Northern Areas: a tale of neglect, denial?


Tuesday May 30 2006 00:00 IST

NEW DELHI: Rebellion and resentment that have been brewing among people of the Northern Areas, part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, is fast reaching a crescendo against persecution by the Pakistani armed forces, the continuing denial of legal and political rights, and devious attempts at demographic engineering in this strategic region.

The area, which locals insist on calling Gilgit-Baltistan (the name Northern Areas reeks of colonial manipulation, according to them), is at the centre of a debate on self-rule and democratic governance in Jammu and Kashmir.

India has highlighted repression unleashed by the Pakistani armed forces - there are reports of civilians being targeted with mortars and rockets - to expose Pakistani demand for self-rule and democratic governance in India-administered Kashmir. New Delhi's condemnation has been rejected by Islamabad, which sees it "as an interference in its internal affairs."

The Northern Areas, which were annexed by Pakistan during the first war in 1947-48, borders Pakistan's North-West Frontier to the west, Afghanistan and China to the north, India's Jammu and Kashmir to the east, leading to the Siachen glacier.

Unlike Pakistan's other four provinces, the Northern Areas have no political representation and no status under Pakistan's constitution and is directly administered by Islamabad through a non-elected federal minister for Northern Areas.

Mutual jousting over the ownership of the strategic area apart, the stories of mass persecution of Shias who form over 80 per cent of nearly 1.2 million population of the area are bone-chilling and have to be heard to be believed.

"We are fed up of the culture of the gun in the region. The atrocities perpetrated by the Pakistani government against indigenous people of Gilgit-Baltistan are hard to describe," Manzoor Hussain Parwana, chairman of Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, told IANS.

Parwana was here last week, along with nearly 30 leaders representing PoK, Northern Areas and the Kashmiri diaspora, to attend a two-day international conference to find "alternative futures" for Kashmir.

"Nobody listens to us. There is no political representation for us in Pakistani National Assembly and there are no legal recourse again state-sponsored atrocities," he added in a charged tone.

"For the last 60 years, we have not been given political rights. Why has India not helped us?" he asked. "We want India to speak up against atrocities committed by the Pakistani army against indigenous people of Gilgit-Baltistan," he said.

"Till the resolution of the Kashmir issue, we should be given political rights and self rule," Parwana demanded.

Parwana's rage against decades of neglect and indifference was echoed by Hasheem Qureshi, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Liberation Front. "We are fed up with guns. We want complete demilitarisation of the whole of Kashmir," Qureshi said.

He accused the Hurriyat of playing into the hands of the Pakistani establishment. "Who is Hurriyat? They want accession to Pakistan. They are following the agenda of (Pakistan President Pervez) Musharraf," he said.

"Instead of listening to Hurriyat, both India and Pakistan should be listening to the common people," he said.

Another Baltistan leader protested excessive prominence given to the Hurriyat and the propagators of the culture of gun and blamed them for their indifference to the problems of their region.

"We don't recognise the Hurriyat. There is no representation of the Hurriyat in Baltistan. We want to fight for our political rights," said Mirza Wajahat Hussain, president of Gilgit-Baltistan Thinker Forum.

Leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan have high expectations from India. Some of the students have demanded reservation for them in India's elite educational institutions.

"India should have quotas for us in the Indian Institute of Management, the Indian Institute of Technology and other law colleges of India. It will be a big help to us," said Shafquat Ali Inqlabi, a resident of Gilgit.

Responding to the request, a senior Indian official said: "We don't have any problems with the idea. They have to sort that out with the Pakistani government."

If New Delhi decides to help, it will be a major step in the development of human capital in the region. The Karakoram University, which does not even have basic facilities, is the only institution for higher studies in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The scale of neglect of the region is almost criminal with even basic facilities, such as electricity, drinking water and elementary health care missing in the area, according to residents. This has spurred a movement for an independent homeland called Balwaristan.

Islamabad has accused New Delhi of fomenting insurgency in the area - a charge New Delhi has denied even as it has sought to highlight oppression against the local populace by Pakistani authorities.

Back to list