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Islam and Politics ( 17 Sept 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan policy: Brazen smash and grab, organised ethnic cleansing

Evolution of Pakistan’s Northern Areas policy

B Raman

September 18, 2009

By renaming Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Northern Areas in the garb of introducing administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms, Islamabad is violating Security Council resolutions. More importantly, it is trying to make Northern Areas a part of Pakistan

On September 7, 2009, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari signed what is called the ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009’, purporting to introduce administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms in the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir, which has been under Pakistani occupation since 1947-48. The order re-names the Northern Areas as Gilgit-Baltistan, thereby seeking to obliterate the linkage of the area with Jammu & Kashmir.

Addressing a Press conference the same day, president of Gilgit-Baltistan branch of the Pakistan People’s Party, Syed Mehdi Shah, said that Mr Zardari had instructed the authorities concerned to prepare a comprehensive plan to accelerate economic development in Gilgit-Baltistan. He claimed that the Zardari Government had given internal freedom and all financial, democratic, administrative, judicial, political and developmental powers to the Legislative Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan. He said that a Gilgit-Baltistan Council, to be headed by the Prime Minister, would be set up and that Mr Zardari had ordered early initiation of a Gilgit-Skardu road project, the establishment of regional branches of the National Bank of Pakistan, the National Database and Registration Authority and the House Building Finance Corporation in the area.

Explaining the changes sought to be introduced by the Government in the status of the area to the media, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani stated as follows on August 29, 2009:

# “All the stakeholders were taken on board prior to getting the approval from the Cabinet to give internal and political autonomy to the Northern Areas, which shall be now called Gilgit-Baltistan.”

# The foreign office was consulted on it and they have cleared it. “Every aspect was taken care of.”

# The Cabinet decision will empower the Gilgit-Baltistan Council and the Assembly to make laws. “The subjects about which the Assembly shall now have power to make law have been increased from 49 to 61 while the Council shall have 55 subjects.”

# There will be a Governor for Gilgit-Baltistan, who will be appointed by the President of Pakistan. Till the election of the Legislative Assembly, the Minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas will be acting as the Governor. “There will be a Chief Minister, who shall be elected by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and will be assisted by six Ministers with the provision of two advisers.”

# The Legislative Assembly will have 24 members, who will be elected directly and in addition, there will be six women and three technocrat seats. In order to empower the Council and the Assembly on financial matters there would be a consolidated fund. The budget of the area would be presented and approved by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly.

# The Chief Judge of the Appellate Court will be appointed by the Chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council on the advice of the Governor, and other judges will be appointed by the Chairman on the advice of the Governor after seeking the views of the Chief Judge. The number of judges will be increased from three to five.

# A Gilgit-Baltistan Public Service Commission, a separate Auditor-General and an Election Commissioner will be appointed.

# Answering a question, Mr Gilani said under the Constitution, Northern Areas could be given the status of a province, “but we have given them internal autonomy as per the Constitution.”


# Answering another question, he said Gilgit-Baltistan could not be given representation in Parliament. Responding to a query, the Minister for Information, Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas Qamar Zaman Kaira said the measures would be enforced through a presidential order replacing the Legal Framework Order of l994.

In an article on the subject titled “The Gilgit-Baltistan Bungle” published by the News, on September 10, Asif Ezdi, a retired officer of the Pakistan Foreign Service, stated, inter alia, as follows:

“The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, approved by the Cabinet on August 29 seeks to grant self-rule to the people of the area on the pattern of the autonomy enjoyed by Azad Kashmir. As the Government itself admits, the promulgation of this Order, which has now been signed by Mr Zardari, implies a rejection of the demand that Gilgit-Baltistan be made a province of Pakistan and that its people be given the same constitutional rights, including representation in the National Assembly and the Senate. The reason given by the Government is that acceptance of these demands would go against Pakistan’s obligations under UN Security Council resolutions on Kashmir, which give Islamabad administrative powers over the territory but debar any change in its status.

“Given this self-imposed constraint, the Government had only limited room for action. It could only make those changes in the constitutional structure of Gilgit-Baltistan which would devolve more powers to the people of the territory, but not affect its international status. The last two constitutional measures adopted by the Government for the Northern Areas — in 2000 and 2007 — had also sought to give more powers to the elected Assembly within this constraint. The scope for further devolution was thus quite small. It is therefore no wonder that the changes introduced by the latest constitutional package are by no means of a radical nature.

