26 March 2002

Why Pakistan can't let the Northern Areas go

March, 26 2002
The Times of India


Why Pak can’t let Northern Areas go

By Siddharth Varadarajan

BALTIT, Hunza: To understand the political significance of the Northern Areas, all one needs do is look at a map.

The road from Islamabad to Beijing runs, quite literally, through this forgotten corner of Jammu and Kashmir. Built at great economic and human cost by Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway traverses the lush valley of the Hunza river. Almond and peach blossoms line the road and the icy Rakaposhi massif stands guard over the highway as travellers snake their way up to China through Khunjerab Pass some 4800 metres above sea-level.

At the root of Pakistan’s opposition to self-rule for people here is its fear that it might lose the Northern Areas (NAs), and hence the country’s border with China, if a future referendum grants Kashmiris the option of independence. That is why it does not want to consider the NAs an administrative part of Azad Jammu Kashmir (AJK) or grant it the same ‘independent’ status.

As for making the NAs a province of Pakistan, Islamabad’s argument is that this would then complicate the region’s participation in any future referendum on J&K’s final status. But the real reason is legal. ‘‘Pakistan cannot incorporate us,’’ a member of the NAs legislative council told this correspondent, ‘‘and still insist to the world that J&K is disputed territory.’’ The end result is that Gilgil-Baltistan’s peculiar status as a ‘‘territory...included in Pakistan, whether by accession or otherwise’’ looks set to continue.

If the lack of constitutional space has had an adverse impact on development, some see economic benefits as well. In the village of Ganesh, a group of men said they were better off than other Pakistanis because they didn’t have to pay tax. Nevertheless, the feeling of many Hunzakuts is that their region is suffering because they don’t have a political voice. To a visitor from outside, it does seem as if Pakistan has poured in a great deal of money — building roads and infrastructure. But the popular perception here is that not enough has been done.

In tiny Altit village just off the KKH highway, a young potato farmer complained that Hunza’s waters ‘‘go all the way to Punjab but we get no electricity’’. For the man on the street, the acute shortage of electricity in the NAs is a particularly sore point. ‘‘When the nationalists raise these issues,’’ says one Gilgit shopkeeper who described himself as pro-Pakistani, ‘‘they definitely strike a chord’’.

Most nationalists here say they are the ‘‘fourth party’’ to the Kashmir dispute — apart from India, Pakistan and the Kashmiris. ‘‘We believe in the fourth option,’’ says Nawaz Khan Naji of the Baltistan National Front. ‘‘An independent state including Gilgit-Baltistan, Kargil and Ladakh.’’

Amanullah Khan, the author of Gilgit-Baltistan A Disputed Territory or A Fossil of Intrigues?, accuses Pakistan of fostering ‘‘sectarian divisions’’ in order to detract attention from the region’s problems. ‘‘The correct political solution of the Gilgit-Baltistan issue is the right of freedom and independence recognised in UN Charter and demanded by the nationalist Raja Shah Rais in 1947.’’ Rais was the first president of the 12- day ‘Islamic Republic of Gilgit’ set up in November 1947 after the region revolted against Maharaja Hari Singh.

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