Northern disquiet

Published : Mar 17, 2001 00:00 IST

The rumblings of revolt in the Northern Areas portend one more major trouble spot for Pakistan.

THE All Parties National Alliance (APNA) is an umbrella organisation of nationalist parties and groups of Kashmiris based in Gilgit and Baltistan in northern Pakistan. It has been treading a hair-thin line, one that separates demands for rights and an ex tremist or even a secessionist agenda. Nonetheless, the alliance has girded up its loins. It demands that the people living in these areas in Pakistan's extreme north, known as the Northern Areas, be granted basic human rights and democracy, and the regi on lumped back with Kashmir, of which it is "part and parcel".

For obvious reasons, though, New Delhi might be tempted to watch from the fence as to what flows from the APNA's demands. Islamabad might wish them away and New Delhi might derive amusement from the unease of its neighbour or, teasingly, poke in with a t rick or two.

The demand stems from history - the history of more than half a century - but it gained its present steam from the events of the past three months. The authorities in the rugged Himalayan nook clamped down on a newspaper, K-2 (a name drawn from on e of the peaks in the region, the world's second highest), and cancelled its declaration, or official permission to publish. It was accused of publishing "objectionable" material. The APNA has rejected this charge as a ruse. According to an alliance lead er, K-2, like his own organisation, was crusading for rights. In a region that has been officially demarcated as "sensitive" for more than 50 years, raising demands for people's rights, democracy and autonomy and attempting to wriggle out of well- entrenched control may involve risks.

Risks have been taken, all the same. Up from the lap of the snow-covered peaks, the fight for rights was brought down to the doorsteps of the authority - Islamabad - in whose hands rests the destiny of the Northern Areas. On February 12, APNA activists s taged a demonstration in the federal capital demanding that the ban on K-2 be revoked. The police were quick to come down on them. As many as 14 activists were jailed in Rawalpindi on the charge of having violated an official ban on the assembly of more than four people at any one place - not a very serious crime, given that n o other violation had occurred. A senior APNA leader said that the arrested political workers were not presented before a court of law and were allowed to meet visitors only after they had been in jail for more than a week. But when all the arrested peop le were "unconditionally" released on February 24, an official explanation said that the activists had been produced before a law officer who remanded them to custody for 14 days.

Dr. Farooq Haider, a key APNA leader, vowed at a press conference in Rawalpindi to launch protests against the crackdown on the alliance's workers. The first protest action was a token hunger strike in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-Occupied Kashm ir (POK). Haider also unveiled plans to take the issue beyond Pakistan's borders, by holding demonstrations in front of Pakistan's diplomatic missions in Brussels, London and New York and submitting memorandums there.

Among those arrested in Islamabad on February 12 was Wajahat Hassan Mirza, son of late Col. Hassan Mirza, who is said to have sown the seeds of the quest for independence for the region after he revolted against its Dogra ruler in 1947.

A year after that watershed event, under an agreement - the Karachi Accord - with the POK government, Pakistan gained "administrative" control of Gilgit and Baltistan, marking the area as militarily "sensitive". According to official information, the rug ged, landlocked area, spread over 72,496 sq km, was re-designated in 1973 as the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) comprising the districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Diamir, Skardu and Ganchey. The region lies close to Pakistan's borders with India a nd China. It is an area where some of the world's dramatic mountains are located. But its ownership is contested, not exactly at this point of time but "since long". Pakistan has been administering it since 1948, directly from Islamabad (earlier from Raw alpindi). Those resisting this control say that the area has historically been a part of Kashmir, which Pakistan and India have divided between them.

FAROOQ HAIDER heads the Yasin Malik faction of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chapter for Gilgit, Baltistan and POK, and is a prominent figure in the alliance of the nationalist parties. He is one among those who would like to see that the region is lumped back with Kashmir and, more important, that its people are given the opportunity to decide whether they want accession with either India or Pakistan or remain independent. By Kashmir Haider means the entire territory that is at the cent re of the bitter dispute between India and Pakistan. He also demands that the two countries withdraw their troops from Kashmir and hand over the area to "an international authority" which would oversee a process by which its people could exercise one of the three options before them.

There is "no documentary evidence" to suggest that the people of the area have acceded to Pakistan, says Haider, an apparently well-to-do medical professional, sitting in his spacious Rawalpindi residence. His elders migrated from Jammu first to Sialkot and then to Rawalpindi, where they settled down.

According to Haider, there is proof, including decisions by the Supreme Court of Pakistan and the Supreme Court of POK, affirming the status of Gilgit and Baltistan as part of Kashmir.