“The most significant change is that a Council has been set up on the same pattern as exists in Azad Kashmir. It will have the power to legislate on more or less the same subjects as the Azad Kashmir Council. The federal Government will have a built-in majority in the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, as in the Azad Kashmir Council. The practical consequence is that legislation on these matters will continue to be controlled by Islamabad.

“Some of the changes made in the new law are cosmetic, such as renaming the Chairman as Governor, the chief executive as Chief Minister and advisers as Ministers. On the one hand, the new designations seek to highlight similarities with a province; and on the other hand, they underscore difference from Azad Kashmir.

“Since the purpose is to equate Gilgit-Baltistan with Azad Kashmir, the Government needs also to do two more things. One, it should rename the new legal framework for Gilgit-Baltistan as the Interim Constitution, just as the fundamental law of Azad Kashmir is called. Two, the new constitutional package should be passed by the elected Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan, just as the Azad Kashmir Interim Constitution was passed by the elected Assembly of Azad Kashmir, instead of being promulgated through executive fiat.

“The concerns of Kashmiris are two-fold. First, their position has been that Gilgit-Baltistan is part of Jammu & Kashmir and cannot accede to Pakistan separately from the rest of the state. Second, Kashmiri leaders have expressed the fear that the accession of Gilgit-Baltistan would be taken as Pakistan’s acquiescence in the permanent partition of Kashmir and would harm the freedom struggle. Such misgivings have been voiced by Yasin Malik (of the J&K Liberation Front) and by some political circles in Azad Kashmir.

“Typically, the new law was not presented before its adoption for public or parliamentary debate. Instead, the Government only held some closed-door briefings for the parliamentary committee concerned and a few selected leaders from the Northern Areas. Representatives of Azad Kashmir and the APHC were not consulted. The Government clearly still treats the matter as a bureaucratic issue to be tackled bureaucratically.”

Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir, now re-named as Gilgit-Baltistan in violation of the UN resolutions by the Zardari Government, has a total area of 28,000 sq miles as against the only 4494 sq miles of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir. It had a population of a little over 1.5 million in the 1990s. It was part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir before 1947 and was called ‘Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir’ to distinguish it from the Valley, Jammu and Ladakh.

Evolution of Pakistan’s Northern Areas policy

Successive Governments in Islamabad have reduced Shias to a minority in their traditional homeland

In 1935, Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of Jammu & Kashmir, transferred the territory on a 60-year lease to the British authorities from whom it reverted to the ruler under the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Upon its reversion, the ruler appointed Brig Ghansara Singh as the Governor of the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir with headquarters at Gilgit. During 1947-48, the Pakistan Army illegally occupied the entire Northern Areas and parts of the districts of Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad.

The Government of Pakistan constituted the occupied areas of Poonch, Mirpur and Muzaffarabad into the so-called autonomous state of ‘Azad Kashmir’. Northern Areas were separated from PoK by a proclamation of April 28, 1949, and placed directly under the administration of the Federal Government under the changed name of the ‘Northern Areas of Pakistan’. Before doing so, it transferred some territory of Northern Areas in the present Chitral region to the jurisdiction of North-West Frontier Province. The suffix ‘of Jammu & Kashmir’ was deleted because Pakistan no longer considered Northern Areas as part of Jammu & Kashmir though it continued to say that its future, like that of PoK and India’s Jammu & Kashmir, would be decided by a plebiscite under the auspices of the UN. In 1963, the Government of military dictator Ayub Khan ceded to China under a 99-year-lease 6,000 sq miles of Kashmiri territory from the NA — that is, nearly one-fourth of the NA territory. This has been incorporated by China into the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

In 1982, Gen Zia-ul-Haq proclaimed that the people of NA were Pakistanis and not Kashmiris and that its future had nothing to do with that of Jammu & Kashmir. However, his successors as rulers retained the fiction that the future of NA would be decided under a plebiscite along with that of Jammu & Kashmir and PoK.

NA is divided into six districts called Hunza-Nager, Gilgit, Koh-e-Ghizer, Ghanche, Diamir and Skardu. These districts are grouped into three agencies or divisions called Diamir, with headquarters at Chilas; Gilgit, with headquarters in Gilgit Town; and Baltistan, with headquarters in Skardu Town. Of the total population of NA, 50 per cent used to be Shias, 25 per cent Ismailis, who are close to the Shias, and the remaining 25 per cent Sunnis. While the Sunnis were in a preponderant majority in PoK, they were in a minority in NA. The Sunnis were in a majority in Diamir district and in a minority in the remaining five districts.

