It remains a land of strict curbs on political pluralism, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
Ever since Pakistani sponsored terrorism began in Jammu and Kashmir, India has rarely, if ever, raised the concerns of the people of Pakistan occupied Jammu, Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan regions.
For the record, the erstwhile state Legislative Assembly of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir had 24 seats allocated for the 78,114 sq km of Pakistani occupied portions of India’s northern-most state. This reservation of 24 seats is likely to continue in the Assembly of the newly formed union territory.
But apart from reservation of Assembly seats and the 22 February 1994 parliamentary resolution terming the Pakistani occupied territories as an integral part of India, successive governments in New Delhi have exercised a benign neglect and near criminal silence on the plight of the people across the 740 km long Line of Control (LoC) and the 110 km long Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL). Also, New Delhi has done little to educate both domestic and international audiences about the mistreatment meted to Pakistan occupied portions of the state.
Pakistan has divided its Occupied Jammu and Kashmir into two portions. One portion is Gilgit-Baltistan, which was earlier termed as Northern Areas or Northern Territory. This constitutes the largest portion of the occupied portion of the state and borders China’s Muslim majority Xinjiang area, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The other is the smaller portion located immediately opposite Jammu-Rajouri-Poonch area (henceforth referred to as POJK), which Pakistan has cleverly termed as “Azad” Jammu and Kashmir even though there is nothing azad (free) about it.
The Pakistani occupied territories are a tale of deliberate neglect, political suppression, deprivation of free speech and liberty, systematic demographic changes, sectarian violence and protests, illegal detentions, tortures and extra-judicial killings, disappearances of innocent people, arbitrary dismissals of elected governments, electoral rigging and demands for an end to repression of the locals at the behest of Islamabad’s arbitrariness. Yet very little of this gets reported in India’s mainstream media let alone the Western media, much of which has a selective vision about the state. New Delhi, which has been registering protests every time a mischievous Pakistan and an expansionist China have been committing flagrant violations in the state, has seldom upped the ante against Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan, which has more ethnic affinity with the people of Ladakh’s Kargil district, has been the most neglected, isolated and disenfranchised portion. Its status has been kept ambiguous and undefined ever since Pakistan forcibly and illegally occupied it in 1947-48. Neither the 1956, 1962, 1972 or 1973 Constitutions of Pakistan recognised the multi-lingual Gilgit-Baltistan region to be a part of Pakistan. Even the 1974 Interim Constitution of Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK) did not recognise Gilgit-Baltistan to be a part of the occupied state.
In 1974, Pakistan notified a rule overriding a 1927 law promulgated by the erstwhile Maharaja of the state denying property ownership to outsiders. And so began a dubious-intentioned systematic influx of Punjabi and Urdu speaking Punjabi and Pathan Sunni Muslims into a once overwhelmingly Shia dominated Gilgit-Baltistan. As is happening in Tibet and Xinjiang where Chinese Hans are being settled to convert the majority Tibetans and Ughurs, respectively, into a minority, the Shias have already been reduced to a minority in Gilgit-Baltistan, with Urdu becoming the main language of this multi-lingual region where nine local languages are spoken.
The following figures are self-explanatory: Whereas the population of Pakistan increased by 56% over a 20-year period from 1998 to 2017, the population of Gilgit-Baltistan, in contrast, more than doubled in the same period—from 870,347 to 1,800,000. Shias and Ismailis, who once comprised 85% of the population of Gilgit-Baltistan, are now down to about 46%.
The Pakistani media and sections of the world media (especially that of the US and UK along with Al Jazeera) that solely focus on making negative projections about the Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir, has maintained a Nelson’s eye on how the Pakistani establishment has been treating both the geographical territory and its people in its occupied portions of the state.
For the last 45 years, the region has been witnessing sectarian clashes. In UNHRC sessions, residents of POJK and Gilgit-Baltistan have been raising cases of human rights abuses by the Pakistani establishment.
