August proved to be an eventful month for the resources-rich Northern Areas and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), with the ruling Pakistan People’ s Party (PPP)-led coalition government announcing reforms to introduce self-governance and to respect human rights in the strategically important areas bordering China and Afghanistan, respectively. Both of these territories have long been governed directly by the president and the federal government. Still more egregious, the Constitution of Pakistan does not guarantee basic human rights to these peoples, who are instead governed through a strong and powerful bureaucracy. Inevitably, this has led to a sense of deprivation among the local communities. For the past few years, political unrest and militant violence in these areas have kept alarm bells ringing for Islamabad. In this context, the reforms come as clear recognition by the federal government that the more the status quo remains unchanged, the more the situation in its fragile frontiers will deteriorate.
The geo-strategic and economic role of the two areas has certainly been increasing in importance. Two of the most critical concerns in this regard have been the allegations by some that US presence in Afghanistan amounts to a containment policy for China; and, second, Pakistan’s impending energy crisis. Analysts now say the limited autonomy will ultimately pave the way for province-like status for Gilgit-Baltistan, thus allowing the state to tap its energy and other resources. Those in the know add that Beijing will be closely monitoring the situation. Indeed, the decision to approve the self-governance package for the region may not have come as a surprise for the Chinese, whose interests would undoubtedly be best served if Islamabad were able to calm the situation in the areas close to the troubled Xinjiang region.
No doubt keeping all this in mind, on 13 August, the eve of the country’ s Independence Day, President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to reforms for the FATA. This would be a massive turnaround. Not only are there currently no guarantees of basic human rights in the tribal areas, but neither can the people appeal against convictions by the chief administrator of the region, commonly known as political agent, who can send anyone to prison without trial. That now looks set to change, with the powers of the political agent being reduced in multiple ways. President Zardari also extended the Political Parties Act to allow democratic parties to compete against the Islamists who currently are facing little to no resistance. Such forces are represented by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (Fazlur Rehman group) (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), conservatives who base their politics on religion but also believe in a parliamentary form of democracy. Finally, the new regulations will now make a change to the longstanding functioning of the Frontier Crimes Regulations, under which an entire community can be held responsible for the actions of a few. Although this will generally remain in tact, at least for the time being, women and children will now be exempt.
No more Northern Areas
The reason why the Northern Areas remained de-linked from the rest of the country for so long has to do, as so many things do, with Kashmir. These issues will now have to be dealt with squarely. If Gilgit-Baltistan were to be made a full-fledged province and included in the constitutional framework of Pakistan, India could argue that the state it has carved out of the disputed area – Jammu & Kashmir – is also a legitimate entity, and thus call the whole issue settled. Indeed, India is not pleased with the new reforms. Soon after the package was announced, the External Affairs Ministry in New Delhi summoned Pakistan’ s deputy high commissioner, Riffat Masood, to hand over a formal protest, which analysis suggest is also partially based in Indian anxieties over the strengthening China-Pakistan relationship.
There have been internal dynamics at play here, as well. While there is a history of struggle against the status quo in the tribal areas, those benefiting from the system have also long maintained the upper hand, thus further delaying changes to the laws. The tribal communities were given the right to vote only in 1997. Prior to this, a group of privileged tribal chieftains could cast votes to elect MPs, a process that led to large-scale corruption. In 2000, the General Pervez Musharraf gave the go-ahead to reform the FCR. But the situation following the attacks of 11 September 2001, particularly along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, forced Gen Musharraf to put the reforms on hold, due to anxieties that the nascent democracy could have worked against military operations in the area. However, those military operations never met with any great success. This, combined with the rise of the Taliban, subsequently worried Washington, DC, which began to hold serious discussions with Islamabad regarding potential reforms in FATA, in the hope that so doing would counter the growing influence of conservative clerics.
Ultimately, actually empowering the people against militancy through reforms to the FCR appear remote, given that the state’s writ hardly exists anywhere in the FATA. Nonetheless, the people’s reactions to the proposed changed have been warm. One point of contention remains, however: whether to integrate the FATA into the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), or whether it should become a separate entity. This debate has divided the people of FATA. Meanwhile, the militants have yet to respond to the new developments. Their silence is interesting, for the entry liberal, democratic forces into FATA politics would almost certainly reduce space for Islamists.
For the moment, however, the new reforms are going ahead as planned. Just over a week after announcing the FATA package, the federal cabinet of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani approved the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order. President Zardari signed the document on 8 September, thus introducing administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms in the Northern Areas. Under the Order, the region, spanning 73,000 sq km and home to two million people, had its name officially changed from the Northern Areas of Pakistan to Gilgit-Baltistan.
The all-powerful chief executive was replaced by a chief minister, a minor change but one that is seen as creating a post far more independent from Islamabad. A new office of the governor was also created for the first time, in addition to the appointment of a public service commissioner and a chief election commissioner. The elected chief minister will be assisted by six ministers and two advisers, while a legislative assembly will have a total of 33 members, including six reserved seats for women and three for technocrats. Most of these posts will be filled through direct elections, while appointments will be made to the reserved and technocrat seats. This body will have the authority to make laws on 61 subjects, excluding defence, currency, foreign policy and communication.
In fact, there is a further sense of self-determination in the Northern Areas that has developed in opposition to the territory’s longstanding constitutional limbo. The people of what is now Gilgit-Baltistan claim to have liberated themselves from Kashmir during Partition, and it is these sections that today are clamouring for the status of a separate province, as enjoyed by Balochistan and the NWFP. “The federal government has given some sort of internal autonomy to the Northern Areas without undermining Pakistan’ s position on Kashmir,” Gilgit-based analysts said, adding that the demands for province-like status “are accepted on limited scale”. Meanwhile, Manzoor Hussain Parwana, chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, which is calling for a fully independent state, voiced his opposition minutes after the federal cabinet approved the package. “The so-called provincial set-up is fraudulent and a blackmailing offer of the government, which aims to conceal the political atrocities and brutal colonial control on the people in the occupied region,” he said.
The strongest opposition came from the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front, a Kashmiri liberation organisation seeking independence. Veteran JKLF leader Amanullah Khan referred to internal autonomy as “old wine in new bottle”. Warned the organisation’s London wing: “Gilgit Baltistan is an integral part of Jammu & Kashmir, and any step aimed at dividing it permanently will be resisted by Kashmiri people all around the world. The so-called self-rule package for Gilgit-Baltistan is an attempt by the Pakistan government to make it fifth province of the country, and a first step to divide Kashmir.” Srinagar-based JKLF leader Yasin Malik was also surprised by the move. “How is the Pakistani government making decisions on Kashmir affairs without taking the people’s representatives into confidence?” he asked during a press conference in Islamabad.
The government has also been censured for the absence of legal cover to the reforms. Amjad Hussain, a lawyer in Gilgit, slammed the federal government, saying, “The package has been approved through an executive order, which is devoid of legal protection.” This is a critical important point: as the change was put in place through an executive order rather than through the promulgation of an ordinance, it can be withdrawn at any time in the future on a simple order from the president. No change was yet been made in the Constitution to guarantee that the reforms will remain in place in the future.
Ultimately, the forthcoming general elections, in November, will be the litmus test as to how the package has been received among the local population, in terms of how the public decides between the nationalist forces and the pro-Islamabad leaders. But even beyond reaction in Gilgit-Baltistan, the new reforms point to a far greater lingering problem in Pakistan. Today, there remain five governing systems in the country – the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Provincially Administered Tribal Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and the remaining four provinces. Experts say the country is facing problems in FATA and Swat District, which is included in the PATA, due to the continued existence of a power vacuum.
Many subsequently are urging that each of these areas be integrated with the mainstream governance system, politics and economy. The new reforms may well be a first step in this direction. But if they prove to be only cosmetic, the people’s reaction, particularly that of the nationalists, could turn violent. Such a scenario would not only hurt the patriotic sentiments of nearly two million locals, but would also harm the country’s interest in these strategic and resource-rich areas.
~ Iqbal Khattak is bureau chief for the Daily Times in Peshawar.