Under Zia-ul-Haq, a programme was initiated to change the demographic composition of NA and reduce the Shia-Ismaili preponderant majority by re-settling a large number of Sunni ex-servicemen —Punjabis as well as Pashtuns — in NA. This policy has been continued by subsequent Governments. No authentic census has been held in NA and PoK and the results released to the public. As a result, one does not know the demographic composition of the present population of NA and PoK. But the systematic Punjabi-Pashtun colonisation of NA and PoK — which is similar to the Han colonisation of Xinjiang — has reduced the percentage of ethnic Kashmiris in both PoK and NA and the number of Shias and Ismailis in NA.

It is this attempt to change the demographic composition of NA population and reduce the Shias-Ismailis to a minority in their traditional homeland that led to the start of a movement for a separate and autonomous — not independent — Shia province to be called Karakoram province when Zia was in power. The ruthless suppression of this Shia-Ismaili movement by Zia and the resentment over his actions played a role in the crash of the plane in which he was travelling from Bahawalpur to Islamabad in August, 1988, resulting in his mysterious death. Even though no proper enquiry was held into the plane crash, very reliable reports received by the Indian intelligence at that time had indicated that the plane crash was caused by a resentful Shia airman from Gilgit who released a can of some harmful gas in the cockpit, thereby disorienting the crew.

NA is one of the least developed areas of Pakistan. Successive Pakistani Governments took no interest in its development because of its Shia-Ismaili majority. Whatever development took place in the area was because of the interest of the Aga Khans, who started a number of rural development projects for the welfare of the Ismailis. The Sunnis, with the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and the Jamaat-e-Islami in the forefront, started a campaign against the Aga Khans by projecting them as Western agents and anti-Islam.

The local Shias drew their subsistence from tourism and the armed forces, which they used to join in large numbers. There was a time when many of the airmen in the Pakistani Air Force were Shias from Gilgit. After the crash of the plane carrying Zia, the Pakistani armed forces drastically reduced the recruitment of Shias from NA, thereby adding to unemployment.

Next to tourism and military services, Government jobs attracted a number of Shias. Punjabis and Pashtuns serving in the Government service in NA received a 25 per cent extra allowance to which the locals were not entitled. This added to the resentment. Whereas the Mirpuris from the PoK have been able to migrate in large numbers to the West from where they support their families. This avenue is not open to the natives of NA because they require an exit permit for going abroad, which is rarely issued.

Islamabad’s greed as official policy

Successive regimes have schemed and plotted the merger of Northern Areas

Between 1949 and 1974, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir was governed directly from Islamabad through Punjabi and Pashtun officers deputed from the federal Government services. In 1974, Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto gave it a facade of an autonomous governing set-up through an Interim Constitution. He called it an ‘Interim Constitution’ because he contended that the Kashmiris would be given a final constitution after a plebiscite had been held under the UN auspices. Even now, it is ruled under this so-called Interim Constitution.

This Interim Constitution provided for a President of PoK as the head of state, a Prime Minister as the head of the Government and a Legislative Assembly, consisting of 40 directly elected and eight indirectly elected members. It also allowed PoK to have its own national flag and to issue its own passports to its residents. The PoK flag and passports were different from those of Pakistan. However, the PoK passports were not recognised by foreign countries. The inhabitants of the territory, therefore, travelled with Pakistani passports. The Interim Constitution also provided for a PoK National Anthem, an Election Commission, an Auditor-General, a Supreme Court, a High Court and subordinate courts.

The exercise of powers by this ostensibly autonomous set-up is strictly limited by the following provisions:

# Only candidates, who sign a declaration that Kashmir is a part of Pakistan, can contest the elections to the Legislative Assembly.

# Under Article 32 of the Interim Constitution, the Legislative Assembly cannot make any laws relating to the defence and security of the territory, currency, external affairs and trade.

