An enclave on the boil

Print edition : June 04, 2004

Discontentment is mounting in the Northern Areas, once a part of Kashmir, where Pakistan has tried to suppress regional aspirations by enforcing draconian laws and by changing the demographic pattern by settling Sunni Muslims from Punjab and the northeast.

in New Delhi

WHILE the highly publicised 56-year-old dispute over Jammu and Kashmir rages between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan, the simmering discontent in Pakistan's remote Northern Areas (N.A.), which once formed part of the troubled principality, has largely gone unnoticed.

This strategic, picturesque and environmentally diverse region adjoining China and the Central Asian Republics (CARs), which is dominated by Shias and Ismaili Muslims who are followers of the Agha Khan, has remained under tight Pakistani military control for over five decades. It is out of bounds to outsiders including journalists, except for occasional "guided tours" closely monitored by the Army and the intelligence agencies. Because of this, little about the rumblings in the region becomes known.

The N.A.'s 2.8 million residents, spread across Gilgit, Diamir, Baltistan, Ghizer and Ghanche districts, which cover 44,800 square kilometres, are the only people in Pakistan whose status remains unspecified. They continue to be deprived of the fundamental, legal, political and civil rights that are guaranteed to the rest of the country by Pakistan's Constitution. The entire region is administered by the repressive Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR), which were framed during the Colonial era and which make it mandatory for all residents to report regularly to local intelligence personnel and stipulate that all movement from one village to another has to be reported. Consequently, their resentment has been steadily growing.

Persistent denial of educational and economic opportunities for the region and the absence of any infrastructural facilities such as hospitals and colleges have further strengthened Islamabad's stranglehold over the N.A. The region has a near negligible presence of daily newspapers and radio or television stations. The few publications that exist are subject to state control and are frequently shut down for airing "subversive" demands such as human rights, accountability and political freedom.

The breathtakingly beautiful N.A. is home to eight mountain peaks between 24,000 and 28,000 feet (7,200 to 8,400 metres) high, including the K2, the world's second highest peak. But little of this is exploited to benefit the local people. "We want access to our own resources, which is our right," Inayatullah of the Engineers Forum of Gilgit-Baltistan said at one of the first ever public seminars by N.A. leaders permitted by the Pakistani establishment, in the garrison town of Rawalpindi last year.

Accusing Islamabad of perpetuating "Agency Raj" or control over the region by the military and the intelligence services, members of the 12-party Gilgit Baltistan National Alliance (GBNA) objected to the N.A. being colonised by outsiders, mostly Sunni Muslims from Punjab and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and demanded a greater say in deciding its future.

Security analysts say Islamabad is concerned that the mounting restlessness could impinge negatively on vital national security concerns. The Karakoram highway, which snakes through the N.A., links Pakistan to its military and nuclear ally China via the Khunjerab Pass, one of the worlds highest passes. The Indus and Jhelum rivers, Pakistan's main water sources, meander through the area. Any attempt at disrupting the flow of the rivers in the N.A. could trigger drought in several parts of the country, parts of which are already parched and close to becoming deserts because of Islamabad's short-sighted water management and inter-province disputes.

THE complex history of the N. A. is intricately linked to the Kashmir dispute. After Independence in 1947, Kashmir's Hindu ruler Maharaja Hari Singh feebly tried to regain control over the turbulent area, then known as the Gilgit Agency and controlled by the Gilgit Scouts, one of the several militias raised by the colonial administration to exercise at least limited suzerainty over far-flung and turbulent regions of the vast empire.

But pro-Islamic zeal and incitement by the British commander of the Gilgit Scouts led to the region breaking away from Kashmir to form the independent People's Republic of Baltistan and Gilgit. This, however, lasted a mere 17 days, as the leaders of the rebellion in a fit of religious zeal handed over the territory on November 1, 1947, to the newly formed Pakistan. Over the years, following decades of repression by Islamabad, November 1 is observed as a day of repentance in the N.A. when slogans in support of independence from federal control are raised openly.

Recognising its strategic importance and unsure of how the Kashmir dispute would unravel, Pakistan almost immediately renamed this region the Northern Areas and separated it from the rest of Kashmir, which it occupied and called it "Azad" or free Kashmir. Azad Kashmir - which India terms Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) - included a 6,400 sq km sliver of land around the capital Muzaffarabad and the other main town Mirpur, while the N. A. was at least seven times larger. India controls two-thirds of Kashmir.

In 1949, Pakistan separated the administration of the N.A. from POK and introduced the draconian FCR. And, though POK was provided a figurehead administration, which included a Sadr (President) and a Vazir-e-Azam (Prime Minister) and a modicum of political activity, albeit tightly controlled by the federal government, the N.A. is still administered by a toothless council, headed by a Deputy Commissioner appointed by Islamabad.

