The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009 was approved by Pakistan's Federal Cabinet last week. The Ordinance is directed towards granting internal political autonomy to the Northern Areas of Jammu and Kashmir. The Ordinance, however, falls short of local demands and is only a change in nomenclature rather than genuine political reforms.
The 1949 ceasefire line resulted in the division of J&K with Pakistan gaining control over some portion of the disputed territory. Pakistan administered region of J&K was subsequently divided in 1970 into two administrative zones: Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Federally Administered Northern Regions. AJK is constitutionally not a part of Pakistan and is governed by an elected President, Prime Minister and Legislature. Northern Areas are under the direct control of Islamabad and is ruled through a Northern Area Council headed by Pakistan's Minister for Kashmir Affairs.
The Empowerment Ordinance 2009, introduced as a replacement of the Northern Areas' Legal Framework Order 1994, completely overlooks the basic demands of the local population. The Northern Areas have been struggling to free itself from the control of the Pakistani Government for several decades. After years of judicial and legal ambivalence, the Government of Pakistan seeks to extend and reinforce its control over the Northern Areas through the alleged "reform package". The treatment meted out to the people of the Northern Areas for decades have made them skeptical of federal control.
The constitution of Pakistan and its map don't show the Northern Areas as belonging to Pakistan. At the same time Pakistan is not prepared to give the region an independent status or to enable its people to adopt a modern, transparent democratic system. Northern Areas thus have no politico-constitutional status. K2, the only weekly published in the Northern Areas, carries a message on its mast-head which succinctly summarizes the emotional state of the people in the Northern Areas; it reads 'Sarzamin -Be - Ain Ki Awaz' meaning "the voice of the constitution-less."
The people of Northern Areas do not have any justifiable fundamental rights since they are technically not citizens of Pakistan. The Frontier Crime Regulations is in force in the region under which every resident of the region has to report regularly to local intelligence personnel. The locals need an exit permit for moving out of the area.
Until 1994 the region had no elected assembly or even municipal bodies. In October 1994 first elections to the Northern Areas Executive Council were held and the Council continues to remain an advisory. In 1999 the Pakistan's Supreme Court in a landmark ruling directed the Pakistani government to extend basic rights to the people of Northern Areas within six months and treat them as Pakistani citizens. The judgment has not been implemented and in the 2001 elections across the country, the residents of Northern Areas were not granted voting rights. Thus the people of the Northern Areas do not have any representation in the Pakistan National Assembly.
Balawaristan National Front, under the Chairmanship of Abdul Hamid Khan has been protesting against the illegal Pakistani occupation of the Northern region while the Yasin Malik faction of the JKLF demands that the Northern areas, along with rest of J&K, be given the right of self-determination. According to Amir Humza, a leader from Gilgit, "It is a fact that people of this region (Northern Areas) are facing more human rights violations and whenever the official media talks of repression in Indian Kashmir, people with strong hearts laugh at this hypocritical attitude and people with weak hearts cry."
The local population was not consulted at any stage of drafting the Empowerment Ordinance. A committee under the Chairmanship of the Minister of Kashmir and Northern Areas has prepared the "reform" package. Post of the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA) will continue to co-exist with newly created position of the Governor. Thus the executive authority of the newly christened Gilgit-Baltistan region will continue to rest with federal agents. No concrete commitment has been made with regard to the timing of the elections to actualize a large part of the reform package. The move could also impact Pakistan's stand on the wider Jammu and Kashmir dispute with India. Pakistan has always emphasized on resolving the J&K dispute by ascertaining the wishes of the people of J&K, making the unilateral transformation with regard to the politico-legal status of the Northern Areas a diplomatic gaffe.
Amanullah Khan, leader of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, rejected the package, saying it appeared to be aimed at merging the disputed areas into Pakistan. According to Jammu and Kashmir National Awami Party (JKNAP) president Liaqat Hayyat, the Empowerment Ordinance is "nothing but a little joke to the people of this region and the state of Jammu (and) Kashmir."
Pakistan's move is doubly problematic: apart from under-addressing the anxiety of the people of the Northern Areas, the Empowerment Ordinance has further complicated the politico-legal dimensions of the J&K dispute. Complete silence on the part of the international community and India on the issue gives the impression that the LOC has been accepted as fait accompli and Pakistan sovereign right over Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas is implicitly accepted.
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