The POK puppet-show

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

FROM all accounts, corruption is endemic in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK). This is how a conservative Pakistani newspaper commented in a telling editorial, "New AJK government", barely two days after Sardar Sikander Hayat of the Muslim Conference (M.C.) took the oath of office as Prime Minister of the semi-autonomous State. The general elections in POK were held on July 5. Hayat has held the same office before and also that of the territory's President. In fact, it was President Hayat who swore in Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry of the Pakistan People's Party Jammu and Kashmir (PPPJK) Prime Minister in 1996. The State's politics, said the editorial in The Nation, swings regularly between its two major parties when its comes to the issue of Kashmir. The exit of the PPPJK and the assumption of power by the M.C. completes another such swing.

But, uncannily, the swing seems to be the result of the pulling of strings from Islamabad, where democracy is non-existent and politics is a hotchpotch. However, possibly by means of string-pulling again, politicking in the satellite state of Pakistan seems to have been prevented from slipping into chaos, as the situation in Pakistan itself is. Expectedly, then, the swing rarely loses its rhythm or frequency in letting parties in the POK have their positions shifted, and take their turn at the helm of power.

However, this time around the POK applecart that Islamabad has been painstakingly trying to keep in order faced the threat of being upset. In the run-up to the elections, the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) raised what can be described as a storm in a teacup in Muzaffarabad, the capital of POK. The nomination papers of as many as 32 JKLF leaders were rejected because, as JKLF chairman Amanullah Khan said, they refused to budge from their ideological position that Kashmir should be independent from both India and Pakistan. They refused to comply with the Election Commission's precondition, as laid down as a clause in the nomination paper, that they should support the State's accession to Pakistan. But the Commission admitted later that at least five JKLF men managed to escape its scrutiny and contest the polls but none of them won. According to an Islamabad-based Kashmiri journalist, a nationalist leader, as those who support Kashmir's independence from both India and Pakistan are generally called, got just one vote.

In a marked departure from past elections, according to an observer of Kashmir affairs, 15 nationalists are generally believed to have contested this time. The Election Commission held that all of them had agreed to comply with the "accession" clause. None of the nationalists - eight from the Kashmir Freedom Movement, five from the JKLF and two from the All Parties National Alliance (APNA), a grouping of Kashmiri nationalist parties - won in the elections, which saw a voter turnout of 48 per cent.

Besides the nationalists making a foray into electoral politics, a notable feature of politics in POK has been the dominant, at times decisive, role played by clannish affiliations despite the fact that the area has a literacy rate of around 50 per cent, almost twice that of Pakistan. For instance, those elected from Bagh district were mostly Rajas and Abbasis, those from Poonch district Suddhans, and those from Mirpur Chaudhrys.

Amanullah Khan minces no words in saying that Pakistan manipulates affairs in POK. In support of his argument he points out the gap between the date of polling (July 5) and the date on which Hayat was sworn in (July 25). In those 20 days, he says, Islamabad was manoeuvring to select for the Prime Minister's post a person other than the head of the winning party. The M.C. is led by Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan, a former Prime Minister and President. He was expected to be elected President again on August 1, but newspaper reports suggest otherwise. According to political observers, Qayyum, a veteran, is footloose when it comes to his relationship with Islamabad. He reportedly told some close associates that the military government was not at ease with him and hence he would not vie for the post of President, a figurehead in POK.

As if out of the blue, the newspaper Dawn reported on July 29 that a two-star Major-General, Mohammad Anwar, was being retired from the Army in 24 hours to be elected President on the M.C. ticket. A member of the powerful Suddhan tribe, Anwar is serving as Chief of the General Staff at the military's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Rules were rewritten to ease the General's entry into the presidency, the paper said. The POK government has issued an ordinance quashing the requirement that officials, civil or military, have to wait for a mandatory two-year period after retirement or resignation before entering politics or contesting elections. Dawn reported that most members of the M.C. Parliamentary Party were taken aback when they were told that a serving Army General was most likely to be their party's presidential candidate. Some of them turned emotional and said that they would not cast their votes if Qayyum was not the party's candidate. Obviously, the decision to have an army man as President for POK could be traced to Islamabad, especially if one could understand the implication of what Qayyum had told his associates.

