Beyond the border

Print edition : April 06, 2007

Barkat Bi welcomes her husband, Niaz Mohammad, who went to the Pakistan-held part of Jammu and Kashmir in 1965 leaving his family, in Jhullas village in Poonch on February 28.-

Any final solution to the Kashmir problem must take into account the comparatively lesser-known realities across the LoC.

OF all the statements and commitments made by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf since the peace process started between the two countries, the one of most significance and practical utility was their agreement to make borders irrelevant in Jammu and Kashmir. The ceasefire line, rechristened the Line of Control (LoC) after the 1971 India-Pakistan war, has acted like an iron curtain between the two parts into which the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir was divided even though it divided people belonging to the same linguistic and cultural stock and, in some cases, bothers and sisters.

When Acharya Vinoba Bhave was crossing the Pir Panchal, in the course of his Bhoodan Yatra in 1952, somebody pointed out the territory across the LoC as that of the enemy's. Vinoba corrected him by saying, "Do not call them enemies; people living there are our neighbours." Yet people on this side know more about people thousands of miles away than they do about their closest neighbours. All that we knew about the other side was that it was a route followed by raiders in 1947, Pakistani regulars in the garb of infiltrators in 1965, and the attacking Pakistani army. However, this route was also followed - besides the Sialkote-Jammu route - by Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and many outsiders, including saints, travellers, traders and friendly as well as not-so-friendly people. In fact, it was a part of the Jammu and Kashmir state, before 1947 - more of Jammu than of Kashmir - administratively, and even now it is ethnically an extension of the Jammu region. Likewise, Gilgit and Baltistan, officially called the Northern Areas, were a part of the Ladakh division of the state.

The two parts of the state held by Pakistan - which it calls "Azad Jammu and Kashmir" ("AJK") and the Northern Areas - are far more different, racially and culturally, from each other than each is from Jammu and Ladakh respectively. The two parts together comprise an area of 85,793 square kilometres out of the total area of the undivided state, which is 22,22,236 sq km. The Northern Areas is spread over 72,496 sq km, while "AJK" is 13,297 sq km. The population of the former is around 1,50,000, while that of the latter is 271,000.

Administratively "AJK" is divided into six districts, and Poonch, Bagh and Sudhnati, which were parts of the erstwhile Poonch district, with a population of 116,000, are the most dominant districts of "AJK" as the ruling political leadership belongs to them, in particular the Sudhun Rajputs. They led the revolt in 1947 against the government of the Maharaja of Kashmir after it bungled the problem of the Second World War soldiers demobilised from the British army who were demanding rehabilitation.

As Poonch was a separate jagir and not directly ruled by the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, its people had developed a distinct sense of Poonchi identity. But their desire for an identity at the cultural level is far from satisfied. During my visit to the other side of the LoC, many people, including the then Prime Minister of "AJK", Sikandar Hayat Khan, wanted me to send them a copy of a book on the history of Poonch written by Khushdev Maini, who lives in Poonch city on the Indian side. I did manage to send a copy to Hayat Khan.It is a matter of pride for Poonchis on both sides that the greatest prose writer in Urdu, Krishan Chander, belonged to Poonch. So did the eminent historian and writer Chirag Hasan Hasarat. Other prominent personalities from Poonch include Gulzarilal Nanda, who was acting Prime Minister of India twice; Justice Poonchi, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India; and Thakur Poonchi, a writer.

The districts of Mirpur, Kotli and Bhimber, in the southern part of "AJK", were part of a single district, Mirpur, of the Jammu region. The predominant Gujjar-Jat community of the three districts does not adequately share power with the Rajputs of Poonch. It is the home of influential pro-independence leaders such as Justice Abdul Majid. Most of the followers of Amanullah Khan, the founder-leader of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) across the LoC, also belong to this area.

Even before Independence, Mirpur was one of the few pockets of influence in the Jammu region of the Sheikh Abdullah-led National Conference. Persons such as Raja Mohammad Akbar, Mahatma Budh Singh, Haji Wahabuddein, Abdul Khaliq Ansari, Chaudhary Mohammad Shaffi, Krishan Dev Sethi and Master Roshan Lal were prominent leaders of the freedom movement who never supported the Muslim League. What further alienated the population of Mirpur was the construction of the Mangla dam on the Jhelum river in the late 1950s, which submerged a part of the city and displaced a large number of people, who are still agitating for their rehabilitation. President Ayub Khan encouraged their migration to the United Kingdom. The Mirpuri diaspora in the U.K. forms the majority of the Pakistani nationals in that country.