# All important decisions of the PoK Government, including appointments of judges and senior officials, are subject to approval by a body called the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council, whose Secretariat is based in Islamabad and functions under a Minister of the central Government designated as the Federal Minister of State for Kashmir and Northern Areas (of Pakistan) Affairs. The Council is presided over by the Prime Minister of Pakistan and consists of five Federal Ministers nominated by the Prime Minister, the Federal Minister of State for Kashmir and Northern Areas (of Pakistan) Affairs, who is an ex-officio member, the President of PoK and the Prime Minister of PoK, or in his absence, one of his Ministers. This Council was not given any jurisdiction over the NA.

Even this facade of a separate set-up was denied to NA, which was incorporated into Pakistan as a centrally administered tribal area like the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas near the Afghan border. Like FATA, NA was also governed under what was called the Frontier Crime Regulations framed by the British during the colonial days for dealing with what they looked upon as the criminal tribes of the areas bordering Afghanistan. The people of the NA were not given passports and were not allowed to travel or migrate abroad. Every resident had to report to the local police station once a month and all movements from one village to another had to be reported to the police station. Collective fines were imposed on entire villages for crimes or violations of law and order committed by individual inhabitants of the villages.

Till Octobrer 1994, the people of NA had no right of adult franchise. The territory had no elected Assembly or even municipal councils and no representation in the National Assembly. Political parties were banned. In 1994, the Benazir Bhutto Government allowed political parties of Pakistan, but not of PoK, to extend their activities to NA and set up branches there. The PPP, the Pakistan Muslim League, the Muttahida Qaumi Party of Altaf Hussain, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Tehrik-e-Jaffria Pakistan, a Shia party, opened branches in NA. The ISI encouraged the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, a Sunni extremist party which has been campaigning for the declaration of the Shias as anti-Muslim, to expand its activities in NA to counter the activities of the TJP.

In October 1994, party-based elections to a 26-member council called the NA Executive Council were held. It was announced on March 31, 1995, that its members would have the same status, emoluments and privileges as the members of the NWFP Legislative Assembly, thereby giving it a facade of a provincial Legislative Assembly, but, in reality, the Executive Council was given only recommendatory powers and not legislative powers. Five of its members were designated as Advisers to the Federal Minister for Kashmir and Northern Areas (of Pakistan) Affairs, Mohammad Afzal Khan. He told the National Assembly on March 26, 1996, that the Advisers would have the same status and powers as the Ministers of the PoK Government. Even PoK Ministers have very limited powers, but even those limited powers were not given to the NA Advisers. The Minister’s statement was just an eye-wash.

NA continued to be ruled directly from Islamabad by the Minister of State For Kashmir and Northern Areas (of Pakistan) Affairs, with the help of six officers — all non-natives — deputed from outside. These officers were the chief executive officer, the commissioner, the deputy commissioner, the inspector-general of police, the judicial commissioner and the chief engineer, public works. While the posts of the CEO and Chief Engineer were generally filled by serving or retired Army officers, other posts were filled by officers taken on deputation from Punjab or NWFP. There was no right of appeal against the judgements of the judicial commissioner. The Pakistan Supreme Court had no jurisdiction over him.

These so-called political and administrative reforms introduced by the Benazir Bhutto Government failed to satisfy the locals and to reverse the process of alienation of the people, which had started in 1971.

Pakistan-sponsored ethnic cleansing

After Gilgit Scouts refused to fire on Shia agitators, Islamabad ordered killings

The first signs of political ferment against Islamabad appeared in 1971 when an organisation called the Tanzeem-e-Millat started operating in Gilgit despite the ban on its political activities. In 1974, Johar Ali Khan, the founder of the party, called for a strike to demand the repeal of the Frontier Crime Regulations and the recognition of the basic rights of the locals. When the agitation took a violent turn, AR Siddiqui, the then deputy commissioner, ordered the Gilgit Scouts, a para-military unit raised by the British and with a history of over a 100 years, to fire on the agitators and disperse them. They refused to open fire on fellow Shias. He then grabbed a rifle from a soldier of the Gilgit Scouts and opened fire on the crowd himself. One agitator was killed and the crowd dispersed. Johar Ali Khan and 15 others were arrested and taken to the jail. A large number of Shias raided the jail and got them freed. They were subsequently re-arrested.

