Tuesday, October 16, 2007

ASIA's LAST COLONY-POK(by Mahmood Baig in the Kashmir Herald))

On August 13, 2007, the people of what is called ‘Azad Jammu & Kashmir’ [AJK, Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). ‘Azad’ means ‘Free’] organized a ‘Long March’ in an assertion of the unity of the AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB, referred to in Pakistan as the ‘Northern Areas’) region, rejecting the arbitrary division of populations within Kashmir, and the restraints on travel and people-to-people contacts that have been imposed by the Pakistani establishment. The traditional routes between AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan have been shut down by the Pakistan Government since its occupation of the region in 1948, and two exclusionary systems of governance have been established in these two constituent units of PoK. The ‘Long March’, from Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK, to Gilgit, organised by the National Students Federation (NSF) and supported by virtually all nationalist Kashmiri organisations in AJK, sought, through acts of civil disobedience, to focus global attention on the backwardness of the state and the excesses of the Pakistan Army and intelligence agencies. The NSF leadership had, consequently, announced that the Long March would not stop at any Pakistan Army checkpost en route to Gilgit, and would not submit to any search or identification processes imposed by Government agencies, as the Pakistani Army was an alien occupying Force. The arduous long march, through high mountain passes and across extended glaciers, and through unmarked routes, claimed the lives of two volunteers, Sardar Amjad Khan and Raja Bahzad Khan, who died when the march hit adverse weather conditions in the upper reaches of the Neelam Valley.
The NSF has repeatedly emphasized the fact that the divided areas of J&K should be united, and the first step in this direction should be the unification of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan under a single State Assembly, and the natural routes between AJK and GB should immediately be restored. The trade between Pakistan and China should pass over these routes through GB and AJK, and this trade should come under the authority and jurisdiction of the administration of united AJK-GB, with royalties for this trade flowing to this administration from Pakistan. By redirecting the Pakistan China trade to these routes, not only would the time and cost of transport of goods to Rawalpindi and Lahore be substantially reduced, the areas along these routes would experience an economic renaissance, with benefits accruing not only to the people of this region, but also to the people of Pakistan. There would also be an inevitable impact on the excesses currently committed by the Pakistan Army in the region.
After 60 years of Pakistani rule, the majority of people in AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan live in conditions of extreme backwardness, and are denied all socio-economic rights and, in the case of GB, constitutional recognition and the most basic political freedoms. For six decades, governments in AJK, which are installed on the commands of the Pakistan Army, have not been able to provide even the most basic necessities to the people. Consequently, the area remains mired in poverty and has been reduced to a playground of the intelligence agencies and jihadi forces. The Government in AJK is virtually a proxy administration appointed by Islamabad. The puppet regime in Muzaffarabad, the capital of AJK, needs permission from those at the helm of affairs in Islamabad on even the most minor administrative issue.
AJK suffers immensely across the socio-economic matrix. For instance, there is not a single institute for technical education – a medical or engineering college – in the region even in this modern age. There is no public or private sector industry worth its name. The common people of the region can only secure employment in demeaning menial occupations in the region, or in the lowest echelons of the service industry in Pakistan. People of ‘Azad Kashmir’ can ordinarily be found working in hotels, or as street hawkers in Pakistan’s large cities, such as Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Gujranwala. The local population derives no benefits whatsoever from the region’s rich forest, mining and water resources. The forests across vast regions have been clear-felled, and the entire wood has been transported to Pakistani markets or has been exported by Pakistani contractors to other countries. The Pakistan Army is also involved in smuggling the timber of thousands of precious Deodar trees, as well as endangered flora and fauna, out of the region, and into Pakistan.
Islamabad’s rulers have also consistently sought to transform the demographic dynamics of the region. According to one report, "As per the 1991 census, residents of ‘Azad Kashmir’ are mostly Sunni Muslim and predominantly Punjabi-speaking, with barely 20 per cent Kashmiris." Similar patterns of demographic destablisation are being engineered in GB. There has been a large scale expropriation of land and residency rights of the indigenous populations in AJK. Further demographic shifts are being engineered, with an aggressive policy of resettlement of the ethnic Hazarawals and Afghans (Pashtuns) in the Neelam Valley, with large tracts of land being allocated to, or bought by, these outsiders, who are liberally provided residency permits. The State has very large mining resources and, for instance, the Neelam Valley has a significant deposit of unique rubies, which are, again, taken into Pakistan, with no benefits accruing to the people of the region or even of the Neelam Valley.