Haider complains that the people of Gilgit and Baltistan have no human rights and their grievances are "suppressed". For people in the region to have democracy, he says, the region should be regrouped with Kashmir, even if that means the inclusion of the part controlled by Pakistan for the time being. This, Haider says, will enable the people of Gilgit and Baltistan to send elected representatives to POK's State Assembly.

Going by what Farooq Haider says, the people's urge to win their rights is simmering and agitations are going on in "one way or the other". Arrests have been made. As many as 20 activists of the Baltistan National Front have been languishing in jail for the last three months. Government employees who raise their voice for political rights are "targeted or even demoted". In one case, according to Farooq Haider, the headmistress of a girls' school was dismissed from service on the grounds that her husband was a pro-rights political leader. Through "a process", he warns, the way is being paved for the region's accession with Pakistan. He accuses the government of "suppressing" news and launching the propaganda that the nationalist parties in Gilgit and Ba ltistan plan to Balkanise the region.

Bureaucracy, both civilian and military, is blamed for resisting the APNA's demands. Besides, there are people who desire to maintain their "chaudherahat" (overlordship) over the region and, therefore, oppose what the nationalists say and do.

What will happen in the long term? Says Farooq Haider: "With the passage of time they (the federal government) will get wiser. It will be unconstitutional and unnatural if the areas are kept under its thumb. This road leads to Kashmir's division. This co uld not be Pakistan's solution (of the issue)." Farooq Haider poses a question: What will Pakistan do if India follows suit and bifurcates Jammu from its part of Kashmir? "It cannot be that resources are controlled by someone (Islamabad) and problems are faced by someone else (people in Gilgit and Baltistan)."

On May 28, 1999, when Pakistan was celebrating the first anniversary of its nuclear tests, its Supreme Court delivered a ruling that promised to give at least part of what Gilgit and Balitistan wanted: fundamental rights, access for its people to an appe llate court and an independent government. The court recorded: "We allow the petitions and direct the respondent federation to initiate appropriate administrative/legislative measures within a period of six months from today to make necessary amendments in the Constitution... to ensure that the people in Northern Areas enjoy their fundamental rights, namely, to be governed by their chosen representatives, and to have access to justice inter alia for the enforcement of their fundamental rights under the Constitution (of Pakistan)." Additionally, and interestingly as well, Pakistan's highest court said: "It was not understandable on what basis the people of Northern Areas can be denied the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. We (the Judges)are of the view that the people of Northern Areas are citizens of Pakistan for all intents and purposes. They have the rights to invoke any fundamental rights but are also li able to pay taxes and other levies competently imposed."

As a follow-up on the court's verdict, elections were held in November that year for a 29-member Northern Areas Council, which has powers to make laws. It was a modified version of an existing council where legislation could not be enacted but where memb ers could raise development issues and make demands for funds to their constituencies. As in the case of the older council, the new council was also headed by the Federal Minister who was responsible for Kashmir, Northern Areas and the affairs of the fro ntier regions.

The Supreme Court verdict, described by newspapers as historic, was in response to several petitions. One of the petitioners was Fauzia Saleem Abbas, a self-styled political activist from Kharmang, close to Pakistan's border with India in Kargil, and a f ormer member of the Northern Areas Council. Asked whether the court's decision is being implemented by the government, she says, "No". Sitting in her exotically furnished drawing room in an elite residential district of Islamabad, she says that if the co urt's decision continues to be disregarded it will make "anti-Pakistan elements powerful and it will be difficult to control them". She agrees with most of what Farooq Haider says but would not join the nationalists for "they are a little violent."

Fauzia says she does not belong to any political party.

However, she realises that there is no unity. "We can do a lot if we get united." Fauzia draws up the same litany of complaints that Farooq Haider, or any other nationalist, has. But her remark that the court in the Northern Area is a "joke" is significa nt.

The Northern Areas region has a single-tier judiciary. It has a Chief Court, but no appellate court. Pakistan's Supreme Court has, however, proposed the establishment of an appellate court, which will be equal in status to the High Courts, in each of the country's four provinces.

Fauzia has her share of ambivalence while articulating her views on the Northern Areas. She would not say that the region be merged with Kashmir, though she is aware it has its own distinct identity. She would not emphatically call it a part of Pakistan but refer to General Zi-ul-Haq's declaration that the region was his fifth martial law zone, or demand representation for it in Islamabad.

The official position on the state of affairs in Gilgit and Baltistan is not known because the high-ups in the Ministry dealing with Kashmir and Northern Areas affairs apparently avoid talking about the subject.

But who would? Governments themselves have been side-stepping the issue of granting rights to the people of Northern Areas. For them, the issue is a hot potato.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment