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Paper 289                                       07.08.2001

by B.Raman

Before the recent Agra summit, Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's self-reinstated Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), self-styled Chief Executive and self-promoted President, had held a series of consultations with political and religious leaders of Pakistan, including Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), on his negotiating strategy at Agra.  As we had mentioned in our reports on the subject available at , significantly, he did not invite any representative of the Pakistan-Occupied Northern Areas (Gilgit & Baltistan) for these consultations.

Reports available since then indicate that his decision not to invite anyone from the Northern Areas was due to the fact that Gilgit was in a serious state of unrest for a fortnight from the last week of June,2001, due to protests from Sunni organisations over the decision of the local administration to introduce different text-books in the schools for the Shias, who are in a majority in Gilgit, and the Sunnis.  Embarrassed by the outbreak of the violence before the summit, the Pakistani authorities stopped all movements between Gilgit and the rest of Pakistan and imposed strict censorship on the publication of the details of the incidents in Gilgit.

The riots in Gilgit started on June 23,2001, when there were clashes between the workers of the extremist Sunni organisation Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and law enforcing agencies following the arrests of some SSP leaders, who demanded that Shia students should study the same books as are prescribed for Sunni students by the Sunni Ulema and not separate books approved by the Shia clergy.

The Sunni traders started a shutter down strike in protest against the arrests of the central Khateeb and Ameer Tanzeem-e-Ahle-Sunnah-al-Jamat, Maulana Nisar Ahmed, and the President of the Gilgit branch of the SSP,Himayat-ullah, along with other religious scholars on the night of June 22.

To disperse rioting SSP members, the police first baton charged and when the SSP cadres retaliated by pelting stones, they fired tear-gas shells intermittently for nearly two hours, which resulted in a large number of casualties.  A curfew was imposed and para-military forces were deployed to enforce it.

Thousands of protesting activists of the Ahle Sunnah blocked the roads in Gilgit City and Kohistan to prevent the movement of reinforcements, which were then rushed to the affected areas by helicopters, The Army then forcibly removed the demonstrators from the roads and used bulldozers to remove the barricades erected by them.

Subsequently, about 500 activists of the SSP surrounded the Gilgit City Police Station, demanded the release of the arrested Sunni leaders and defied an one-hour ultimatum to disperse issued by the Army.Brig.Zahid Mubashir, the Station Commander at Gilgit, then rushed to the Police Station and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the demonstrators to disperse.  Later, he withdrew the Army to the barracks and let the local Police handle the inflamed situattion.

Meanwhile,another crowd of demonstrators led by Maulana Luqman Hakim, leader of the local unit of the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI) and two members of the Northern Areas Council Sumbal Shah and Saif ur Rehman Khan surrounded the local airfield and refused to allow any aircraft to land or take off.  They demanded the transfer of Muhammad Ali Shahzad, a Shia, who is the Deputy Commissioner of Gilgit, for allegedly permitting the Shias to have their own text-books.

The Army cut off all telephone communications inside the Northern Areas as well as between the NA and the rest of Pakistan.  Despite this, the news of the demonstrations spread to the rest of the NA resulting in demonstrations in other areas too and also in the Kohistan District of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).  The demonstrating mobs blocked the350-km-long Karakoram Highway at many points.

Gen.Musharraf thereupon rushed Abbas Sarfaraz Khan, his Minister in charge of the POK and NA Affairs, to Gilgit to take control of the situation.  Normalcy could be restored only by the first week of July.

Gilgit had seen similar unrest in 1988, but one of the causes of the unrest then was the demand of the Shias for an independent Karakoram State.  Musharraf, who was asked by Zia-ul-Haq to control the situation, brutally suppressed the Shia revolt with the help of Osama bin Laden and his Sunni tribal hordes brought in from the NWFP.

In its issue of May,1990, "Herald", the monthly journal of the "Dawn" group of publications of Karachi, wrote as follows: " In May,1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway.  Nobody stopped them.  They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit town.  The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds.  But numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys."

Gen. Musharraf started a policy of bringing in Punjabis and Pakhtoons from outside and settling them down in Gilgit and Baltistan in order to reduce the Kashmiri Shias to a minority in their traditional land and this is continuing till today.  The "Friday Times" of October 15-21, 1992, quoted Mr. Muhammad Yahya Shah, a local Shia leader, as saying: " We were ruled by the Whites during the British days.  We are now being ruled by the Browns from the plains.  The rapid settling-in of Punjabis and Pakhtoons from outside, particularly the trading classes, has created a sense of acute insecurity among the local Shias."

This time, since the revolt was apparently by the Sunni minority against the educational concessions given to the Shia majority in Gilgit, the Army handled the situation without resorting to firing and whenever the situation in any area became serious, did not hesitate to withdraw instead of using excessive force.

The reports available so far indicate that the unrest was mainly directed against the Shia officers of the local Administration and that there were no attacks by the Sunnis on the Shia civilian population.

In this connection, the following backgrounder on the situation in the NA published last year by the "Dawn" of Karachi should be of interest:

"Though outwardly calm, the Northern Areas of Pakistan are simmering with a crisis that has all the ingredients of boiling over the rim: the over 2 million people of the Northern Areas spread over an area of 72,500 sq km are politically unrepresented in Pakistan and thus facing obvious neglect as all the governments have linked their fate to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.  This discontent and anger, if not appeased, can erupt into a national crisis with far reaching consequences.

"The region classified as 'Northern Areas' comprises five districts: Gilgit, Diamir, Baltistan, Ghizer and Ghanche.  It had voluntarily acceded to Pakistan on Nov 1, 1948, liberating itself from the Dogra Raj.  Yet, Islamabad considers it to be a disputed territory and links its future to that of Kashmir.  The people of this area have neither been granted any civil, human and constitutional rights, nor do they have due representation in the legislature.

"The area has always been governed directly from Islamabad through an appointed Chief Secretary, armed with the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) laws.  Although there is an elected Northern Areas Council to regulate its local affairs, the locals believe it to be just a 'rubber stamp'.  Besides the Chief Secretary and a Minister for Northern Areas and Kashmir Affairs and his six officers, who sit in Islamabad, the area has no other legal representation.  All these people are non-locals, including the Judicial Commissioner against whose judgements there is no right to appeal.

"Fifty-three years down the line and exposed to an era of digital communication, the people of the Northern Areas are getting restless.  Though committed to the denominators of Pakistan's security and integrity, they have started questioning Islamabad's policy of keeping them unrepresented and backward till Kashmir's fate has been determined.  Their demand makes sense as even the internationally accepted disputed territory of Kashmir has an assembly and an independent legal status.

"The feeling of alienation among the inhabitants of these areas is growing as Islamabad continues to turn a blind eye to their misery; they feel the government is trying to solve the Kashmir issue at their expense.  The frequent protest demonstrations and various efforts by the locals in an attempt to attract the attention of Islamabad is too obvious a distress signal to ignore.  Rallies marking 'day of deprivation' are held in many pockets across Gilgit and Baltistan.

"In May 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a landmark judgment ruled: "The NA are a disputed territory and the Government of Pakistan has no claim over it." In the same breath, the apex court asked the Federal Government to grant the region its due status within the next "six months".  Nothing has come of it so far.  The rift is taking its toll on the region in the form of grave national and international consequences.

"The unrepresented status of the NA has resulted in its alienation from the national mainstream, causing deprivation and socio-economic backwardness.  Strategically located, this serene and beautiful region is among the most poverty-ridden parts of the country.  Lacking a strong socio-economic infrastructure, the region is not developed. Despite strong nationalistic feelings among the people of the NA, they would like to enter into a legal and constitutional arrangement with Pakistan.  The Northern Areas are as important to us as Kashmir; and this fact should be recognized by the authorities.

"On the international front, the indecisive status of the NA is a source of embarrassment. It hinders the development work.  The pending Basha Dam, the gold mining project of the Australians and other such projects are examples of how the donors shy away from the region owing to its lack of constitutional and legal status.

"Similarly, tourism has failed to get a boost for which even the essential infrastructure is missing.  "It is ironic that the world is more worried about the falling trees; they are sad that our white leopard are vanishing day by day; the dead bodies of our Markhor frightens them; they are going all out to preserve our ecosystem.  But nobody ever thinks of the people of this land," says Raja Hussain Khan Maqpoon, Editor of Gilgit-Baltistan's weekly newspaper K2.

"While it is true that this area has some of the finest wildlife in the world which is in urgent need of protection, the fact that the people living here are facing abject poverty cannot be ignored for long.  Much as they would like to preserve their heritage, it is becoming very difficult for them to cooperate with the concerned agencies in the face of non-existent basic facilities such as electricity, drinking water and elementary health care. Remoteness has added to their misery.

