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Pakistan's Northern Areas: Time for a Reality Check

Pakistan's move to grant provincial status to its Northern Areas, formally a part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir, should be seen as part of the process that aims to revisit the Kashmir dispute on the basis of pragmatism. Even though the move has been criticised by India and Kashmiri independence groups, Pakistan's political package to the Northern Areas may be a step in the right direction.


Pakistan’s Northern Areas: Time for a Reality Check

Luv Puri

Pakistan’s move to grant provincial status to its Northern Areas, formally a part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir, should be seen as part of the process that aims to revisit the Kashmir dispute on the basis of pragmatism. Even though the move has been criticised by India and Kashmiri independence groups, Pakistan’s political package to the Northern Areas may be a step in the right direction.

Luv Puri ( is a Fulbright Scholar at New York University.

ohandas Karamchand Gandhi was an unexpected visitor to Srinagar city on 1 August 1947. In sharp contrast to the instability and violence that prevailed in the rest of British India, the city was lit up for statesponsored celebrations.

In response to Gandhi’s q uery regarding the reason for such a festive atmosphere, he was told that the rejoicing was for the return of Gilgit Agency to the Jammu and Kashmir state by the British after 12 years. In 1935, the British signed a 60-year lease with Hari Singh to take control of Gilgit. The British wanted to use the frontier belt as a base to check growing Russian influence in the r egion. The end of the British rule in India resulted in a premature end of the lease.

Political History

Gandhi made a terse comment on 2 August that it would be better if Gilglt was awarded local area autonomy to govern itself and to preserve its traditional ways.1 The monarch of Jammu and Kashmir did not take any notice of Gandhi’s words and dispatched his confidante, Brigadier Ghansara Singh, to the region to govern it. In a matter of few days, the locals rebelled and the governor was arrested. Major-General H L Scot, the head of the army unit, sided with the rebels and within a fortnight, the area came under the de facto control of Pakistan on 16 November 1947.

Since then the Northern Areas, a cold desert of 72,495 sq km with enormous strategic significance because of its geographical location, is administered directly by the federal government of Pakistan. The region was given an advisory council in 1975 during the prime ministership of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In March 1999, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered that the Northern Areas be given the same political, economic and administrative rights as given to other provinces of Pakistan. The verdict resulted in a cosmetic change: the Northern Areas’ Advisory Council was r enamed the Northern Areas Legislative Council. However, the elected deputy chief executive of this council remained subservient to the chief secretary, appointed by the federal authority, who had the powers to effect any administrative change above the rank of the superintendent of police or deputy commissioner. The chief executive of the council was the f ederal minister for Kashmir affairs and Northern Areas, an appointee of the f ederal government.

The demand for a politically empowered elected body was repeatedly struck down by the Pakistani ruling establishment on the ground that any attempt to change the status of the Northern Areas would weaken Pakistan’s case over Jammu and Kashmir. The argument remained that the Northern Areas was part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir; therefore, any tinkering with its status would make Pakistan’s claim over it tenuous.

On 29 August 2009, Pakistan Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani announced political reforms in the Northern Areas under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009. The e xecutive council, that was headed by a federally appointed chairman, will now be replaced by a parliamentary system with a chief minister as its executive head. The governor will be appointed by the federal government. An elected assembly of 15 members with an additional seven nominated members will have the right to discuss the budget and approve it. And, significantly, the Northern Areas will be renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan. This announcement by the Pakistani prime minister about political reforms within the Northern Areas is a significant departure from the earlier stand and actions of the Pakistani state.

On 11 September 2009, India lodged a protest with Pakistan over its package for the Northern Areas. In addition to the summoning of the Pakistan Deputy High Commissioner Rifat Masood, the external affairs ministry emphasised that the “ entire State of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India by virtue of its a ccession in 1947. The so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009’ is yet another cosmetic exercise intended to camouflage Pakistan’s illegal occupation.”

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The commentary in the Indian press and reaction of the foreign ministry has been on expected lines. Even then, Indian policymakers need to be aware of the realities in the Northern Areas and also the context, background and reactions to the decision that will help in appropriate policy formulation whenever negotiations restart. This may not be the time for a flexible attitude on Jammu and Kashmir, but whenever n egotiations start, policy makers should incorporate the realities prevalent across the line of control.

Strategic Importance

According to the 1931 Census, with an area of 2,18,780 sq km, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was the largest of the 565 princely states in India. Jammu province occupied an area of 32,067 sq km; K ashmir province, 22,165 sq km; and the frontier district of Ladakh and Gilgit, 1,64,604.86 sq km. With the marking of the ceasefire line between India and Pakistan in the Jammu and Kashmir

regions on 1 January 1949, the area of the state u nder India’s control was effectively r educed to 1,38,992 sq km. The 1949 K arachi Agreement signed between the Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir government and Pakistani government gave administrative control of the Northern Areas to Pakistan, effectively separating it from the state.

The Northern Areas shares borders with Afghanistan, China and the Kargil area of I ndia. The region became the pivotal instrument for Pakistan’s “all weather” friendship with China, a relationship that has borne rich dividends to both countries. On 2 March 1963, the two countries signed an agreement which paved the way for ceding of 2,700 sq miles (7,000 sq km) of the region to the Chinese. The 900 km Karakoram highway, an engineering marvel, constructed in 1982 by the joint efforts of the Chinese and the Pakistani governments connects the outskirts of Pakistan’s prosperous Punjab province with Uighur domi nated Xinjiang province of China. The highway has strengthened the links b etween the economies of Pakistan and China, further strengthening the ties of friendship. It also led to closer ties b etween the people of Northern Areas and Turkishorigin Uighur community. The success of the Karakoram highway paved the way for the joint construction of the Gwador port in Baluchistan by the Chinese. The port facing the Arabian Sea provides a sea route to western China which will enable easier imports by China from Africa and west Asia.

