entrusting such such absolute legislative powers to a government functionary is not without its share of hardships.

"By a notification , order 39 of the civil procedure code was amended , taking away the powers of the civil courts to grant temporary injunctions against the government meaningless. By another notification , the Speedy Trial Courts Act , 1992, was made applicable to the NA with the amendment that in appeal from the trial court, any differences of the opinion between the two judges of the Appellate court will be settled by the chairman of the court. Such arbitrary application of laws is particularly unfair because not only do the people have no forum to protest against or amend these laws, but also because the courts have no writ jurisdiction nor the people any fundamental rights. Thus such law can not be tested for their legality and reasonableness for violation of fundamental rights.

" The Northern Areas Council is headed by the minister of KANA and meets whenever called by the minister. The members can not convene a meeting. The orders require that a meeting of a council should be called every two and half months, but in practice the minister does not convene one for months. The Council in any case has no power. It can not form a government, can not legislate and has no say in the administration. It can not suggest development schemes. The main function of Councilors , as a cynic said, is receiving dignitaries from Pakistan.

"The police in the NA has no prosecution of crime branch nor a forensic laboratory. No newspaper is published within the NA. There are few local language weeklies and monthlies, but they are printed elsewhere.

"The Shia and Sunni communities in Gilgit had lived harmoniously for centuries. It is not easy to say when the trouble started, but it reached it climax in the killings of 1988. Some people suspected that the administration started it up after the political upheaval in Pakistan of 1970 and 1971 to take the minds of the people of political issues . It has even given rise to the occasional rumour that the Government itself pays the Ulema to start the clashes. With very low literacy , extreme poverty and no organised political activity, it is not surprising that the Ulema have acquired such a strong hold over the people. No judicial enquiry has been held into the clashes in 1992 and no compensation paid to the heirs of the person killed or for properties damaged ."

The Human Rights Commission Newsletter summed up the situation with the following points:

1. The people of NA have no say in whom governs them.
2. The democratic rights of the people have been tied to a cause.
3. A Pakistan civil servant legislate for the NA and influences all the executive and judicial acts.
4. Sometimes arbitrary laws are applied while important ones are not extended, according to the convenience.
5. The NA council, the highest elective body in the NA, has no legislative powers at all.
6. The Judicial commissioner and subordinate courts are not free.
7. The people have no fundamental rights whatsoever.
8. Executive acts, however arbitrary, can not be judicially reviewed.
9. The election commissioner is not independent and is vulnerable to pressures.
10. The administration has failed to control sectarian clashes due to mis-management and acquiescence to pressure."

Even a facade of separate set-up available to the so-called Azad Kashmir has been denied to Balawaristan which has been incorporated into Pakistan as a centrally-administrated tribal areas like federally administered tribal Areas (FATA) near the Afghan border. Like the FATA , too, it is governed under what is called frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) framed by the British during the colonial days for dealing with they look upon as the criminal tribes of the areas bordering Afghanistan. Under these regulations, every resident has to report to the local police station once a month and all movements from one village to another village have to be reported to the police station.

The Friday Times of October 15-21, 1992 quoted Mr Mohammad Yahya Shah, chief Convener of the Hunza-Nagar Movement , a new Shia organisation , as saying: "we were ruled by the whites during the British days, but we are now being ruled by the browns from the plains. The rapid settling-in of mostly Punjabis and Pakhtoons from outside , particularly the trading classes, has created a sense of acute insecurity among the local Shias and resulted in antagonistic perceptions between the locals and the outsiders. The genie is out of the bottle. Political reform has been abandoned in favour of extremism which the Government is abetting in order to prolong its unconstitutional militarisation. The economic and environmental plundering continues unabated . During Qasim Shah's tenure as minister of NA , the forests were denuded rapidly. In the 1988 conflict , 400,000 acres of jungle were depleted and the wood smuggled out. Marco polo sheep, an endangered species , was hunted in the hundreds by the previous corps Commander , Lt. Gen. Ali Akbar who used helicopter gun ships for his sport,"

The same issue of the Friday Times quoted Mr Muzaffar Ali, another Shia leader and general secretary of the NA Bar Association, as saying : "The Government is is instigating violence to suppress our genuine demands. In Pakistan , three Supreme Court Judges have to confirm a sessions Judge's verdict. Here things happen in total negation of legal procedures as enshrined in the constitution. A single senior judge from down country confirms a verdict functioning as an autonomous Judicial Commissioner. He is at times even junior to the local Sessions judge. The State Subject rules remained enforced in Indian Kashmir after 1947 while we blundered by getting integrated, without adequate guarantees, into Pakistan for the shake of Muslim bother hood. We have ended up without a constitution, representation, even without civil or judicial rights as are available to our Pakistani brothers." Opposing the demands of Shias for separate Karakoram Province, a group of Sunni leaders of the POK filled a petition before the POK High Court on October 16, 1990, demanding that the NA, being Kashmiri territory, should be merge with POK. Delivering the judgment on March 8, 1993, Mr Justice Abdul Majeed Mallick, Chief Justice of the POK High Court , ruled as follows:

(a) "The NA are and have been part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed before and on August 15, 1947."