"Gilgit and Baltistan, which lie to the north of India, were part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) before 1947.  In order to distinguish them from the valley proper, Jammu and Ladakh regions, they used to be called the Northern Areas of Jammu and Kashmir.  After the 1948 war over Kashmir, the Government of Pakistan issued a proclamation on April 28, 1949, separating the Northern Areas of J&K from Azad Kashmir and placing them under the administration of the Federal Government under the name of Northern Areas of Pakistan.

"Since then time has stood still for the locals owing to total neglect by successive regimes in Islamabad.  For almost five decades, the area has been under virtual Martial Law. Under the Frontier Crime Regulations, framed by the British during the colonial days, every resident of the area has to report to the local police station once a month and all movements from one village to another have to be reported to the police station.

"Frustration arising out of unemployment is forcing the youth to come out on the streets. As they have no access to courts they never receive any redress.  Lack of educational institutions has practically closed all avenues of government jobs, thus negating their chances for upliftment.  Money earmarked for development projects often end up in wrong places, so the economy is mainly dependent on agriculture.  But like feudalism everywhere, most of the land is owned by a privileged few with no respite to the common man.

"Hunza is a comparative exception.  A high level of missionary movement and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has brought about a unique mix of modern education in the most primitive of places.  Then, the border town of Sost, just below the Khunjerab Pass, also does well by the trade of electronic goods with China.

"However, it is time Islamabad played its cards with prudence and foresight.  Cruising along the international front with Kashmir is fine, but it should not be done at the cost of the Northern Areas.  They should be granted their due status and rights, to which they were entitled at the time they acceded to Pakistan."

Shaheen Sardar Ali, a prominent lawyer of the Peshawar bar, has co-authored a book titled "Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities of Pakistan" (Curzon Press) on the mess created by the ideological principle that only religion was the basis of nationhood.  She attributes the ethnic and linguistic troubles of Pakistan to the blindly monistic claim that if one is a Muslim one can't be a Sindhi, Balochi, or Kashmiri etc and draws attention to the following facts:

It is Article 21 of the 1974 Interim Constitution Act passed by the 48-member Azad Jammu and Kashmir unicameral assembly in 1974 which tells us how 'azad' is Azad Kashmir although the leader of the majority in the House is called Prime Minister unlike his counterpart in Held Kashmir.  The article explained the role played by the Government of Pakistan in the affairs of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.  It is in fact the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council based in Islamabad which runs Azad Kashmir.  The Prime Minister of Pakistan is its Chairman and a Secretary of the Ministry for Kashmir Affairs actually runs the territory on a daily basis.  The Council has Azad Kashmiri members, including the President and Prime Minister, but it is the Prime Minister (of Pakistan) who orders everyone around.  His power derives from the fact that he gives Azad Kashmir its annual budget and can actually dismiss the government of the state if the fancy takes him.

Azad Kashmir has a High Court, but all appeals against its decisions lie in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which makes sure that nothing is adjudicated in the state contrary to the policy of the Federal Government.  One example of this came in the shape of cases in 1993 and 1995 ( Malik Muhammad Miskeen and Others vs. Government of Pakistan, through Secretary Kashmir Affairs and Northern Affairs Division, Islamabad and Others [PLD AJ&K] and Federation of Pakistan vs. Malik Muhammad Miskeen and Eight Others [PLD SC]).  In 1949, Pakistan decided to take over the administration of the Gilgit-Baltistan territory which is legally a part of Azad Kashmir.  It concluded an agreement with the Government in Muzaffarabad and simply delinked it from Azad Kashmir to call it the Northern Areas.  Later on, when it (Islamabad) sorted out its frontier with China, some of this territory was ceded to China with the proviso that the settlement was subject to the final solution of the Kashmir dispute.  The cases at the Azad Kashmir High Court challenged the authority of the Federal Government to take away the Northern Areas and wanted the territory returned to the administration of Muzaffarabad.

It is understandable that the High Court found for the petitioner.  The Azad Kashmir Government was hardly sovereign to sign an equal treaty with Pakistan.  On the other hand, Pakistan admitted that the Northern Areas were a part of the state.  The Court ordered that Gilgit-Baltistan be returned to Azad Kashmir, whereafter Islamabad went to the Supreme Court in Islamabad in appeal.  Here the case was decided on political grounds, the Federal Government strangely taking the position that the case was not based on legality but politics.

