Not accepted within the fold of Pakistan, activists formulate a nationalist political ideology relying on the `mountain-ness’ of the Northern Areas.
Come to Balawaristan! Experience the mystic serenity of Ladakh´s Buddhist gompas, trek around the world´s most splendid peaks, follow the course of the river Indus or enjoy the blossom of apricot trees in Hunza!” If the dreams of some political activists come true, these enticing words may appear in glossy tourist brochures in future. As things stand, however, the chances are bleak.
A search in the atlas for Balawaristan will be in vain. This ´country´ is only indicated on a map in a long-forgotten booklet published a decade ago in Gilgit, in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The name ´Balawaristan´ also most probably appeared for the first time in print in this booklet. Nevertheless, the idea behind Balawaristan has its own power – a power strong enough to provoke a government. Talking about Balawaristan using the wrong words to the wrong person in Gilgit can easily land one behind bars.
That obscure map of Balawaristan represents parts of the great but disputed mountain regions which are, from the respective points of view, called “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” or “Indian-held Kashmir”. It stretches from Chitral in the west to Ladakh in the East and includes the entire Northern Areas of Pakistan.
The name Balawaristan might be of recent antiquity, but the idea itself has a longer history. For the inhabitants of the Northern Areas, the idea of a unified region has its origins in the lack of fundamental democratic rights. This was as true under the despotic rule of Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir, against whose unilateral decision to accede to India they rose in revolt on 1 November 1947, as is of governance by Pakistan after that. For although the Northern Areas is administered by Islamabad, it is not considered a part of Pakistan: its people cannot vote in the elections to Pakistan´s National Assembly, they have no provincial legislative assembly, and they are denied access to the High Courts and the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
On the other side of the Line of Actual Control, the area of the erstwhile Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir controlled by India has been integrated, with a number of provisions for autonomy, into the Indian Union. But Pakistan continues to deny the same integration to the Northern Areas, arguing that the status of the disputed area can not be altered until a final solution is reached.
The United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) has handed administration of the Northern Areas to Pakistan until the Kashmir issue is resolved. And Pakistan´s Kashmir case depends on the UNCIP resolution calling for a plebiscite in the Maharaja´s former domains. Should Pakistan abandon its temporary caretaker status and grant full constitutional rights to the Northern Areas, it would be tantamount to abandoning the ´disputed status´ of the area and recognising the ceasefire line as a permanent border with India.
The irony is that Islamabad has made separate arrangements for Azad jammu and Kashmir (AJK). Although it is tiny in comparison to the Northern Areas´ size, AJK enjoys a semi-autonomous arrangement within the Constitution of Pakistan. It has its own prime minister, its own supreme court, and enjoys extensive media coverage in Pakistan.
In the decades that followed the 1949 ceasefire, this region of “Gilgit-Baltistan” continued to be administered by Pakistani political agents in quite the same undemocratic terms that had been practised before by the British agents in Gilgit. The inhabitants of the area were more critical of the continuation of colonial taxation and begar (forced labour) than of the lack of democratic rights. But as more and more young men from there went to Pakistan for higher education and returned with degrees, a heightened consciousness of their ´special´ status. During the 1970s, under the regime of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, some of the discriminating conditions of the Northern Areas were abolished, but the reform process ended when Zia-ul Haq staged his coup in 1977.
People of the heights
In the last years of Zia´s dictatorship, students from the Northern Areas at universities and colleges in the various cities of Pakistan formed a number of regional student´s organisations such as the Karakorum Students Organisation (KSO) and the Baltistan Students Federation (BSF). Having completed their studies, they continued their activism at home. A number of graduates became active in the “Unemployed Action Committee” in Gilgit. Public administration is the most important employer in the area, but most qualified jobs go to outsiders, that is, to people from Punjab or the North West Frontier Province.
Activists of the Unemployed Action Committee later formed the Balawaristan National Front (BNF). Among the founders were Nawaz Khan Naji, the author of the little Balawaristan booklet, and Abdul Hamid Khan, who wrote innumerable newspaper articles and press releases to attract attention to the political status of the Northern Areas. The activists proclaimed that the Northern Areas was a subjugated nation whose proper name was Balawaristan. The name is derived from the Persian bala (high, above). The inhabitants of this “land of the heights” are to be known as the “Balawar”, the people of the heights.
The case for Balawaristan that Nawaz Naji builds in his booklet is a textbook example of the construction of a nationalist ideology. According to this view, the Balawar nation is firmly grounded in a common history, culture and the peculiarity of its high mountain habitat. That this nation is a fiction because historically, culturally, linguistically, etc, the region was and is characterised by a high degree of differentiation among its so-called constituent parts is immaterial. Contemporary political science says that all nations have at one point in their history simply been imaginations. After all, the Pakistani nation itself began in the imagination of a few men – with lasting and tangible results – so the fiction of Balawaristan need not be seen as entirely lacking in potency.
Like all nationalisms, the imagination of Balawaristan is also part of a power game. Nationalism demands that the nation be invested with the right to self-determination, a right that is denied to the people of the Northern Areas by the politics of Pakistan.
Until the early 1990s, the political demands in the Northern Areas were largely focused on demanding the region´s integration into Pakistan as a regular fifth province. But because downcountry Pakistan showed no inclination for such a normalisation of political status, the activists began raising demands for autonomy, and even complete independence.