No surprise then that Amanullah Khan views Islamabad's approach to Kashmir as a colonialistic one. "Absolutely," said the Islamabad-based journalist, when asked if Islamabad had a role in controlling politics in POK. A more telling evidence of Islamabad's influence is the fact that the party that comes to power in Muzaffarabad is invariably the offshoot of the one at the helm in Islamabad. Similarly, the 12 seats that are reserved in Pakistan for the so-called Kashmiri refugees who migrated in 1947 almost always go to the party that rules Pakistan. This time the military regime did not make any choice, it is said.

The decision to appoint a General as POK's President can also be viewed in the context of the simmering differences between Hayat and Qayyum. Only a President with a military background can put an end to the bickering between the two uneasy colleagues or prevent them from splitting the M.C. as they had done in the past. Their relationship became tenuous in the jockeying for power after the M.C. won 30 seats in the 48-member legislative chamber. Hayat vied for the Prime Minister's office and Qayyum tried to promote his son Sardar Attiq to the slot. Qayyum's detractors accuse him of indulging in massive corruption - in which his dutiful scion Attiq also allegedly took part - and cronyism. Observers believe that the military might be trying to sideline Qayyum because of his tainted image and past credentials.

The military's General Officer Commanding at Murree, a hill station about two hours' drive from Muzaffarabad, is said to have supervised the election process in POK. It was said in Islamabad that prior to the elections the military and the M.C. had reached an understanding on who should contest the polls and who should not. Qayyum and his son were among those that the military wanted out of the list. But the party, it was alleged, backed out.

Under pressure from Islamabad to have its own mechanism for accountability (Ehtesab) - the term had gained a lopsided meaning during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's tenure - the POK government led by Barrister Sultan Mahmood Chaudhry made relevant laws and set up an Ehtesab Bureau (E.B.). When the E.B. juggernaut started rolling, its initial casualties included two of Chaudhry's Cabinet colleagues. More important, Qayyum and Attiq were at the top of a list of the corrupt compiled by the Bureau.

Qayyum was obviously bitter about Chaudhry but Hayat, who had been let off the accountability hook, was in a conciliatory mood. In his inaugural speech as Prime Minister, Hayat noted with appreciation that the accountability process had not been used for witch-hunting. Apparently, and not to sound irrelevant to his backers in uniform, Hayat set out his future plans in a responsible fashion: "My priorities are to deliver good governance, enforce financial discipline, bring an end to sifarish and corruption culture and establish the rule of law, justice and merit."

In what might have been an instance of a slip of the tongue, of speaking his mind, or of being carried away by the occasion, Hayat, while thanking Islamabad effusively for holding the elections, referred to the lack of democracy in Pakistan - he said that the credit went to Islamabad for carrying on the democratic process in "Azad Kashmir" although democracy did not exist in Pakistan. There might have been many a red face in the audience.

As if to refute Hayat, Amanullah Khan said bitterly that one could not say the elections were fair because candidates who had expressed their own ideology were thrown out of the race. Nonetheless, he was relieved that his party had somehow made a point. The JKLF staged demonstrations against the ban on its leaders contesting the elections and about 250 of its members were jailed. "Even I was arrested," Amanullah Khan lamented, concerned about the treatment meted out to his party. Pakistan's claim that it stood for the Kashmiris' right to self-determination was "nonsense", he said.

Irrespective of his outburst against Islamabad, Pakistan's role is permanently etched into what goes on in POK. The State's Legislative Assembly is fiddled with from outside and its minuscule Upper House, the AJK Council, is under Islamabad's thumb. The 11-member Council is chaired by Pakistan's Federal Minister in charge of the affairs of Kashmir and Northern Areas. The Minister can cast a vote when the election is held to any of the six seats left for open contest. To the remaining five seats, members from various backgrounds are nominated.

Economically too, POK is dependent on Pakistan. Its economy has been conspicuously unsuccessful in generating its own resources and relies to a high degree on support from Islamabad. There are few development projects. Education is an area of neglect; three State universities do not have their own campuses and 1,100 schools are without buildings. The poverty alleviation programme is a non-starter and the high rate of unemployment has created a huge migratory workforce.

Most regrettable, The Nation's editorial comments, is the leadership's preoccupation with protocol and foreign junkets at the expense of the State, ostensibly in the cause of Kashmir.

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