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 , Correspondent

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.   

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.”

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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.

Claims of torture 

Baba Jan, a thick-set man with a close-cropped beard and long hair, claims he has been beaten around the feet, choked, and threatened with having his leg removed if he does not confess to the murder of Sher Afzal and Sher Ali Abid, a father and son who were shot dead by police in Aliabad in August, according to multiple eyewitnesses the Monitor spoke to (the police officers in question are under investigation but have not been arrested or suspended).

The protestors were rallying against the government for failing to provide enough compensation to the residents of a village whose houses were drowned during a flood-induced landslide in January 2010. Since being sent to jail, Jan has become the center of a campaign to free him, involving rallies in Gilgit as well as in Islamabad and Lahore.

“The police asked me, ‘Why are you inciting the people? Why are you leading rallies?’ to which I replied ‘It is my fundamental right’,” he says.

About 50 other political workers were jailed with Baba Jan. Another jailed activist, Ifthikhar Ahmed of the Karokoram National Movement who was arrested alongside Jan, claims his feet were crushed and stuck with pins, and he was deprived of sleep for participating in the rally. 

Also behind bars is Tariq Hossain Shah President of the Gilgit-Baltistan Union of Journalists, and Iman Shah, resident editor of the Ausaf paper. The pair collaborated on a story alleging nepotism in judicial appointments in the Gilgit-Baltistan High Court and were sentenced to six months in jail for contempt of court by the same judges they had reported on.

“Reporters don’t have many rights here,” says Mr. Shah, a tall young man in his 20s, who, like many here, does not view himself as a Pakistani. “In Pakistan there are constitutional protections for journalists, but we not constitutionally part of Pakistan. Pakistan doesn’t accept as Pakistanis.”

Home Secretary Asif Bilal Lodhi denies any of the prisoners have been mistreated, adding: “Baba Jan is a known troublemaker who was identified by the locals as being behind the unrest.” He says political parties are free to carry out activities, including rallies, so long as they gain approval and “as long as they do not burn our flag, which we cannot tolerate.”

Multiple intelligence agents who approached the Monitor during the reporting of this piece were adamant that the separatists are in fact backed by Indian money and garner little support beyond college students and minor leftwing parties.

'Dangerous for changing mindsets'

But Mr. Naji, the BNF founder, denies that’s the case. “I’m not funded by a foreign hand but the establishment feel I’m dangerous for changing mindsets,” he says. 

“When I first started protesting for independence in 1989, I had a handful of supporters. Now things have changed,” he says, pointing to the fact that he was elected to Gilgit-Baltistan assembly in 2009 with 8,300 votes. “For me it’s useless being in the assembly, but we need to show we have support.”

According to Naji, the region’s geo-strategic importance could bring its citizens greater prosperity if it were to cede from Pakistan. “We want to create an Asian Switzerland that is friends to all nations but remains neutral. We can link China to the Gulf and India to Central Asia,” he says, as well as expand tourism and free itself of sectarian violence that Pakistan has brought with it.

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