The book concludes: 'The judgement became the cause of serious concern for the Governments of Pakistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir and they appealed to the Supreme Court.  The contention that the Northern Areas formed historically part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir was not - indeed could not - be denied by either Government.  That the Northern Areas were being looked after by the Pakistan government administratively by virtue of the 1949 agreement between the two governments was not disputed either.  The arguments at the Supreme Court were mainly confined to technicalities of the petition.  The Government of Pakistan contended that the issues raised were basically political in nature and hence not amenable to discussion and judgement before a court of law.  It was further argued that the High Court of Azad Jammu & Kashmir lacked jurisdiction in this matter as it could not issue a writ to the Government of Pakistan.  In short the Supreme Court overturned the judgement handed down by the High Court of the state of Jammu & Kashmir without going into the substantive details of the case'.

Other points to emerge from the book and other comments in Pakistan are: "And how has the Government of Pakistan acquitted itself of the responsibility of administering the Northern Areas or the region of Gilgit-Baltistan? Here too the Northern Areas Council has no independence and is run by the same Ministry that runs Azad Kashmir.  What a politically unsteady Islamabad has done to the Northern Areas is clear, if you study the developments in the region since 1988 when the first big sectarian killings occurred there.  The book modestly states that the ulema began to be given more importance than the people, which caused the Islamised administration of Islamabad to retreat before the rising Sunni storm against the two communities (Shias and Ismailis) that formed the majority in Gilgit-Baltistan.  Gilgit joined the other centres of Shia concentration in Pakistan, like Jhang and Parachinar, when its population were brutalised by the Deobandi assault, carrying a clear stamp of anti-Shia Afghanistan.  The Aga Khan Foundation projects in Gilgit were attacked and bombed while Shia-Sunni marriages were stopped by force by the warrior priests. "

While the Government of Pakistan has, since 1975, allowed at least a façade of democracy and autonomy to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), it has kept the NA under tight federal control, imposing an iron curtain in the area.  The reasons are its strategic location adjoining China and the clandestine use of the Karakoram Highway for the movement of Chinese nuclear material and missiles.

Drawing attention to this in a paper titled "The Northern Areas: Behind Pakistan's Iron Curtain" published in the September 1996 issue of the "Strategic Analysis", the monthly journal of the Institute of Defence Studies And Analysis, New Delhi, this writer had said: " The Karakoram Highway is also used for the movement to Pakistan of Chinese nuclear and military equipment like the M-11 missiles, equipment for the nuclear power station being constructed with Chinese assistance etc.  The two countries do not transport such sensitive equipment by sea to avoid detection by the USA."

This has now been corroborated by the "Washington Times" story of August 6,2001, regarding the movement of Chinese missiles to Pakistan by trucks.  "The Hindu" of Chennai (August 7) has quoted the "Washington Times" as follows: "American satellite monitoring of the area detected a shipment on May 1 on the China-Pakistan border.  By US intelligence estimates, it was one of the 12 consignments sent by ship and truck since the beginning of the year."

In the past, Pakistan had been receiving its clandestine missile consignments from North Korea by sea.  Since the appointment of Mr.Richard Armitage as Deputy Secretary of State in the current Bush Administration, Pakistan and North Korea have been worried because in a paper on US policy options towards North Korea submitted to the US House of Representatives on March 4,1999, Mr.Armitage had, inter alia, recommended as follows: "Should diplomacy fail, the United States would have to consider two alternative courses, neither of which is attractive.  One is to live with and deter a nuclear North Korea armed with delivery systems, with all its implications for the region.  The other is preemption, with the attendant uncertainties.  Strengthened deterrence and containment.  This would involve a more ready and robust posture, including a willingness to interdict North Korean missile exports on the high seas.  Our posture in the wake of a failure of diplomacy would position the United States and its allies to enforce 'red lines.' Preemption.  We recognize the dangers and difficulties associated with this option.  To be considered, any such initiative must be based on precise knowledge of facilities, assessment of probable success, and clear understanding with our allies of the risks."

It is understood that during the visit of the Chinese Prime Minister, Mr.Zhu Rongji, to Pakistan in May,2001, Islamabad had taken up with China the question of allowing future missile consignments from North Korea to come to Pakistan by road via China and the Northern Areas. 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )