In January 2007, the chief executive of the Northern Areas of Pakistan declared that Islamabad was in the final stages of preparing a package of constitutional reforms, which would be sent to the federal cabinet for approval. We are yet to hear about any movement on this. This is not surprising, though. For the constitutional status of what are called the Federally Administered Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) remains in limbo even after almost six decades of Pakistan’s independence.
This region of about 72,486 sq km and with a population of 1.5 million was once part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is ruled through a Legal Framework Order (LFO) of 1994, an administrative instrument that is used to deny representative government to the locals, and strengthen Islamabad’s hold over the region.
In 1999, the Pakistan Supreme Court had directed Islamabad to provide fundamental rights to the region, and draw up a system that would enable the people to have an elected government. But all we have today is a promise that reforms will happen.
In October 1947, taking advantage of the tribal invasion of the Kashmir Valley, British officers of the Gilgit Scouts conspired with local officials to arrest then governor Ghansara Singh and hoist the Pakistan flag. At the time, Pakistan claimed that the Rajas of Nagar and Hunza had acceded to Pakistan. But this was not legally tenable since they were a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and the only authority who could accede to anyone was Maharaja Hari Singh, who had acceded to India. Pakistan claims legal rights through an agreement signed by the so-called Azad Kashmir government that ceded control of the region to Pakistan.
The Azad Kashmir government, however, has never had any control over the region, and so handing it to Pakistan was a sleight of hand to disguise outright annexation of territory that legally belongs even now to Jammu and Kashmir. In 1972, the Azad Kashmir legislature demanded the return of the region. Its High Court upheld the judgment, but this was overturned by the Pakistan Supreme Court which said that the Northern Areas were not a part Azad Kashmir. But it did not declare it part of Pakistan either, thus leaving the region in limbo.
Pakistani authorities claim that the constitutional status of the region will be determined once the J&K dispute is resolved.
But another part of the disputed territory — Pakistan Occupied Kashmir — has had the fig leaf of an autonomous government with its own president, prime minister, legislature and courts. Locals charge that the reason why Islamabad treats the Northern Areas differently is because the majority of the people living there are Shias.
In any case, Pakistan simply treats the region as a directly administered pocket borough. The chief executive of the Northern Areas is also the Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas who sits in Islamabad and has little familiarity with his fiefdom. There is a Northern Areas Legislative Council, but it has no powers.
It is no secret that the armed forces have pushed in Sunni settlers and encouraged sectarian conflict in a bid to coerce the largely Shia residents.
The infamous events of May 1988, when Sunni tribals from the North West Frontier Province were allowed to unleash a rampage around Gilgit, killing more than 150 people before the police stepped in after three days of loot and violence, was a chilling reminder of October 1947, when raiders sent in by Pakistan sacked Baramullah, killing and raping locals, particularly the minorities.
Such episodes of violence have been repeated since. In 2005, Aga Ziauddin, the Imam of the main mosque in Gilgit was killed, again leading to a cycle of violence in which more than 20 people were killed. Since then, the region is like an armed camp with travellers being frisked for weapons as they enter Gilgit and army and paramilitary forces deployed in sand-bagged bunkers overlooking major installations.
It is, perhaps, too much to expect that a military dictator like General Musharraf will bring democracy to the Northern Areas. While India has never strongly asserted its legal claim on the region, it does have the duty to draw the world’s attention to the blatant violence and ethnic cleansing policies being pursued by the Pakistani government in the region.
PN Khera is Editor, Asia Defence News International