Pak absorbing Northern Areas?
by Sandhya Jain on 15 Sep 2009 6 Comments

In an act of brazenness aimed at formally integrating Kashmir’s Northern Areas into the Islamic Republic, the Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on 29 August 2009 unveiled a plan to replace the existing Northern Areas Legislative Council with a Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, a Governor, and a Chief Minister with a six-member Council of Ministers.

The ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009,’ which India has strongly protested, was approved by President Asif Zardari on 8 September 2009. It is accompanied by a move to construct a 7000 MW Bunji Hydroelectric Project in PoK, with China’s assistance, secured during President Zardari’s visit to Beijing last month. It may be recalled that it is from the Northern Areas that Pakistan gifted 5000 sq. kms. of Indian territory to China, which facilitates its occupation of Tibet.

The Northern Areas are strategically important for proximity to Afghanistan and China. Pakistan on occupying them in 1947 isolated them from the rest of ‘Azad Kashmir’ and treated Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza and Nagar as a separate administrative unit. The proposed Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly will have 24 elected members, who in turn will elect 6 women and 3 technocrat members, taking the total strength to 33 members. The Assembly will elect a Chief Minister; but the right to select the cabinet will be vested in the Governor. Thus, the Governor, to be appointed by the President of Pakistan for an indefinite period, will replace the Chief Executive.

The Governor must have a minimum age of 35 years, and be qualified to be a member of the Pakistan National Assembly. This suggests that the Governor of Gilgit-Baltistan will be from Pakistan, like the PoK Chief Secretary, Finance Secretary and Inspector General of Police. The current Kashmir & Northern Affairs Minister Qamaruzzaman Kaira is to take over as Governor.

The proposed new system will confer the Northern Areas with a province-like status. It will have a “supreme appellate court” headed by a chief judge, a public service commission, a chief election commissioner, and an auditor-general. So far, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan do not have official Pakistani citizenship.

Indian Kashmiri leaders oppose the package on the ground that it undermines the “disputed” status of Jammu & Kashmir by formalizing the status quo by trying to turn Gilgit-Baltistan into a virtual province of Pakistan. This is a marked departure from Islamabad’s stated position of supporting the struggle for self-determination for the people of J&K.

Yasin Malik of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), who was visiting Pakistan when the decision was announced, called it “an arrow that has been shot into the hearts of Kashmiris” by Pakistan. It betrayed Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani’s promise to consult all stakeholders before taking any decision. The move was also denounced by Amanullah Khan, leader of a JKLF faction, who said Pakistan’s “wavering stand” on Kashmir had already cost it the support of the Security Council; Islamabad was now squandering residual goodwill by “merging” Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan.

Merger fears are reinforced by the Pakistan People’s Party Gilgit-Baltistan president Syed Mehdi Shah demanding the formation of a Gilgit-Baltistan Council, to be headed by the prime minister. President Zardari has also ordered beginning the Gilgit-Skardu road project, and setting up regional branches of the National Bank of Pakistan, National Database and Registration Authority, and the House Building Finance Corporation. Pak-Occupied Kashmir is unhappy with this move. Even the Jamaat-e-Islami, which favours Kashmir merging with Pakistan, joined the protests, explaining that it opposes piece-meal solution to the Kashmir issue.

However, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman, All Parties Hurriyat Conference, said the new political-administrative package announced by the Pakistan Government met the longstanding demands of the people of these areas and denied it would have a negative impact on the Kashmir cause. But Syed Salahuddin, chairman, United Jehad Council, opined that since the political status of the state is still unresolved, any change of status would have a “negative impact” on Kashmir cause.

Problems on the Indian side of the border are hardly less invidious. Recently, the J&K legislative assembly (upper house) passed a resolution for a Chenab Hill Council which involves a de facto division of Jammu into Muslim and Hindu areas, on the pretext of ‘plains’ and ‘hill areas’. The proposal to have mountain and plain area hill councils was mooted by Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, when invited to speak at the Working Group of Centre State Relations on Jammu & Kashmir.

Panun Kashmir chairman Ajay Chrungoo took strong exception to Habibullah’s formula for separate Hill Councils for Jammu plains and pahari areas, claiming it would divide Jammu region on communal lines. Dr. Chrungoo pointed out that in April 2005, Mr. Habibullah had mooted Regional Assemblies for the State on communal lines, and now he was proposing Hill Councils.

Dr. Chrungoo said this was nothing more than a reworking of Gen. Musharraf’s Plan for seven autonomous regions for the State, viz., two for Jammu (Muslim mountains, Hindu plains), two for Ladakh (Shia Kargil, Buddhist Ladakh), one for the Valley to retain Muslim domination though the Valley also has hill and plains areas; and finally, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad in Occupied Kashmir. Habibullah’s ‘Kashmir formula’ drew the ire of many parties, who demanded other ‘experts’ be invited to the Working Group if the Chief Information Commissioner was called as an ‘expert’ on the State.

The BJP demanded Provincial Councils for Ladakh and Jammu regions, with adequate financial, administrative and legislature powers to redress the sustained neglect of these areas. It demanded scrapping Article 370 as it had led the State from separate status to separatism. BJP contested the National Conference proposal for autonomy and PDP’s for self rule, saying both were akin to pre-1953 status and thus unacceptable. It urged rehabilitating the Valley’s displaced Hindus.

The Panthers Party emphasised the discrimination faced by Jammu region, which is larger and has more voters than Kashmir, but has been accorded less Parliament and Assembly seats than Kashmir. The Valley is favoured in terms of road connectivity, employment, electricity production and treatment for migrants. It urged state subject rights to 1947 refugees, permanent settlement of the problems of PoK refugees, and allotment of one-third Assembly seats reserved for PoK refugees to refugees living in the State.

The author is Editor,

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