The militant movement for an independent Kashmir was conceived in 1990 by the Mirpur diaspora. It also received the maximum support from the same group, in the form of arms and money. When I visited London during that period to participate in a seminar in Oxford on Kashmir, its leaders called on me. To my question about their reasons for supporting the militant movement in Kashmir, they replied: "Frankly speaking, we are fed up with Pakistan, which gets most of its foreign exchange through our remittances and gets power throughout the country from the Mangla dam but neither gives any royalty to the "AJK" government nor rehabilitates persons displaced by the dam. Basically, we want azadi [freedom] from Pakistan so that we can have avenues of investment." I asked them if they succeed in getting azadi from India, how would they ensure that Pakistan would also concede azadi to them. Secondly, how would they deal with the leaders of Kashmir. They said they had come to me to seek guidance precisely on these questions. I advised them first to assert their Mirpuri identity and then negotiate with Kashmiri leaders about their mutual relationship. I advised them to hold a world Mirpuri conference. They were very excited about the idea and wanted to ensure the participation of representatives of Hindu and Sikh Mirpuri refugees in Jammu. Though I promised to help, the idea somehow could not be materialised.

When the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service was started in 1995, I received an e-mail from the U.K. telling me that the Mirpur diaspora had set up a Mirpur-Jammu Road Committee to campaign for the opening of this route. On my suggestion, Hindu and Sikh Mirpuri refugees in Jammu formed a similar committee. When I visited Mirpur in 2004, my hosts formed a committee with the same objective. Thus, the emergence of a Mirpuri identity, cutting across national and religious affiliations, is one of the most promising developments on both sides of the LoC.

Muslims of Jammu district, who were forced to migrate to Pakistan because of Partition riots, have also displayed a powerful nostalgia about their place of origin and want to visit the places of their or their parents' birth. Their reunion with the people of Jammu, by opening the Sialkote-Jammu road, would certainly be a step towards reviving old, harmonious ties.

As it was primarily the Jammu region that was divided in 1947, a softening of the border at Poonch, Mirpur and Jammu would revive common sub-regional and regional identities, which are essentially secular. When the Poonch-Rawlakote road was opened in 2005 only for divided families who had got clearance from the two governments, a large crowd gathered on the Pakistan side of the LoC. The police had to use force to control it. Farooq Sikandar, son of the then Prime Minister of the Pakistan-held part of the state, said that opening a Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road was of no use as there were no Kashmiris on their side. He demanded the opening of more routes in the Jammu region as they were part of it. The October 2005 earthquake damaged the Poonch-Rawlakote road, and it was closed to traffic. When traffic resumed on June 19, 2006, the buses were often crowded, unlike the very thin traffic on the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad buses.

Revival of common ethnic and regional ties between people on both sides of the LoC may not lead to an urge for a political unity between them, at least not in the near future. There is no indication yet that people on the other side would like to secede from Pakistan and become a part of India. Nor is the converse true, that is, the people of Jammu wanting to secede from India to merge with their co-ethnic kin in the Pakistan-held part of the state. But such a revival would most eloquently fulfil the promise that could have been expected of making the border irrelevant. Constitutionally and formally, "AJK" is independent and is referred to as a foreign country in Pakistan. When, for instance, a police posse from Mirpur made some arrests in a town in neighbouring Punjab, there was an uproar in the Pakistan Senate over the "territorial violation of Pakistan by a police contingent from a foreign country". According to Article 257 of the Constitution of Pakistan, its "sovereignty shall extend to AJK, when the people of the state decide to accede to Pakistan". The Constitution of Pakistan does not include "AJK" in the definition of the Republic.

