The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Kashmir rant jars Saarc tune
Trust deficit, in Pak backyard

New Delhi, April 3: While Pakistan's banker Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz waxed eloquent on reducing the "trust deficit" between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in Delhi, in Islamabad the International Crisis Group (ICG) was emphasising a similar deficit between Pakistan and the people of the Northern Areas, part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir under its control.

The release of ICG's report - "Discord in Pakistan's Northern Areas" - on the eve of the Saarc summit may be coincidental. However, what it says about Pakistan's record in the area of Kashmir under its control makes for shocking reading. While President Pervez Musharraf demands that the Kashmiris be given the right to "self-governance" - one of the key aspects of his Kashmir proposals, he gives no such right to the people of the Northern Areas.

"The Pakistani military, the ultimate arbiter of the country's Kashmir policy, has kept the strategically sensitive federally administered Northern Areas under central control for fear that even a modicum of autonomy would translate into political empowerment and demands for self-governance," the ICG report states.

The ICG, a non-partisan and non-profit international organisation headed by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, works to prevent conflicts worldwide. Its reports are considered scrupulously objective and are meant to influence policy. They are, therefore, taken seriously by governments the world over.

The Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) had rebelled against the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and apparently supported full integration with Pakistan. However, Islamabad continues to keep the Northern Areas outside the purview of its constitution.

The Northern Areas have no representation in Pakistan's parliament. The region is governed by the Legal Framework Order of 1994 which the ICG report describes as "an administrative instrument used to strengthen its hold over the region while denying its residents basic political and civil rights." This is unlike "Azad Jammu and Kashmir", or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as India calls it, which has nominal autonomy and its own constitution.

In 1999, according to the ICG report, the supreme court of Pakistan had directed Islamabad "to extend, within six months, fundamental freedoms to the Northern Areas, allowing its people to be governed by their elected representatives." Yet, it points out, "the region is still ruled by executive fiat from Islamabad through the federal ministry for Kashmir affairs and Northern Areas, whose minister is its unelected chief executive".

The Northern Areas legislative council, which although elected, is "powerless, and civil and military bureaucrats run affairs".

The ICG warns that the region's inhabitants are "embittered by Islamabad's unwillingness to devolve power to its elected representatives, and a nationalist movement, which seeks independence, is gaining ground". This cannot be good for Pakistan as the Northern Areas are strategically important for it - the Karakoram highway passes through the area and it is Pakistan's only border with China.

The report says that as a consequence of denial of political rights, there is "rise of sectarian extremism". The ICG alleges that "Sunni jehadis" engaged in sectarian strife in the largely Shia Northern Areas have had the patronage of the military "first witnessed during General Zia-ul-Haq's rule (1977-1988)." It then goes on to claim: "Under President and army chief Pervez Musharraf, the military has retained its alliance with Sunni Islamists for multiple goals, domestic and external, further weakening the moderate forces in a region where religious extremism was once unknown."

The report concludes: "The democratic deficit in the Northern Areas will not, however, be redressed while Pakistan itself remains under military rule. Alienation and discord in the Northern Areas had receded under responsive, democratically elected governments in Islamabad. In the eight year of centralised authoritarian rule, however, Pakistan's legitimacy in the region is fast declining."

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