Islamabad is determined to `disengage' the N.A. from POK. Security analysts say that the Pakistani military will go to any length to crush any independence movement in the N.A. as it cannot afford the area breaking away or becoming part of the larger Kashmir question.

"While Pakistan-backed militancy has focussed the international spotlight on the Kashmir valley, India has failed to expose clearly Pakistan's weaknesses in the N.A.," a security official said. If India's tenuous claims over Kashmir form the basis of Pakistan's argument to gain control of the Muslim-majority State, then the hatred of the people of the N.A. towards Islamabad must also be factored into the dispute, he added.

In 1963, in violation of all agreements, approximately a third of the N.A., the Shaksgam valley, was gifted to China under the Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement, which stipulated that the deal was subject to a final settlement of the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. Thereafter China and Pakistan built the Karakoram military highway on the ceded territory, linking Islamabad with Kashgar in Xinjiang. And though the chances of renegotiating this arbitrary land transfer are remote, Pakistan remained wary of the local Shias, who have not reconciled themselves to the majority Sunni control from the `mainland'.

In the first decades after 1947, the N.A. agitation was directed towards joining the Pakistani mainstream by the amalgamation of the region on the basis of parity with POK. But once they realised that even this would not be conceded, in 1988 people revolted in Gilgit demanding an independent Karakoram state.

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then a Brigadier with the elite commando Special Services Group charged with quelling the disturbances, effectively used Sunni tribal `irregulars' to execute a brutal pogrom against the locals. Sunni tribals were trucked in from mainland Pakistan and the Afghan border regions, and after eight days of ceaseless violence the Army `stepped in' to restore peace. Thereafter large numbers of Sunnis were brought in from Punjab and the NWFP to settle down in Gilgit, radically altering the demographic profile of the area. The 85-90 per cent Shia majority of 1947 has been whittled down to around 55 per cent today. "We were ruled by the whites during the British days. We are now ruled by the browns from the plains. The rapid settling in of Punjabis and Pakhtoons from outside, particularly the trading classes, has created a sense of acute insecurity among the local Shias," local Shia leader Muhammad Yahya Shah declared. According to reports in the Pakistani press, the 1:4 ratio of non-local people to local people in the region until January 2001 has dipped to an alarming 3:4.

Anti-Sunni riots broke out in 1993 in Gilgit, leading to the death of 20 Shias. A year later the federal government allowed mainline political parties of Pakistan to funtion in the region but not those of neighbouring POK.

The first party-based elections in October 1994 led to the installation of the 26-member Northern Areas Executive Council, but it had only advisory powers, no legislative authority. The real power remained with the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs, which is headed by a middle-level bureaucrat in Islamabad. `Mainland' officials continued to man the N.A.'s civil, police and security services. There was also no right of appeal against the judgments of the judicial commissioner.

Following the recommendations of the Pakistan Supreme Court to extend to the N.A. legislative, financial and administrative powers alongside an independent judiciary with writ jurisdiction, the first N.A. Legislative Council was elected in 2000. It was granted powers to legislate on local matters and impose local taxes, but the overall N.A. structure was left unchanged so that Pakistan's Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs continued as the chief executive. And when the rest of Pakistan voted for a new civilian government in the October 2002 elections, the N.A. remained outside the political process.

Unrest erupted in Gilgit in June 2001 and again two years later following protests from Sunni organisations over the Islamabad-directed administration's decision to introduce a school syllabus that ignored Shia beliefs. The Shias claimed that they were being forced to study the same books as those prescribed for Sunni students by the Sunni Ulema, and not those approved by the Shia clergy. Shia leaders said the textbooks promoted Sunni thought and values and were an attempt to promote sectarian hatred between the two sects. Hundreds of schoolchildren boycotted classes and staged protest rallies in Gilgit but to little effect.

The 11-week-long Kargil War in 1999 further fuelled discontent in the N.A. The Pakistan Army's Northern Light Infantry (NLI), over 70 per cent of which is comprised of local people, was used for the Kargil incursions. The NLI suffered serious casualties as the Shia soldiers were pushed into suicidal missions by Sunni officers from the `mainland'. Once Washington, fearing the conflict between the nuclear rivals could escalate, brokered peace between the neighbours and forced Pakistan to withdraw its forces, the NLI was disowned by Islamabad. Pakistan refused to accept the bodies of NLI soldiers and the Army initially refused any compensation to the families of those killed in combat. Soon afterwards, NLI units were posted out of the region while, to humiliate the local people further, Sunni Punjabi and Pakhtoon troops were inducted into hitherto "pure N.A." Shia units.

"Though outwardly calm, the Northern Areas of Pakistan are simmering with a crisis that has all the ingredients of boiling over the rim," the widely circulated newspaper Dawn said recently. This discontent and anger, if not appeased, can erupt into a national crisis with far-reaching consequences, it added.

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