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Provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan

Provincial status for Northern Areas, published in The Muslim in 1991

(By late Wazir.G. Abbas)

THE mountainous region presently known as “N.As) is situated amidst three of the world’s most famous mountain ranges, the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindukush. This backward and far flung area is little known to the outer world and some of our Pakistani brethren may not be familiar even with its name. It is the place where the borders of China, USSR, India and Afghanistan touch the Pakistan frontiers.

The strategic importance of the area demands that every patriotic Pakistani takes active interest in its affairs and endeavors remove the consternation prevailing among the people due to the so far unidentified constitutional status of the area and the peculiar autocratic and oppressive set up of the administration. There is a difference of opinion in the constitutional status demanded for the area. One section of people demands the status of a province for the area, while another section demands amalgamation with Azad Kashmir. Both sections have their arguments, but before forming an opinion, it will be worthwhile to have a look at the historical background of the area.

Upto the middle of the nineteenth century, the area was divided into various chieftainships. After the notorious “Treaty of Amritsar” when the British sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh, Dogra, the Dogras started making incursions in the area. By the end of the nineteenth century, after many destructions, defeats and set-backs, the Dogras were able to conquer the major portion of the area. The two petty States of Hunza and Nagar, however, were free up to the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, the British thought it imperative to bring the whole area under their control in view of the increasing threat from the Russians in the North. The combined forces of the Dogras and British invaded Nagar, Hunza made peace and thus the whole area came under their control.

The British has established a political Agency in Gilgit in the last quarter of the 19th century, which was, later abolished. After the conquest of Hunza, and Nagar, the area was divided into various administrative units. The two States of Hunza and Nagar remained independent in their internal affairs. The British took the administration of the four political districts of Punyal, Ishkoman, Gupis and Yasin in their own hands and appointed a local ruler who held office at the will of the government except the ruler of Punyal who was hereditary. All worked directly under the Political Agency which had been re-established after the conquest of the area. A British Assistant Political Agent was answerable to the British Resident who in turn, was answerable to the Viceroy in India. The Kashmir Darbar had no say in the administrative affairs of the area except in Gilgit where an officer was appointed by the Kashmir Darbar. But this officer too, could not take any major action without consulting the British Political Agent. This, it may be seen that even during the time when a small portion of that area was under the nominal suzerainty of the Miharaja, the Northern Areas was treated as a separate entity under the Viceroy in India.

The above state of affairs continued till 1935 when the British took over control of the entire area, and had nothing to do with Kashmir. In the year 1947, the British handed over the area to Kashmir Darbar before the division of India took place. The formula of the division of India gave rulers of the Indian States, the option of either acceding to India or Pakistan or to remain independent. When the Maharajah of Kashmir decided to accede to India against the wishes of the majority of the State population, the people of Northern Areas rise in armed revolt against this decision. They formed interim government headed by a President, expelled Indian forces from forty one thousand square miles (41,000 sq miles) without any external help either from Pakistan or elsewhere and invited Pakistan to take over control. It was later when the command changed hands and a local commander was relieved by a non-local commander that 13,000 sq miles of territory was lost to India, and only 28000 sq miles of land now forms the Northern Areas. In 1952, two tribal valleys of Darel and Tangir acceded to Pakistan but were pro tempore attached to the Northern Areas (then Gilgit Political Agency) for administrative reasons.

After the independence of Pakistan, the mode of administration of the area has been constantly changing. In the first instance, in following the foot-steps of the British, a Political Agent was sent to take charge of the area. After the ceasefire, the administration of the area was placed under a Joint Secretary of Ministry of Kashmir Affairs whose seat of administration was in Rawalpindi. For that area, he was designated as “Resident” and was given all the executive, legislative and judicial powers of a local/provincial government. In the sixth decade of this century, however, the seat of administration of the Resident was shifted to Gilgit, while the administrative set up remained the same.

In the seventh decade, with the coming into power an elected government in Pakistan, some reforms were introduced in the area. The States, Rajwara and Jagirdari systems and Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) were abolished. The region was re-named “Northern Areas” and the Resident and the Political Agent were re-designated as “Resident Commissioner” and “Deputy Commissioner” respectively. Some reform was also made in judiciary to separate it from the executive to some extent and make it easier for people to have justice. For the first time, the people were given the right to elect their representatives to an elected body known as “Advisory Council”. But, as the name implies, it enjoyed no powers. It had no say in the administration of the area and its role was purely advisory. Towards the end of the seventh decade, when Martial Law was proclaimed in Pakistan, Azad Kashmir was exempted but the Northern Areas was declared as martial Law Zone “E”.

The seat of local administration was again shifted to Rawalpindi and Secretary of Ministry of Kashmir Affairs & Northern Areas was invested with powers of a local/provincial government. The Resident Commissioner was re-designated as “Commissioner” but the change of the name brought about no pleasant change.

The form of administrative set up in which all the powers are concentrated in the hands of a single bureaucrat who is not answerable to the people is resented by them. The policies led to the bloody clashes in which hundreds of lives were lost and crores rupees worth property was destroyed.

There are two separate suggestions for attaining limited autonomy: One suggestion seeks Northern Areas to be a separate entity while the other stands for amalgamating Northern Areas with Azad Kashmir.

According to the latter, the formation of a separate entity will give rise to secessionist tendencies. This demand separate entity are also labeled as anti-Pakistan by the latter. Furthermore, according to them, Northern Areas is a part of Azad Kashmir and that there are constitutional obstacles in creating a reparable entity. The people of Northern Areas without external motivation or help, liberated the area after considerable sacrifices. It was their sentimental attachment with Islam and Pakistan that prompted them to invite Pakistan unconditionally to take over the area. Their patriotism and loyalty to Pakistan are unquestionable. If there can be four provinces, why not the fifth one. From the historical facts, it can be seen that Northern Areas has never been under the direct control of Kashmir Darbar. It was only for a short spell of less than three months i.e., from 30.07.1947 to 27.10.1947, that the area remained under Kashmir Darbar. Even during that short time, the major portion of the area was ruled by local rulers.

The people of the Northern Areas sanguinely hope that the democratic government of Benazir Bhutto will have regard for the demand of the people, transfer the powers to the elected representatives of the people and declare the area as separate province. The wishes of the people can be ascertained through a separate referendum.


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