As regards the region’s tremendous water resources, successive Pakistani Governments, whether military or civilian, have left no stone unturned in their plunder. Pakistan is increasing the height of the Mangla Dam without the consent of the people of AJK. Mirpur town was submerged under the Dam, but the electricity generation is done outside AJK, so that all revenue and power generation benefits go to Pakistan. The Pakistani people have obstructed the construction of dams in their own areas [protests that have thwarted the Kalabagh Dam project in Mianwali District, in the Punjab Province, and bordering the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), are a case in point], but the Army can simply trample over the rights and territory of the Kashmiris. The latest example of this continuing oppression is the raising of the height of the Mangla Dam by 30 feet, as a result of which the people of Mirpur will be displaced once again. Pakistan has never paid any royalties for the Mangla Dam project to AJK, nor is their any intention of making such payments in future. As one commentator has noted, Pakistan argues that the construction of Mangla Dam is "a consequence of the 1961 Indus Basin treaty between India and Pakistan with the World Bank acting as guarantor. The Azad Kashmiris, particularly the Mirpuris, argue that water is a Kashmiri natural resource commandeered by the Pakistani state to the disadvantage of Kashmiris."
There are no representative democratic structures in AJK. Pakistan’s ‘hypocrisy about Kashmir' is visible in the very nature of the equations that have been imposed on AJK and its citizens through the 1974 Interim Constitution, which prescribes various limitations for the ‘autonomy' granted to the region.
Defence, foreign affairs, security and currency are put outside the purview of the ‘autonomy'. Further, apart from the Legislative Assembly, a 14-member ‘AJ&K Council’, has been formed and is headed by the Pakistan Prime Minister as Chairman and the ‘AJ&K’ President as Vice-Chairman. Islamabad nominates five members to the Council from the Members of the Pakistan National Assembly and there are three ex-officio members. The Chairman, along with these federal nominees, gives the Government of Pakistan a majority in the Council as, of the 14 members, there are only six members elected through the ‘AJ&K’ Legislative Assembly. This Council exercises wide ranging powers.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), "Pakistani officials dominate the Council and major bureaucrats occupy key decision making posts… the Chief Secretary, the Inspector-General of Police, the Accountant General and the Finance Secretary (of the region) come from Pakistan." Indeed, a number of secondary or non-strategic administrative posts also go to Pakistanis, and are increasingly dominated by ex-Army officers. Thus, the current Health Secretary of the State is retired Major General Jehangir Anwar Khan, who, ironically, maintains his offices and permanent residence at Islamabad, and not in the State Capital, Muzzafarabad.
Dissent in AJK has been methodically suppressed by Pakistan over the years. The HRCP, in its report, State of Human Rights in Azad Jammu & Kashmir, in July 2004, noted that "Fundamental freedoms, such as the freedom of movement, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association are often infringed in AJK under various pretences, despite claims to the contrary by the officials." Further, the UNHCR Human Rights Watch World Report 2007, stated:
Tight controls on freedom of expression have also been a hallmark of government policy in Azad Kashmir. Pakistan has prevented the creation of independent media in the territory through bureaucratic restrictions and coercion. Publications and literature favouring independence are banned. While militant organizations promoting the incorporation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir state into Pakistan have had free rein to propagate their views, groups promoting an independent Kashmir find their speech sharply, sometimes violently, curtailed.
Since its formation in 1966, the NSF has been struggling for unity and freedom of the whole of Jammu & Kashmir. NSF units, which exist in all the educational institutions in AJK, work to create ideological awareness among the students. The NSF has worked as the avant garde on issues relating to students and the general public, as a result of which many of its cadres have been victims of excesses by Pakistani intelligence agencies. Many have been imprisoned, hundreds have been prosecuted for sedition, and dozens have been killed. Even today, dozens of NSF cadres are in jail.
