There has always been an element of chutzpah in Islamabad’s relationship to ‘Azad’ Kashmir aka Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Even while shouting loudly on behalf of the ‘people of Jammu and Kashmir controlled by India’, Pakistan has kept PoK under an iron hand. This has recently received confirmation of sorts through a Human Rights Watch report, ‘Pakistan: “Free Kashmir” Far From Free’, which calls PoK “a land of strict curbs on political pluralism and freedom of expression; muzzled press; banned books; and arbitrary arrest, detention and torture at the hands of the Pakistani military and police”.
PoK has had a kind of Potemkin village existence. Though not a sovereign State or a province of Pakistan, the state has its own Constitution, legislative assembly comprising democratically elected members, a President and a Prime Minister with a council of ministers. But real authority rests with the federal government in Islamabad and the Pakistan military and intelligence forces. Islamabad can overturn — and has routinely overturned — decisions of the local government and filled posts with its own stooges. The Constitution allows no room for dissent, requiring candidates to the assembly, journalists, authors and those seeking employment in government offices to pledge support to the cause of Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan. Add to that the ISI-backed militants who function from the area, and PoK’s subjugation is complete.
The irony is that it took a devastating earthquake last year to point the way forward. The tragedy showed the local government up for the sham it is. It also opened up PoK to the international media, aid donors and human rights activists. The difference this has made was evident in the assembly elections held this year. While candidates who refused to pledge loyalty to Islamabad were still barred, at least this time round they were not illegally arrested, tortured and kept in detention. Obviously, sustained international scrutiny is the only way to prevent the military, the ISI and militants from operating with impunity. This alone will give PoK a taste of basic civil liberty and shift the focus in the region to the larger problem of governance and government in Pakistan.