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Payback time in Pakistan coin

Payback time in Pakistan coin

Author: Wilson John
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: May 22, 2002

For all the politicking that President Pervez Musharraf is indulging in, he cannot remain oblivious to the growing dissent at home to his regime's indifference to the people of Northern Areas. Going by accounts in the Pakistani media, there is already a strong whisper of protest among the populace against the military dictator's continued neglect of the area. Major Ahsan Wali Khan, writing in The News last month, aptly summed up the public mood in Gilgit-Baltistan: "The tempers of the people are now boiling. Painting doomsday scenario is not the aim, nor what is being highlighted now is something unknown to all and sundry, but then playing ostrich too is fast running out (sic)."

Although the area has been wallowing in neglect for more than five decades, there is an immediate provocation for the anger. The authorities have made it mandatory for the people of the Northern Areas to carry a computerised identity card. This has caused considerable anger among the public but what has really forced them to voice their protest is the label the authorities have chosen to tag them with: "Kashmiri Mohajir". All the natives from now on will be required to carry I-cards with "Kashmiri Mohajir" written on them, a move which is snowballing into a controversy in the far-flung villages of this mountainous area.

The local people object strongly to the label because they consider themselves neither Kashmiris nor Mohajirs. They say they are an indigenous group of people with a unique culture that makes them different from those living in Kashmir and Pakistan.

The Musharraf regime has been promising them the moon, though. One such farce was the decision to raise a few wings of the Gilgit Scouts to accommodate the educated unemployed youth. Nothing seems to have happened on that front as the General has been occupied with getting himself elected President. The people are irked that while the government has so far refused to raise local security forces to maintain law and order in this strategically important region, the authorities are not averse to spending a chunk of the meagre budget allocated for the development of the areas on requisitioning the services of Frontier Corps, Rangers and Frontier Constabulary from the federal government.

Another area of gross neglect is the management of water resources. Although the main source of surface water, the Indus, is fed by glaciers of the northern mountains, the benefit to the Northern Areas is negligible in terms of power generation, irrigation, royalty or even for the purpose of drinking. These factors are causing deep resentment in the public.

Hitherto, the underprivileged people of this region had remained silent to the administrative apathy of Islamabad. But the times have changed. People are now aware of their rights more than ever before. The youth are educated and ambitious and not in a mood to listen to pious homilies of politicians from the western region. With fewer job opportunities and a continued absence of development in the region, the youth have become more vocal in their protest and are showing signs of open revolt against the Government at Islamabad. Several organisations spearheading such dissension have come up in recent times. There is a strong possibility that, in the days to come, a deep division could emerge along sectarian lines, with the people of Northern Areas holding the Punjabis (the rich oligarchy) responsible for their poverty and neglect.

The result is a growing demand for self-rule by the 1.5 million strong population of the Northern Areas. Political leaders have already begun calling upon the President to honour the UN resolution passed on August 13, 1948, to grant autonomy to the region. Major Hussain Shah is one such leader, who has been pleading with Islamabad to "at least grant basic human rights to the people". According to him, the Northern Areas "are not part of Pakistan constitutionally", and that Pakistan's only role, under its own "commitments" to the UNCIP, was to "take care of the borders of Gilgit-Baltistan". He said the region should be "identified as a nation" and Islamabad should "should treat Gilgit-Baltistan with the same political respect as was now being shown to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir".

Interestingly, those raising the banner of revolt against Islamabad are citing the Indian example of amalgamating the different regions in Kashmir. They argue that India had integrated Kashmir into the Union of India in 1963 and connected Ladakh with the Manali district of Himachal Pradesh, apart from further dividing it into two districts of Leh and Kargil besides granting autonomy to Leh in 1995. Moreover, they point out that Kashmiri Muslims have been represented at the highest levels. One of them became the Home Minister of India while another is today a Minister of State in the Ministry for External Affairs. Besides, one of the major political parties of Kashmir is a coalition partner at the Centre. But not one resident of the Northern Areas has ever found a place either in the Pakistani government or in any one of its key departments.

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