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In Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, residents see experiment with autonomy as 'illusion'

One area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir was given limited autonomy in 2009 and hailed as a successful model for the disputed region – but many residents say there hasn't been enough change.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent / November 28, 2011



Gilgit, Pakistan

Baba Jan, a 30-something political activist from Gilgit Baltistan in northeast Kashmir, was jailed by Pakistani police in mid-September for inciting unrest, considered terrorism.   

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From jail, where he was imprisoned along with about 50 other political workers, Mr. Jan claims the real reason for his detention and indefinite extension has to do with his politics: Jan’s Labor Party actively demands greater autonomy and a referendum on independence for Gilgit-Baltistan, which lies in disputed Kashmir. Pakistan doesn’t want that.

“We want our assembly to decide whether to join China, Pakistan, or India – but I’d prefer independence,” says Jan.  “Why join a country that uses terrorism in the name of Islam? No human rights, no political rights and no free judges. No one wants to stay with this country and that’s why the intelligence agencies hound us.”

In an effort to meet long-simmering demands for greater autonomy, Pakistan’s Pakistan People’s Party-led government granted this region limited autonomy, including their own elected assembly in 2009. At the time it was hailed as a great success and potential model for the rest of the disputed region by commentators in Pakistan. Now, three years later, many in this region say they aren’t seeing enough change.

“We don’t control any of our own income generating ministries – tourism, forestry, water and power, gems, or commerce and works,” says Nawaz Khan Naji, founder and president of the Balawaristan National Front.

'Autonomy is an illusion'

Autonomy is an illusion, he says, because Gilgit-Baltistan has not been formally recognized as a province in Pakistan’s constitution. It is governed according to a “colonial system” by Islamabad-appointed bureaucrats under a council headed by Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani. Naji’s party goes further than the Labour Party and demands outright independence.

The territory, known for its towering mountains (including K2) and beautiful lakes, was ceded to Pakistan on Nov. 1, 1947, following a three-month struggle against the Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir who at the time controlled the entire state of Kashmir.

But the Pakistani government chose to govern both Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) directly rather than grant them provincial status in the hope that one day a referendum would be carried out across both Pakistani and Indian Kashmir so that the territory could chose to join either Pakistan or India.

That ambiguous status has led to resentment. While pro-independence sentiments are limited here – especially compared with Indian Kashmir, which underwent a Pakistan-backed rebellion in the 1980s and 1990s – calls for greater autonomy are more widespread.  Pro-independence activists and journalists routinely face harassment and intimidation as well as jail time, say human rights activists.

“The elected government is not strong enough in Gilgit-Baltistan,” says Husain Naqi, a senior council member of the Human Rights Commision of Pakistan, who has visited the region over several years. “The military establishment believes they can control separatists like they do in Balochistan,” he adds, referring to Pakitsan’s most restive province where a low-level independence insurgency is underway.

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