The Northern Areas' Dangerous Limbo
27 September 2005
The News International
M. Ismail Khan
Islamabad: Pakistan's handling of the Northern Areas over the last 57 years has started to draw increasing international scrutiny. Freedom House, and American human rights group, has categorised the region 'Not Free.' The recently held Intra-Kashmir Conference in Srinagar demanded the same civil and political rights for the region enjoyed by the two parts of Kashmir. More recently the Human Right Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has blasted Islamabad over the state of the basic human and political rights in Gilgit-Baltistan. 'It might be disputed in the eyes of India, but there is no justification for Pakistan to term the areas disputed,' said a fact-finding mission of the HRCP on its return from a tour of the region. The mission, led by HRCP secretary general Syed Iqbal Haider, criticised 'the establishment' for turning a blind eye to the human and political rights of the people of the Northern Areas. The region joined Pakistan following its liberation by its people in an uprising against the Dogras after Partition. The mission was fiercely critical of the inadequate governance structure and appalling justice system and social services available to the people of the region. The mission identified the absence of unifying and conducive socio-political environment as one of the main factors behind the ongoing violence in the region, and noted that the local communities are drifting towards a sectarian conflict because of that absence. The mission said the majority of the people of the Northern Areas have been demanding integration of the region as the fifth province of the country, or at least for the resource-rich and strategically important region to receive an administrative structure similar to that enjoyed by Azad Kashmir. In 1948, when local leaders in Gilgit-Baltistan invited Pakistan to take over the region after its liberation, the government sent a political agent to administer it, instead of appointing someone from the area. Later on, the government disregarded the letter of accession to Pakistan sent by the Mir (Raja) of Hunza and Nagar, which had been countersigned by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself. On the other hand, India welcomed all letters of accessions from its hundreds of princely states and incorporated the territories into the Indian Union. The second blunder on the part of Pakistan, and of Kashmiris themselves, was the so-called 'Karachi Agreement' of 1951, under which Kashmiri leaders were made to sign an agreement to transfer the administrative privileges of the region to the government of Pakistan. The agreement was the result of the government's desire to use the Northern Areas as a bargaining chip in a final settlement over Kashmir. It was assumed that in a plebiscite the Northern Areas would opt for Pakistan anyway. But the agreement lacked public support or legal basis, since the contracting parties represented neither the people of the Northern Areas, nor, of course, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, Pakistani policymakers have kept the constitutional status of the Northern Areas in a limbo, making the region an extraordinary example of political and judicial ambivalence. In a landmark decision on May 28, 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ruled that 'it was not understandable on what basis the people of the Northern Areas can be denied the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. We are of the view that the people of the Northern Areas are citizens of Pakistan for all intents and purposes. They have the rights to invoke any fundamental rights...' The Court went on to say: '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 the 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.' The six-month deadline has stretched to nearly six years, but there is no sign of Islamabad intending to follow the Supreme Court's verdict. The people of Gilgit and Baltistan, have been insisting that the region's status be clarified. The fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitutions of Pakistan reflect what is contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Pakistan is a signatory. The current ambiguous status runs counter to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitutions, and by international covenants and charters. Access to justice to all is a fundamental right, and that right cannot be exercised in the absence of an independent judiciary. Without formation of a high court and a bench of the Supreme Court in the region, access to justice will remain an elusive dream for the mountain communities. The discontent concerning the legal status of the Northern Areas is being compounded by the growing conviction in the region that successive Pakistani governments, which call for 'basic human rights' in Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, ignore these very rights in the case of the Northern Areas. Sporadic violence continues to paralyse life in Gilgit, the region's capital. More than fifty people have died in the violence in the area since January. The number of incidents of violence there has exceeded one hundred. If things continue to deteriorate, the government will have to consider relocation of the administrative headquarters to Hunza or Skardu, or even to Islamabad. The political deprivation and resentment could result in the situation spiralling out of control. The writer is an analyst from Skardu in the Northern Areas. He represents Asia at the Board of Directors of Mountain Forum.