Just how free the so-called “Azad” Jammu and Kashmir is, is evident from Article 4(7)(2) of its Interim Constitution, which states: “No person or party in ‘azad’ Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to the ideology of the state’s accession to Pakistan.” So much for Islamabad’s demand for a plebiscite in the state! Then again, Article 56 of this Constitution, which was drafted by Pakistan’s Ministries of Law and Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad, authorises the Pakistani government to dismiss any elected government in POK irrespective of the support it enjoys. The Constitution provides for two executive forums: a government in Muzaffarabad and a Council in Islamabad. Most noteworthy is that the Council is presided over by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who in turn exercises paramount authority over the Legislative Assembly of the so called “azad” (free) Kashmir, which cannot question the decisions of the Council.
POJK remains a land of strict curbs on political pluralism, freedom of expression and freedom of association. The media is muzzled, as are publication of books. Those opposed to the accession to Pakistan risk arbitrary detentions and torture. There is pervasive fear of the Pakistani military and intelligence services and terror organisations acting on the government’s behest or independently.
The fact that elected political leaders effectively remain titular heads with the real power residing in Islamabad is evident from the following few examples. During the rule of Pakistan’s first military leader, Ayub Khan (1958-68), President K.H. Khurshid of POJK was forced to resign by a mid-level police official and later jailed in Palandari and Dalai Camp. During Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government (1972-77), another president of POJK, Sardar Qayyum, was suddenly arrested by a mid-level official of the Federal Security Forces in Muzaffarabad and subsequently dismissed. During General Zia-ul-Haq’s government (1977-88), Brigadier Hayat Khan was appointed administrator of POJK, a post he held for seven years. When a civilian government was re-established in Pakistan in 1988, Benazir Bhutto’s swearing in as Prime Minister was shortly followed by the installation of an elected government of Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party in POJK. When Bhutto was sacked by the President in 1990, POJK Prime Minister Mumtaz Rathore was “escorted” to Islamabad in a helicopter and made to sign a letter of resignation. The July 2006 elections evoked widespread allegations of rigging.
In 2009, Northern Areas or Northern Territory was renamed Gilgit-Baltistan and given an assembly which remains a farce. Reason: as in the so called azad part of the state, it is the Council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan who wields the real power.
Interestingly, in March 2017, the British Parliament passed Resolution 1107 condemning the annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan, while describing it as the legal and constitutional part of Jammu and Kashmir, India. The resolution titled “Annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan by Pakistan as its Fifth Frontier” and moved by Conservative MP Bob Blackman stated: “That this House condemns the arbitrary announcement by Pakistan declaring Gilgit-Baltistan as its Fifth Frontier, implying its attempt to annex the already disputed area; notes that Gilgit-Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India, which is illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, and where people are denied their fundamental rights including the right to freedom of expression; further noted the attempts to change the demography of the region in violation of State Subject Ordinance and forcibly and illegally build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which further aggravates and interferes with the disputed territory.”
Britain’s current Conservative government seems to have conveniently forgotten this Conservative MP moved resolution when it sided with China and Pakistan during the recently held informal and undocumented United Nations Security Council meeting called for by Beijing on Islamabad’s demand in the wake of the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution.
As far back as 14 August 1964, the Karachi Outlook wrote, “the uncomfortable truth is that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs has acquired a vested interest of its own. It treats ‘Azad’ Kashmir territory and Gilgit-Baltistan areas as its own domain …The Ministry likes to deal with puppets not with the presidents who take their position too literally.”
The Daily K2, the leading newspaper of the region, has always carried on its masthead the phrase Sarzamin-Be-Ain Ki Awaz (Voice of the Constitution-less land), which pithily sums up the plight of the people, who, incidentally, were never consulted when Pakistan arbitrarily and illegally ceded 5,180 sq km of the Shaksgam Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan to China in 1963. Thereafter, China began construction of the Karakoram Highway to link Kashgar in Xinjiang province in China with Abbottabad in Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass and Pakistan Occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. About 600 km of the 2,000 km long China-Pakistan Economic Corridor linking Kashgar to Gwadar passes through Gilgit-Baltistan.
India must deliberately and consciously highlight the plight of the people of Pakistan’s forcibly and illegally occupied regions of Jammu, Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan along with also that of the economically marginalised people of Balochistan, which was similarly forcibly occupied by Pakistan on March 1948. India’s benign neglect has not helped. Facts alone will not help. Perceptions are important and need to be built.
Dinesh Kumar is a senior journalist who writes on defence and security affairs.