The Gilgit-Baltistan elections

Yesterday, Chaudhry Shujaat fired Marvi Memon from her role as head of the PML-Q’s election campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan. The reason was that she had decided to make a number of pro-Musharraf speeches and had put up election banners with Musharraf’s pictures all over them, a bit embarrassing for Chaudhry Shujaat since his party recently decided to oppose the NRO, and would, it seems, prefer to put Musharraf behind them. In any case, there was an interesting article in The National about crowds apparently cheering wildly for Musharraf in Karimabad, Hunza. I am guessing this banner is one of the ones that alarmed Chaudhry Shujaat:

PML-Q isn’t the only national party feverishly campaigning in Gilgit-Baltistan. MQM has fielded 19 candidates (out of 23 seats being contested) for various legislative assembly seats and has claimed that it hopes to win 6 or 7. MQM’s campaign is centered around a strong anti-sectarian message as well promises of further constitutional rights and given the area’s history of sectarian violence starting from the 1988 Shia massacre in the Jalalabad village of Gilgit, it would not be surprising if MQM managed to do well based on this platform. PPP’s campaign is being run by Qamar Zaman Kaira who is not only the acting governor of Gilgit-Baltistan but also the Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas and the Federal Information Minister.

It’s not surprising why all the national parties are converging on this particular election since it’s the first major test of the various parties’ popularity since the February 2008 general elections. However, it is somewhat ironic that a region that does not even have any representation in the National Assembly, despite the much-touted constitutional package (you have to scroll to the bottom of the page to read the text of the ordinance) has become a battleground for the popularity of the various national parties. Murtaza Razvi writing in the Dawn Blog had a nice article about how pleasant it was to see politicians campaigning without being surrounded by bullet-proof glass and high security, but perhaps we are a little too quick to project a rosy image of nascent democracy on Gilgit-Baltistan. The political bigwigs descending on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are not doing the voters any favours by outspending local candidates running on issues important at the local level.

In its report on the Northern Areas, the International Crisis Group noted that during Musharraf’s rule, certain members of the Legislative Council, especially from the PML-Q considered that political rights were secondary to gifts of developmental aid. One such politician claimed:

“I tell those clamouring for political rights that it is not rights that matter but development. Once we are developed, we can ask for rights. Until then, let us be content with the development that Pakistan has undertaken on our benefit”

It’s such a great quote because it really characterizes the cavalier attitude towards political rights that the centre has adopted towards areas like the Northern Areas and FATA throughout Pakistan’s history. Even a cursory look at the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Ordinance shows that the political rights granted to the people of the area, while a step beyond the Legal Framework Order of 1994 are nowhere near the rights accorded to the citizens of Pakistan. Most of the power is vested in the Governor (who is appointed by the President) and the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, half of which consists of appointed members of the federal government. The Chief Election Commissioner, the Advocate-General, and the Auditor-General are all appointed by the Governor.

Even now there are reports of Prime Minister Gilani promising, at a rally in Azad Kashmir, that the autonomy provided to Gilgit-Baltistan does not mean that he does not consider it as part of Kashmir for the purposes of the Kashmir dispute, a sentiment that is deeply unpopular in Gilgit-Baltistan and which indicates that the autonomy and political rights of the people of the Northern Areas continue to be held hostage to the Kashmir dispute.

The history of the Northern Areas since 1988 is a troubled one. The state embarked on a policy of demographic change based on its paranoia of the only Shia-majority province-like region of the country. In addition to the ongoing sectarianism that has restarted in 2008 after a brief respite, the Kargil war of 1999 was largely undertaken by members of the Northern Areas based Northern Light Infantry paramilitary force. Christine Fair notes that this use of the Northern Light Infantry in Kargil had a very harmful impact on the people of the Northern Areas. It’s interesting that it was planned and executed by the same Musharraf who benevolently promised developmental aid to Gilgit and who, according to Marvi Memon, is remembered with such fondness by the people of the area. Perhaps no other incident better illustrates the exploitative relationship of the centre with the Northern Areas than the army’s use of Northern Light Infantry for the Kargil invasion and the subsequent denial:

Panic reportedly set in the area by early June when dead bodies began arriving. The residents told Khan that the bodies were delivered at night. According to a local Pakistan People’s Party leader and a former member of the Northern Alliance Council, Dr. Parveen Ashraf, “All of the martyrs had beards, and they were mostly buried in the same civilian clothes in which they had left for the front line. They were not given any military protocol at the time of the funeral.”

The locals were particularly outraged as stories began to filter back to the Northern Areas about the ammunition shortage and starvation suffered by the NLI troops at the front line. This occurred despite specific promises from the NLI high command to establish and sustain effective supply lines. Nor did the NLI high command establish second-line forces, according to a veteran of the Kargil conflict.18 The NLI paid a high cost. By mid-June 1999, both the 6 NLI on the Kargil front and the 12 NLI had taken massive casualties. Feelings of betrayal among Northern Area residents took on a very different color when the Pakistan government began asserting that the conflict was a militant operation. One resident told Khan, “When I first heard in the Pakistani media that the Kargil was being fought by the mujahideen, I was shocked. . . . My children were being killed, but the laurels went to Qazi Hussain Ahmed [The Amir of Jamaat-e-Islami].”

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2 responses to “The Gilgit-Baltistan elections

  1. Great post, Rabia. An interesting read on this region is Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson.

  2. yeah, that’s a great book! there’s also a recent book by Shoaib Sultan Khan about the Aga Khan Rural support program.

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