August 2, 2000


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E-Mail this column to a friend G Parthasarthy

Autonomy, Pakistan style

Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, who retired as Indian high commissioner in Pakistan in May, reflects on autonomy in the Pakistan context.

Public opinion in India has recently remained focused on the debate over Farooq Abdullah's demand for increased autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir. After an initial display of histrionics, virtually all sections of the political spectrum have proceeded to consider this issue and indeed the entire issue of greater devolution of power to the states in a mature and measured manner.

Even eminent constitutional experts like Nani Palkhivala have noted that the autonomy of the states was considerably eroded as the nation proceeded on the path of socialistic, centralised, economic planning. With the Indian economy now substantially integrated, there is little doubt that if the nation is to attain a growth path of 8% to 9% in a globalised world economic order, greater powers in economic decision making and other areas should be devolved to our states. Such devolution would also ensure that states which manage their finances prudently are rewarded and not held back, because others resort to financial profligacy and mismanagement.

There can be no better example of the dangers of over-centralisation than the experience of Pakistan -- a country that unfortunately never gave itself a viable or durable constitutional order. While the reasons for Bengali alienation leading to Bangladesh breaking away are well established, there is growing recognition even in Pakistan, that resentment is brewing in Sind, Baluchistan, the North West Frontier Province and the Seraiki-speaking areas of Punjab against Punjabi domination.

Only a few days ago, the Pakistan Oppressed People's Movement, comprising 14 non-Punjabi nationalist political parties and groups, rejected 'attempts to deny and subvert the historic existence of five nations and their homelands that comprise today's Pakistan.' The POONM demanded that the country develop a 'meaningful defence capability' and cut spending on the Punjabi-dominated armed forces by 50%.

While a provincial chief minister in Pakistan does not even have the powers to appoint his own chief secretary or chief of police, the situation is even worse in POK, known rather incongruously as 'Azad' Kashmir. But, just how 'Azad' is 'Azad Kashmir'? A group of Indian correspondents recently taken on a conducted tour to Muzzafarabad could not help noticing the stifling presence of the Pak army everywhere they went. They met the so-called 'prime minister' there -- an individual who wields about as much powers as a zilla parishad chairman in India.

Unlike the Indian zilla parishad chairman he does, however, pretend to have an international role as a member of official Pakistani delegations to forums like the OIC. POK is governed by a 15 member council, with 7 non-Kashmiri members. Administration, in real terms is in the hands of the federal minister for Kashmir affairs and his bureaucrats.

Islamabad's prior approval is required for all legislation and enactments of statutory rules, appointments, public property, budget, loans, taxes, internal security and civil supplies. No member of POK's 'legislative assembly' is allowed to call for independence for Kashmir, as his oath of office requires him to swear loyalty to the accession of J&K to Pakistan.

While some Hurriyat leaders in India denounce the Indian Constitution from the rooftops in Delhi and Srinagar, what would their fate be if they voiced such demands in POK? There are stringent provisions in POK that debar any criticism of the 'Ideology of Pakistan', questioning Kashmir's accession to Pakistan or even criticising the nation's armed forces and any human rights violations by them. Advocating the reunification of POK, Gilgit and Baltistan with Jammu and Kashmir to restore the pre-1947 position, or criticism of Partition are regarded as grave offences.

Is it any surprise then that an organisation like the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, which is broadly secular and popular, is shunned by the ISI, while funds, arms and logistical support are channeled essentially to fundamentalist outfits dominated by non-Kashmiris like the Lashkar e Tayiba or the Harkat ul Mujahideen?

While there is introspection in India about the alleged strong-arm methods used by the National Conference to secure an unexpectedly large electoral victory in 1987, there are no such qualms of conscience when 'elections' are held in POK. Twelve of the 40 seats in the 'legislative assembly' are distributed all over Pakistan for 'refugees' from J&K. It is widely acknowledged that elections to these seats are regularly rigged and that the electorate for these seats fraudulently includes a large number of non-Kashmiris.

The resentment now developing in Baltistan and Gilgit, known as the 'Northern Areas,' came into focus following the Kargil conflict. Many Indians were shocked when the Pakistan army refused to accept the bodies of over 250 soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry, who are from Gilgit and Baltistan. Reports from Pakistan indicate that apart from this callous behavior, the Pakistan army high command sent back the bodies of over 500 of their war dead to their homes in the Northern Areas surreptitiously at night, at the height of the conflict in June 1999. These bodies were brought back and buried, without any military honours, in the civilian attire that NLI soldiers had been ordered to wear at the height of Kargil.

Punjabi reinforcements deliberately delayed reaching Kargil as they felt they were not acclimatised for high altitude warfare. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani officer corps mistakenly believed that the unacclimatised Indian infantry, drawn predominantly from the plains, would not be able to retake the Kargil heights.

Demonstrations against the army high command's callousness were ruthlessly suppressed, with their leaders being jailed for sedition. These independent reports give credence to Nawaz Sharif's assertion that the Pakistan army's ill thought out adventure in Kargil resulted in more casualties than those the country suffered during the entire 1965 conflict.

The constitutional plight of the people of the Northern Areas is even more pathetic then that of their kin in POK. Gilgit and Baltistan have for long been ruled by a joint secretary at the federal ministry of Kashmir affairs. While then interim prime minister Moeen Qureshi proposed a representative set-up with an elected legislature in 1994, Benazir Bhutto subsequently insisted on retaining all effective powers with the federal ministry for Kashmir affairs through an Islamabad appointed chief secretary.

The Northern Areas Council was not given any legislative, financial or administrative powers. A decision by Pakistan's supreme court in March 1999 directing that legislative and administrative powers be granted to the Northern Areas Council remains unimplemented. General Musharraf is determined not to allow any erosion in the powers of the Pakistan armed forces even if there is a return to civilian rule. He is indicating that he plans to devolve more powers to the districts.

But, anyone with a modicum of political sense realises this is a ploy to deny any provincial autonomy and retain effective powers with the military elite from Punjab. It is no surprise that General Musharraf's enthusiasm for 'district government' has a few takers in Sind, Baluchistan, the NWFP and the Seraiki areas of Punjab.

The Kargil conflict resulted in Pakistan being labeled internationally as an irresponsible country. The subsequent military takeover has only confirmed international misgivings about the inherent fragility of that country's polity. The constant invocation of jihad has reinforced that image.

It is now the appropriate time for us to ensure that both the issue of greater devolution of powers to the states and any grievances in the minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are imaginatively addressed. Given the way that people in POK and the Northern Areas have been treated, Pakistan has little justification to parade itself as a champion of Kashmiri causes.

G Parthasarathy

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