(b) "The NA are the part of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and are to construed and acknowledge as such."

(c) "The detachment of the NA from the rest of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir is tantamount to the violation of the Resolutions of the Security Council of March 30, 1951 and January 24, 1957."

(d) "The state subjects residing in the NA have been deprived of the benefits of fundamental rights enshrined in the Interim Constitution during the past without lawful authority. These rights are admissible and excercisable by them."

Refusing to accept the judgment , the Government of Pakistan said in a statement issued on March 11, 1993. "The Azad Jammu and Kashmir Government has no jurisdiction over the NA, which are under the administrative control of Pakistan and historically had been administered by the Central Government . There is no question of passing on the administrative jurisdiction of the NA to the AJK Government."

Balawaristan is divided into six districts called Hunza-Nagar, Gilgit, Koh-e-Ghizer, Ghanche, Diamir and Skardu, which in turn, are grouped into three agencies or divisions call Diamir with headquarters at Chilas, Gilgit with headquarters in Gilgit Town and Baltistan with headquarters in Skardu Town. Of the total population of the NA, 50 percent are Shia s. The Ismailis , the followers of the Agha Khan, and the Sunnis constitute 25 percent each. The Sunnis are in the majority in the Diamir District and in a minority in the five districts.

Before October 1994, Balawaris had no rights of adult franchise. The territory had no elected Assembly or even municipal council and no representation in Federal Assembly. Political parties were banned. In 1994, Islamabad allowed political parties of Pakistan but not of POK, to extend their activities to the region and open branches. The Pakistan People's Party, Pakistan Muslim League, the Muttaheda Qaumi Party , an offshoot of the MQM and the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafria Pakistan a Shia organisation, now have branches there.

In october 1994, party based election to a 26 member council called a NA Executive of Council were held and it was announce on March 31, 1995, that its members would have the same status, emoluments and privileges as the members of the NWFP Legislative Assembly, thereby giving it a facade of a Provincial Legislative Assembly. But in reality, the Executive Council has recommendatory powers. Five of its members have been designated as the Advisers to the Federal minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas (Pakistan) Affairs, who told the national Assembly on march 26, 1996, that the Advisers would have the same status and powers as ministers of the POK Government.

Balawaristan continues to be ruled directly from Islamabad by minister of state for Kashmir and Northern Areas (Pakistan) Affairs with the help of six officers , all non-natives , deputed from outside. These officers are the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), the Commissioner, the deputy Commissioner , the Inspector General of Police (IGP), the Judicial Commissioner and the Chief Engineer public works . While the posts of the officers of the Pakistan Army, the other post are filled by officers taken on deputation from Punjab or the NWFP. There is no appeal against the judgments of the Judicial Commissioner. The Pakistan Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over him.

Like the FATA , the NA continues to be economically the most neglected area of Pakistan. In 1998-1999, the last year for which statistics are available, the total allocation for development works in NA amounted to Pakistani RS 3,09330 (US $1,500) according to then prevailing rate only for the population of two million. Whatever rural development has taken place has been due to the Agar Khan Foundation which has set up a number of projects for protected water supply, sanitation and health. The only medical centers are those of the Army for its personnel and other Government servants and of the Agar Khan Foundation for the locals.

Balawaristan has no University and no professional colleges. It has only two colleges and with no post-graduate facilities and 12 high schools. No University has been set up in the area. There are no daily newspapers and no radio or TV stations. The local people draw their subsistence from tourism. They used to join armed forces in large numbers , but after the death of Gen. Zia-Ul-Haq in a plane clash in August 17, 1988, in which a Shia member of the crew belonging to the Gilgit was suspected, the Pakistani armed forces have reduced recruitment from this area.

Government service is another means of livelihood, but the natives joining service resent being paid 25 percent less than non-natives from other provinces posted in the NA on deputation. This has been a source of great resentment leading to frequent strikes . Unlike the Mirpuris , the Balawaris have not even been able to migrate in large numbers to UK, the USA and other western countries and support their families from there, as they require an extra Visa which is rarely issued.

The first organisation to voice Balawari anger against Islamabad was the Tanzeem-e-Millat led by Johar Ali Khan that started operating in Gilgit in 1971 despite the ban on political activities. In 1974, it called for a strike that took a violent turn. The Gilgit scouts, a locally raised para-military unit with a history of over a hundred years refused to open fire on the agitators. The Prime Minister Z.A.Bhutto disbanded the unit , thus creating another permanent source of resentment among the locals. The injection of sectarian poison in the form of government supported Sunni organisations led to an anti-Shia carnage in May 198, which was followed by violent anti-Shia incidents in 1990,1992 and 1993, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people.

What appears to have given a powerful fillip to the movement now is the treatment meted out to the dead bodies of the jawans of the Northern Areas Light Infantry. While the Pakistan Army and government was prepared to compromise its position in accepting the bodies of Punjabi Soldiers, it left the Kashmiri soldiers to rot in Kargil. The respect shown to the dead bodies of these Pakistani Kashmiri soldiers by the Indian Army Jawans who went to great trouble to recover their bodies and give them proper Islamic burials has greatly impressed them, while at the same time creating deep resentment and anger against the Pakistani Army. Date: 1 June 2000


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