Kashmir Challenges

4 October 2009
The Guardian
Basim Usmani

London: Pakistanis and Kashmiris have received some interesting Eid gifts this year. The US Congress has approved a tripling of non-military aid to Pakistan, in five instalments of $1.5bn, provided the country 'helps fight terrorism'. And just a day after Eid, the Pakistani government pushed a motion granting provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, a huge swath of land overlapping with disputed Kashmir. This is a region that has long been federally administered by the Pakistani government, but never provided for. Pakistan's prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, promised the people of Gilgit-Baltistan a development package that included construction of schools, cheap housing, hospitals and courts and making sure the national minimum wage of 6,000 rupees was paid to the province's working citizens. These are lofty goals, when people in the nation's capital are currently not earning the minimum wage. The Gilgit-Baltistan Autonomy Act also stipulates that Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, will select the new governor of the province. Since its inception in 1947, Pakistan's central government has changed the leadership in the area based on its territorial disputes with India regarding Kashmir. It has been written that Pakistan has waited until this moment to recognise Gilgit-Baltistan as a province of Pakistan because it would also serve as justification for India to formally integrate disputed areas of Kashmir into its borders. For too long, this territory has been used to push either government's strategies against each other. It is supremely tragic and ironic that the first president of Azad Kashmir, KH Khurshid, who was handpicked by Pakistan's founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, was later forced to resign under the dictatorship of General Ayub Khan and eventually imprisoned. Later, under the democratic presidency of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, another president of Azad Kashmir, Sardar Qayyum, was arrested by federal security forces in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, and dismissed. After a subsequent military coup, dictator Zia ul Haq dismissed Sardar Qayyum and a brigadier named Hayat Khan was assigned to administer Azad Kashmir. In the 1990s, Benazir Bhutto assigned a man named Mumtaz Rathore to be Azad Kashmir's prime minister, and when Nawaz Sharif became prime minister in 1990, Rathore was escorted via helicopter to Islamabad and forced to sign a letter of resignation. And the details get stickier and stickier. The political leaders in Kashmir are understandably furious. On the 19th anniversary of the death of Kashmiri freedom fighter Maqbool Butt last week, the hilly roads of Muzaffarabad were ablaze with protests by the Kashmir National Awami party and the National Students Federation. Students protested against the autonomy act for trying to formally absorb Gilgit-Baltistan into the government and to solidify a new line of control that could pry apart up the 'integrity of Kashmir'. In Gilgit, sectarian violence has flared up attributed to emboldened militants who have their sights set on breaking Pakistan apart. As the government extends its writ, militants are trying to break it structurally by way of sectarian violence. In the past week there was a devastating bomb blast. In retaliation, a shoot-out occurred in which three people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed and eight injured. Kashmiris have already stated their opposition to the bill, fearing that it will undermine their case for independence from India. And just as those living in Gilgit-Baltistan feel uneasy (to say the least) about these promises by Pakistan's leadership, Pakistanis feel increasingly uneasy about the US Congress's increase of aid money. A poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute yielded unfavourable opinions throughout Pakistan regarding US assistance, if it means supporting unpopular drone attacks and co-operating with the American military. Pakistanis, like Kashmiris, are fearful too.