Actually under the AJK-KA Act, 1974, a person may contest elections and seek government employment only if he or she "believes in the ideology of Pakistan" and "the concept of the state's accession to Pakistan". In protest against this law, the All Parties National Alliance (APNA) observed Black Day on July 11, 2006, the day of elections in "AJK". The Ministry for Kashmir Affairs has, in practice, an effective say in "electing" the President and Prime Minister of "AJK". Most offices in "AJK", including the Chief Secretary and those above the rank of Assistant Superintendent of Police, are supplied by the federal government. Twelve seats in the Assembly, reserved for the refugees from the Indian part of the state who settled in different parts of Pakistan, are in reality a tool in the hands of the ruling party of Pakistan to gift them to its allies in "AJK". Moreover, real power lies in the hands of the Kashmir Council, or Senate, which is presided over by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

The situation in the Northern Areas, is, constitutionally speaking, very different from that in "AJK". It does not have the facade of an independent country and is completely a part of Pakistan. But unlike other parts of Pakistan, the people here do not have the right to vote for the National Assembly, which chooses the national government. Unlike the rest of the country, it has no elected State Assembly or elected government.

The Northern Areas comprises five districts, namely Gilgit, Glizar, Diamer, Skardu and Ghancha. But none of them has any ethnic-cultural affinity with either Indian Kashmir or the Pakistani part of the state. The only area with which it has any such affinity is the Ladakh region of India. Hence, there was a demand to open the Skardu-Kargil road (a part of Ladakh district). Despite an agreement in principle between India and Pakistan, it has yet not been opened.

At the LoC, passengers from the Indian side wave to their relatives while leaving for Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir in the second phase of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, on April 21, 2005.-NISSAR AHMAD

Though the entire area joined Pakistan in 1947 through a local revolt against the Maharaja's government, which only had a small army there and was unable to control the revolt, its status has yet not been defined in Pakistan. In 1948, the Northern Areas merged with Pakistan under the Karachi Agreement between the leaders of "AJK" and Pakistan but without the participation of anyone from the Northern Areas. Later, the "AJK" High Court, in its judgment, and the "AJK" assembly, in a resolution passed in 1972, demanded the return of these areas to "AJK". But the demand was rejected by the federal court and the federal government. In 1984, the federal Minister for the Northern Areas argued that under the United Nations Security Council resolution Pakistan should grant constitutional status to these areas.

In 1999, a petition filed in the Supreme Court by some prominent persons of the Northern Areas demanded that the constitutional status of the people be declared and, as they were citizens of Pakistan, that they be given full participation in the federation of Pakistan. Further, the petition demanded that the people be given the right of appeal, review and revision before the Supreme Court and that provincial government status be granted to them. The government of Pakistan contested the jurisdiction of the court and opposed the demand of the people to be governed through their chosen representatives and to have access to justice through an independent judiciary inter alia for enforcement of their fundamental rights.

Under the Northern Areas Court of Appeals Order, 1999, the Northern Areas was given an elected council and a leader of the House, but the chief executive is the Pakistan government's Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas. Moreover, the Chief Secretary of the Northern Areas - a representative of the Pakistan government - continues to hold absolute power.

The majority of the people of the Northern Areas are Shias or are of the Ismaili sect. There are complaints that the Pakistan government is trying to change their demographic composition. Some outsiders are being settled there, particularly Wahabi Sunnis, and this has fomented sectional clashes.

Another major complaint of the people of these areas is that they have no proper name or identity. Now Balawaristan is being projected as the name of these areas. By 1988, Balawaristan nationalists organised a movement for complete independence under the Balawaristan National Front and the Balawaristan National Student Organisation. From a demand for the grant of fundamental rights and the status of a province within Pakistan, the political developments in this strategic part of Pakistan have led to a demand for independence.

The proposed construction of the Bhasha dam is the latest provocation to add fuel to the fire of pent up discontent against the domination of Pakistan and to give a new fillip to the demand for independence. According to the chairman of the Balawaristan National Front, Nawaz Khan Nazi, "the Bhasha dam not only adversely affects a population of one and a half lakhs but also demolishes mosques, dishonours graves and destroys the remnants of an ancient civilisation (Nawaiwaqt, July 30, 2004)." He demanded recognition for Balawaristan as the fourth party to the Kashmir dispute - apart from Pakistan, India and Kashmir.

Any final solution to the Kashmir problem must take into account the comparatively lesser-known realities across the LoC, briefly mentioned in this article. These are particularly relevant in any discussion on the four-point proposal made by Musharraf, which includes self-rule in the Indian and Pakistani parts of the state and joint management of both the parts.

Balraj Puri is the Director of the Institute of Jammu and Kashmir Affairs, Karan Nagar, Jammu.

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