Following these violent incidents — the first in the history of NA since the Pakistan Army occupied it — Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, then in power in Islamabad, issued a notification disbanding the Gilgit Scouts as a punishment for its refusing to fire on the Shia agitators. The disbanding of the unit hurt the feelings of the Shias. It also threw a large number, who served in the Scouts, out of job. This marked the beginning of the Shia population in NA getting alienated against Islamabad. The Friday Times, a weekly of Lahore, published in its issue of October 15-21, 1992, “The Gilgit Scouts was the only credible law-enforcing agency from pre-partition times. Northerners generally resent the undoing of this centuries-old institution.”

The widespread anger caused by the disbanding of the Gilgit Scouts led to the emergence of a number of anti-Government religious organisations of the Shias. To counter this, the local Army authorities allegedly encouraged the formation of pro-Government organisations by the Sunnis. This injected the poison of religious sectarianism in NA, which like the rest of Jammu & Kashmir had historically remained a tolerant society.

This led to an anti-Shia carnage in Gilgit in May 1988 and was followed by more incidents in 1990, 1992 and 1993. In its issue of April 1990, The Herald said, “In May 1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit Town. The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds, but numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys. Today, less than two years later, Gilgit is an arsenal and every man is ready to fight. In March 1990, when the administration raided homes in Gilgit Town to seize weapons, one was reminded of Karachi and Beirut, not Shangri-la. In February and March this year, sectarian violence in Gilgit claimed several lives in the worst flare-up since May, 1988.”

The Herald did not identify “the invading hordes” or their leader. These hordes consisted of Mehsuds and Wazirs from the Waziristan area of Federally-Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Their leader was a man called Osama bin Laden. He was then the blue-eyed mujahideen of the USA’s CIA. In 1988, it was the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Before the Soviets announced their intention to withdraw, attacks by Afghan and Arab mujahideens were intensified. An increased number of private flights organised by the CIA brought in more and more weapons to be used by mujahideens against the Soviet troops. Some of these weapons were diverted by the ISI to the Mehsuds and Wazirs, who carried out during 1988 the greatest massacre of Shias in the history of the sub-continent since India and Pakistan became independent in 1947. More Shias of Gilgit were killed by bin Laden’s Mehsuds and Wazirs in 1988 than the Shias (Hazaras) killed by the Taliban during the five years of its rule in Afghanistan.

Since the support of these tribals and of OBL and his Arab mujahideen was needed in the culminating battles against the Soviet troops, the Western world maintained a silence on the carnage of the Shias. Till The Herald broke the story of the carnage two years later, the outside world hardly had an idea of the ferocity of the suppression of the Shias of Gilgit by the Pakistan Army with the help of the invading tribal hordes from FATA.

Writing on the same subject, the Friday Times (October 15-21, 1992) said, “In 1988, 150 people were killed when armed lashkars from Chilas and Kohistan — a predominantly Sunni and an exceptionally militant region — raided the Shia-dominated region of Gilgit. After eight days of uninterrupted carnage, the military was finally called in and curfew imposed. Zia-ul-Haq’s regime exploited the Shia-Sunni chasm. The invasion from outside has ignited an inferno of instability that has continued to blaze with the passage of time. It has militarised an otherwise peaceful environment into a ghetto of blind hatreds and animosities.”

Twenty-eight Shias were killed in Gilgit Town in May 1992. Latif Hasan, a well-known Shia leader of the town, was murdered in broad daylight by masked assassins, leading to retaliatory attacks by Shias on the Sunnis, killing six of them. On August 18, 1993, 20 Shias were killed in the same town and the authorities had to impose a curfew.

Strongly condemning the anti-Shia incidents in NA, Allama Syed Sajid Ali Naqvi, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan, the Shia political organisation of Pakistan, demanded the dismissal of the inspector-general of police of NA. The Frontier Post of August 28, 1993, quoted him as saying, “Due to wrong policies and inappropriate tactics of the IGP of Northern Areas, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Pakistan Army had to leave the peaks of Siachen for the streets of Gilgit. The bureaucracy and the authorities of Northern Areas, who do not have the fear of accountability, have started interfering in the beliefs, customs, traditions and religious affairs of the poor people.”

The year 1988 saw the ‘invading hordes’ of Sunni tribals trained and motivated by OBL coming down the Karakoram Highway constructed with Chinese assistance in territory, which belongs to India.

Source: The Daily Pioneer, New Delhi

B. Raman: Former Head, Counter-Terrorism Division of India’s Intelligence Agency (External). Presently he is the Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and convenor, Advisory Committee, Observer Research Foundation, Chennai. E-mail: He also writes at