Neglected Northern Areas
31 March 2004
Lahore: ELECTED members of the Northern Areas Council, on a visit to Lahore, have complained that the present constitutional limbo in which they exist is retarding the development of the area, and have suggested that the Northern Areas be absorbed in Azad Kashmir or their Chief Executive be an elected member. The Northern Areas, it must be conceded, have had a raw deal despite their undoubted desire to accede to Pakistan. There are historical and legal complications which have created the odd situation in which they are, but that does not mean the situation cannot be alleviated. At present, all of Pakistan has representative institutions with governments responsible to the legislatures. While the four provinces have both Parliament and their own provincial assemblies, FATA and Islamabad have at least Parliament. AJK has its own Legislative Assembly, and its interaction with Pakistan is through the Kashmir Council, which includes members of the Government of Pakistan. Pakistan is also governed by a Constitution, and AJK by an Interim Constitution. The Northern Areas does not fall within the purview of the Constitution, and its representative institution, the Northern Areas Council, includes officials posted by Islamabad, and it has no ministers, merely some elected Advisers to the Chief Executive, who is an Islamabad appointee. Why has the Northern Areas not part of Pakistan in the first place? Because it was part of the Dogra State of Jammu and Kashmir before Independence. Then why is it not part of AJK? Here the picture starts to get complicated. The Northern Areas were part of the Kashmir State, but in 1935, by the Treaty of Jammu, the British took over both the Gilgit District, as well as the Gilgit Agency on a 60-year lease, which was declared lapsed, along with all other treaties with princely states in the Indian Independence Act. The Maharaja appointed a Governor, who took charge from the British Political Agent on August 1. But a few days after Independence took place, the Gilgitis rebelled, imprisoned Governor Ghansara Singh in his own Fort, and raised the Pakistan flag, declaring accession. The Northern Areas' claim is therefore correct that their freedom struggle was separate from that waged by Ch Ghulam Abbas, Sardar Qayyum and Sardar Ibrahim in Kashmir proper, which started later, and which established a Free State rather than declared accession. However, later the Pakistan government refused to accept accession, as the whole J&K State became a disputed territory under the UN Resolutions. The Northern Areas' fate was to be decided when the Kashmir issue was resolved. However, the Kashmir issue still hangs fire, and the Northern Areas continue in a strange sort of limbo, where they are neither Pakistanis nor Kashmiris, and lack constitutional cover of any kind. It is time that this position is rectified, after a consultative process with the people there. A loose link with AJK seems most feasible. Perhaps more important, the area's neglect must end. NGOs have done a wonderful job there in education and health, but there is only so much they can do, and their good work does not absolve the state of its responsibility.