Over the years, Pakistan has tried to leverage the geographical advantage of the Northern Areas for its strategic and economic objectives but did not heed the local demand for a provincial status to this r egion. It feared that such a move could well justify any future attempt by India to completely integrate those parts of Jammu and Kashmir it controls.

Turn to Pragmatism

In the last few years, India and Pakistan have tried to resolve the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, and the public pronouncements of the two sides reflect this point. President Pervez Musharraf took a lead in emphasising the state’s regional and

cultural diversity rather than seeing it as a

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single monolithic entity. He emphasised the need to identify various regions of the state and accordingly work out a solution. Musharraf identified five distinct regions: Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh with India; Azad Kashmir and Northern Areas with Pakistan. Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had agreed on a vision statement that the border with respect to Jammu and Kashmir could not be altered but the boundaries between the two parts of the state would be made irrelevant. In practical terms, the Pakistan president accepted the present administrative control of the two countries of the various regions of the state; though pleading for the idea of soft borders between the two sides.

In 2006, Pakistan’s ambassador to B elgium, Mohammad Sayeed Khalid, s tated that the Northern Areas were a part of P akistan and, therefore, the United N ations resolutions, giving the people of Jammu and Kashmir the right to decide b etween India and Pakistan, did not apply to the region. The diplomat’s letter, made available to the author, came in response to the Emma Nicholson report on Jammu and Kashmir, which was presented to the European Parliament. This report had raised the issue of lack of constitutional rights for the people of the Northern Areas. Given all this background, the recent p olitical package for the Northern Areas by the Pakistani government can be seen as a part of the process that aims to practically revisit the Jammu and Kashmir issue on the basis of pragmatism.

Opposition and Support

The package was opposed by proindependence groups such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front and the pro-Pakistani groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen and its patron Jamiat-e-Islami ( Pakistan) which demands accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan. The N awaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League also expressed disapproval of the decision and added that the Gilani government should have consulted the Pakistan N ational Assembly before announcing the political package for Northern Areas. The Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (A) leader, Amanullah Khan, in a press statement argued that, legally, the Northern Areas should be part of Jammu and Kashmir state. Khan is from Gilgit, though the bulk of his following is from Pakistanadministered Jammu and Kashmir.

Many pro-independence groups cite the Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir High Court’s ruling of 1974 wherein the Northern Areas would be allied with Jammu and Kashmir. Justice Malick (rtd) who had given the verdict as chief justice of the high court founded the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation League, a pro-independence political group. However, the judgment was reversed by the Pakistanadministered Jammu and Kashmir S upreme Court on the ground that the high court lacks the jurisdiction to pass such an order.

Notwithstanding the demand of proindependence groups to amalgamate Northern Areas with Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the political leadership in Northern Areas strongly r esents any such association. It fears that the region’s unique history, culture and minuscule population will be swamped by other groups of Jammu and Kashmir, and, therefore, prefers a provincial status within Pakistan. This argument is based on the fact that the distinct identity of the region will be protected in a fully empowered provincial set-up rather than as an administrative division of Jammu and Kashmir.2 Ethnically and linguistically, the area is different from the Jammu and Kashmir regions. It is a Shina and Balti speaking tract; the Ladakh region on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir is the only point of association for the people of Northern A reas with the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The political agenda of groups such as the Balwaristan National Front, demanding an independent region comprising Northern Areas and Ladakh, reflects this reality. Baltistan is ethnically and culturally closer to Ladakh’s Kargil district. Balwaristan National Front’s d emand for independence is rooted in general Zia’s repressive policy in the region in the 1980s and demographic changes allegedly engineered by the Pakistani state.3 Many independent human rights groups such as the Human Rights Watch have been quite outspoken on the issue of violations committed by the Pakistan state in the region.4

Implications of Reforms

Pakistan’s initiative may justify India’s constitutional integration of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. India too has to f ocus on its side of Jammu and Kashmir so that it is better prepared on the negotiation table by taking care of the internal dimension of the issue. In spite of a large turnout in the 2008 assembly elections, the Indian part has remained in the news for all the wrong reasons since the new government assumed power. The recent violent protests in Kashmir after the mysterious death and the rape of two women in Shopian, followed by the botched-up i nvestigations, have caused a strong mistrust in the official institutions and investigating agencies among the people. The existing ineffectual institutions such as the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission and the Jammu and Kashmir Accountability Commission need to be em powered to regain faith among the people of the state in the state’s institutional base. The rising regional tensions within the state and the present centralised structure are a source of perennial instability between the three regions of the state: Jammu, the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh.

It is unlikely that India and Pakistan will soon converge on a final solution to the Jammu and Kashmir issue. However, policymakers can certainly address the immediate political and economic concerns of people of the troubled-torn region. Seen in this light, Pakistan’s political package to the Northern Areas may be a step in the right direction.


1 Pyarelal (1958), Mahatma Gandhi: The Last Phase, 2 Vols (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Publishing House).

2 Personal interview with Hafiz ur Rehman Khan, member to the Northern Areas Legislative Council, at Islamabad, Pakistan in 2006.

3 Personal interview with Abdul Hamid Khan, the Chairman of Balwaristan National Front at New Delhi in July 2009.

4 Human Rights Violations in Azad Kashmir; H uman Rights Watch report 2006.

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Economic & Political Weekly

september 26, 2009 vol xliv no 39

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