Following the Balawaristan National Front, other groups have taken up the idea, although the ideology and the nomenclature are at some variance. The Karakorum National Movement calls for a “Karakorum” nation, while the Boloristan Democratic Front wants “Boloristan” (from the ancient kingdom of Bolor, by which Gilgit and Baltistan were jointly known).
The different ideologies converge in the conviction that the mountains were decisive in shaping a peculiar national identity. In the perspective of a person from the lowlands, this “mountaneity” may be nothing valuable. On the contrary, the inhabitants of the mountains are stereotyped as backward, primitive, violent and uncultured. As often happens in such situations, the negative stereotype has pushed the subject into a positive self-evaluation. The ideologists of the mountains now stand by being different – they insist on it.
Accordingly, national symbols are derived from the mountains, like the chain of peaks and the ibex that make up the flag of the bnf (left). It is the essence of living in the mountains that, according to Nawaz Khan Naji, unites the people from Chitral to Ladakh. The territory of the Balawar nation, then, comprises not only the present Northern Areas of Pakistan, but also Chitral, a part of Kohistan (both are districts of the North West Frontier Province) and Ladakh, across the ceasefire line.
This nation of Balawaristan (or Karakorum or Boloristan), insist the activists, is different from Pakistan and different from Kashmir. They insist that the future of the nation be delinked from the never-ending Indo-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, and that its present bondage to Pakistan be severed.
In developing a nationalist ideology, the plausibility of the Balawar nation is also sought to be enhanced through a considerable re-invention of history. Historical personages like Gohar Aman of Yasin, who earlier was remembered mostly for his cruelty while depopulating large areas, are now glorified as heroes of the national struggle for freedom.
Northern united front
By imagining a separate nation, the mismatched fight for democratic rights has now become a struggle between two (almost) equals; the antagonism between a powerful state and a group of dispersed groups of a peripheral region has been turned into a struggle between two nations. That, at least, is the theory or strategy. In practice, the nationalists remain divided into a number of small rival parties because, as malicious gossip has it, everybody wants to be chairman.
For its part, the BNF has worked to bring about analliance of a number of oppositional groups in Gilgit. In April 1993, they convened the Gilgit-Baltistan National Conference, in which 12 different organisations, including branches of Pakistani national parties such as the Pakistan People´s Party and the Pakistan Muslim League, took part. The participation by Gilgit´s Shia and Sunni communities also was considered significant because sectarianism is another pressing issue in the Northern Areas.
The 1993 conference resulted in a Northern Areas United Front, a political alliance which included the various activist groups as well as politicians of all sects. In the following years, the Front organised many demonstrations and assemblies, and busily voiced the political demands of Gilgit´s opposition. Even a period of sectarian violence in the summer of 1993 could not break the alliance.
Relations between the population of the Northern Areas and the government of Pakistan have become fairly strained. When Benazir Bhutto was in power, her government did announce some administrative reforms, but in the end they turned out to be entirely cosmetic. This included renaming the position of the “Administrator” of the Northern Areas as “Chief Executive”. The Northern Areas Council, an area-wide elected but powerless body, could now elect a “Deputy Chief Executive”. The Chief Executive, invariably a non-local appointed by Islamabad, could delegate work to the Deputy Chief Executive, but in practice retained all the powers of a governor.
They might not know it, but up to 70 percent of all foreign visitors to Pakistan set foot in “Balawaristan”. Indeed, the Northern Areas have emerged as Pakistan´s most attractive region for overseas tourists, and this is another bone of contention. The nationalists say the Northern Areas today contribute a disproportionate share to the national economy. To tourism they add water: the Indus River runs through the mountains, collecting the waters of many smaller rivers like the Hunza and the Gilgit, and descends to the plains to irrigate large tracts in Punjab and Sindh. The Government of Pakistan does pay royalty for the Indus water – but to the North West Frontier Province, through which the river passes but only a short distance.
The BNF alleges that the government of Pakistan similarly gains from the Northern Areas´ forests, mineral resources, customs revenue and so on. Much more money is drawn from the area than is returned by investments, it says.
The activists of the Northern Areas see themselves as the heirs of the fighters in the uprising against Indian rule in 1947. According to the Balawar nationalist view, many people from the region sacrificed their lives for freedom back then, but freedom was not achieved. Now, it is said, the time has come to complete the struggle – strictly by peaceful means.
In Gilgit, the first of November is officially celebrated with speeches, parades and tournaments as “Freedom Day”. But the activists of Balawaristan and their allies have taken to boycotting that occasion, to commemorate instead a “Martyrs´ Day” on 2 November.
In the summer of 1996, police opened fire at a demonstration called to protest Pakistani domination. One person was killed, some were injured, and many more arrested. When in August 1997 the 50th anniversary of the Independence of Pakistan was to be celebrated in Gilgit as in all over the country, the opposition groups prepared their demonstrations, determined to mark the event as a “black day” for the Northern Areas. But strong units of police prevented demonstrations. More than 60 activists were arrested and many of them remained for weeks in detention, some suffering maltreatment. Now, the leaders are being accused of treason. Having been released on bail, Nawaz Naji, Abdul Hamid Khan and others await trial for having betrayed Pakistan, a country that does not accept them as its citizens.