The socio-political and cultural landscape of the region has been adversely affected since it has been the epicentre of the Kashmir jihad for a long time. Pakistan military intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has set up the puppet headquarters of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) – a group that can have no independent presence in the State – in Muzaffarabad, while all other groups engaged in violence in Indian administered Kashmir, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Al Badr, etc., have camps and offices in the capital and elsewhere in ‘Azad Kashmir’. The Muttahida Jehad Council (MJC), a conglomerate of Pakistan-based jihadi outfits, again run as a proxy of the ISI, also has ‘headquarters’ in Muzaffarabad, though it is incapable of creating or maintaining an independent setup in AJK. The LeT and the JeM, however, while they substantially owe their existence to ISI support, have managed to create a space for themselves in the State, and enjoy at least some support outside the Pakistani establishment and agencies. The principal terrorist training camps still being run in the State belong to the LeT, which has emerged – particularly after the earthquake of October 8, 2005, when state agencies used the LeT to channel much of the relief to affected populations.
The clergy in AJK has always exploited religion to impose the will of the Pakistani secret agencies and the Army, and has always projected the falsehood that any opposition to the Army or its institutions constitutes a threat to Islam. The Kashmiri people have remained silent in this oppression essentially to avert this purported threat and have borne the excesses of Islamabad, and have, in the process, lost not only their fundamental rights, but all rights whatsoever. This exploitation continues, although there is an increasing awareness among the people today, and occasional voices of protest can now be heard against the excesses of the state.
Pakistani intelligence agencies have divided the people of PoK on sectarian lines, and the people live largely under the shadow of insecurity, conflict and violence. Islamist extremists have sought to forcefully impose their perverse notion of Islam on the people of AJK and have, for instance, banned tape recorders and routinely compel people in public places and on public transports to offer namaaz (prayers). Wherever their camps are established, the entry of common people is banned, and the poor people who foraged for forest resources or cut grass in these areas are refused entry. If some people mistakenly enter these areas, they are locked up in the private detention centres maintained by these radical groups.
Conditions changed somewhat after the devastating earthquake of October 2005. A dialogue was established between Pakistan and India, after which the activities of the jihadi groups were somewhat limited. The freedom with which their units moved around in the streets of Muzaffarabad and other parts of AJK has undergone relative curtailment. However, their camps remain in place, and their activities continue. The European Parliament Report, Kashmir: Present Situation and Future Prospects (Rapporteur: Baroness Emma Nicholson, May 2007) stated that "activities of constantly mutating AJK-based terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harakat ul-Mujahedeen have caused hundreds of deaths in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir and beyond." The region, it said was, "where fundamental institutions and regional stability have been constantly undermined by organised crime and infiltration across the LoC [Line of Control] by radical Islamist networks exploiting the rugged terrain." While the report laments the "continuing political and humanitarian situation in all four parts of Jammu and Kashmir, it draws particular attention to the democratic deficit in AJK and Gilgit and Baltistan, where, regrettably, Pakistan has consistently failed to fulfil its obligations to introduce meaningful and representative democratic structures."
After the 2005 earthquake, the Pakistani media projected one of the many jihadi groups, the LeT, as a messiah for the affected populations. The leaders of the LeT, who often have the title ‘Abu’ prefixed to their names, used the generous relief aid to accumulate great personal wealth and many of them in fact entered into multiple marriages as a result of their sudden prosperity. Every LeT leader now has at least four wives, and the ‘Abus’ receive allowances for wives, children, house and travel. Even before the earthquake, these groups maintained schools, colleges, hospitals and workshops, but after the earthquake and the generous relief funding to the tune of billions of rupees, the jihadis have opened their institutional complexes, hospitals and madrassas (seminaries) in Muzaffarabad, and these have become places where the common people are subjected to extortion. Such hospitals, constructed on relief funding, do not even offer free treatment. Shavia Nallah, the LeT hospital built on relief funding, has been constructed on a public park, and the adjoining private properties have also been forcibly occupied by the group. When some opposition was generated, LeT militants shot at and wounded one of the local youth. The hospital was eventually set ablaze by the enraged mob on June 11, 2007.
Incipient protests, such as the Long March of August 2007, at best bring the harsh conditions under which the people of PoK live, to the attention of the global community. Regrettably, such attention has been limited, and the free rein that Pakistan enjoys over these regions and its populations, remains largely unaffected by such fleeting interest. It is in the shadow of international neglect that the rights of the people of AJK and of GB have been systematically violated, and a tyrannical order has persisted for over 60 years.
The writer is the President, Jammu and Kashmir National Students Federation in Pak-Occupied Kashmir.