Kashmir Dispute And Status Of Northern Areas
8 December 2005
The News International
Afzal A Shigri
Islamabad: Subjugation of the independent states of the Northern Areas (NA) by the Dogra rulers of Kashmir was completed in the middle of the nineteenth century with the encouragement and support of the British. This was achieved through a chain of events emanating out of local rivalries, guile of the rulers of Kashmir (Sikhs and then Dogras), treachery, intrigues and the ruthless methods of the conquerors. These people have nothing common with the Kashmiris. They speak different languages, have a different and distinct culture. They were never Kashmiris and were subjugated by the rulers of Kashmir. Revolts by different local rajas were crushed ruthlessly and the people of this area suffered all manner of repression for a century. Isolated from the rest of the world, they endured this rule in sullen silence and continued to suffer and waited for an opportunity to get rid of the oppressors.The independence of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent from the British and the subsequent turmoil presented such an opportunity. The people of the area, after a long and difficult struggle against the regular army of the state, threw out the Dogras and after declaring independence decided to join Pakistan. This union with Pakistan was unconditional, the only consideration being the desire to join a Muslim state instead of linking lots with a Hindu- dominated country. This area along with the rest of Kashmir was treated as disputed territory. The explanation for this odd arrangement was that votes in the case of a plebiscite in line with the United Nations' resolution would be important for Pakistan. The Foreign Office, in a typically bureaucratic approach to a human problem, did not bother to explore the area's status in a historical context. Instead of coming up with an imaginative solution, it has been an impediment in the way of integrating this area into Pakistan and granting fundamental rights to the people. While the Northern Areas were left in a state of political limbo and placed under the direct administrative control of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA Div), Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), which was also a disputed territory, was given the status of an independent entity with its own independent executive, legislative and judicial structures. Even after a judgement by the apex court of the country, the area has been denied self-rule and the deputy chief, who is the leader of the house in the NA Council, does not even have the executive powers of a zila nazim. The people of the region are thus naturally restive and this denial of normal political activities has resulted in the diversion of their energies to destructive sectarian and parochial divides that have now exploded into an armed conflict. Gilgit continues to be the hub of clashes that also tend to have an impact on Baltistan and Chilas. Various options for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute are being discussed at all forums but the people of these areas, who are direct stakeholders, are completely ignored. The AJK PM spoke of the Chenab formula and the president rightly pointed out that the state of Kashmir comprises five distinct and different regions and this factor has to be considered at the time of the settlement of Kashmir dispute. Then there was talk of soft borders and the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road was opened amid a lot of fanfare. But the Foreign Office completely forgot about the Skardu- Kargil road and no one mentioned the plight of the divided families of Kargil and Baltistan. Now one hears of self-governance for both parts of Kashmir with the LoC becoming irrelevant. The governments of the two countries have already opened five points to achieve this aim. In all these decisions and discussions, the leadership of the NA has been not consulted. It is taken for granted that the leaders of Indian-Held Kashmir (IHK) and Azad Jammu and Kashmir represent the interests of the people of these areas. Leaders of IHK and AJK are not the leaders of the NA and do not have any stake in the matter except the desire to claim a vast area as part of Kashmir. The government must realise that the people of this area joined Pakistan of their own free will and, despite the denial of the right of representation in the National Assembly, they consider themselves Pakistanis. Whenever there has been any threat to the country, they have demonstrated their love for the motherland with their blood and sweat. They shed blood to overthrow the Dogras in 1947-48 and were in the forefront in the 1965 and 1971 wars to defend Pakistan. In the recent past, they sustained maximum casualties in the Kargil conflict and the national flag on the graves of the shaheeds of this conflict in every village of the area is testimony to their devotion to the country. The government must consult the population, almost a million, of the NA before deciding its fate. These loyal and committed citizens must remain a part of Pakistan without any 'soft- border' ambiguities. It is important that this vital matter is not allowed to drift as it is sending negative and confusing signals to these simple patriotic Pakistanis. Unfortunately, the Foreign Office and the KANA Div seem incapable of understanding the implications of dealing with this very sensitive issue. Their track record has been dismal. While the Foreign Office lacks any comprehension of the historical perspective, the KANA Div continues to mismanage the administration of the area. Instead of finding solutions with the participation of the local leadership, it is only interested in perpetuating its strangle hold over the area by refusing to implement the judgement of the Supreme Court regarding self-rule. Today we are bombarded with statements of government functionaries regarding progress on the settlement of the Kashmir issue, and self-governance with a united state of Kashmir appears to be the favourite theory. Presumably, Gilgit and Baltistan are units in this arrangement. The people of this area consider themselves Pakistani and have no interest in such settlements. By ignoring their feelings, they are being pushed to look for options that may be neither in their interest nor that of the country. The NA comprise a very sensitive and important region that opens up Pakistan to China and Central Asia, and the people there are fiercely staunch Pakistanis. There is no earthly reason to continue to give a rough deal to these patriotic Pakistanis due to the petty interests of some myopic government functionaries and to compromise the country's security. The president, who is very popular in the area, should intervene and take the people into confidence before any decision is taken about their fate. They will certainly not like to be part of Kashmir and an overwhelming majority will stand by the choice that they made in 1947 of joining Pakistan. Gilgit and Baltistan are the fourth party to the Kashmir dispute. When we talk of a settlement of the dispute in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Kashmir, it is the moral responsibility of the Government of Pakistan to take into account the aspirations of the people of these areas. The straightforward solution is to integrate NA in Pakistan with the condition that they may vote whenever there is a plebiscite, which in view of recent developments has lost any chance of being held in the foreseeable future. This is a fleeting moment in history that must be seized and a positive decision should be taken for ending the uncertainty once and for.