How free is my valley?

Reuters/Human Rights Watch

The “Azad” in AJK smacks of oxymoronic rhetoric. Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) is neither a free territory, nor a province of Pakistan. Muzaffarabad has always been under the control of Islamabad and the curtailment of the freedom of expression is constitutionally protected. Without meaning to refer to the new name just bestowed on an old province, let me ask, what’s in a name?

Here is what.

There are a number of reports that describe the human rights violations in Indian Occupied Kashmir but it is hard to come by reports of violations on Pakistan’s side. The Pakistani government often pretends that the only problems faced by Kashmiris are in India. The official position that there are no human rights violations in AJK is a naïve and disingenuous position that needs to be challenged. According to the Freedom House World Freedom Reports, in 2008 Pakistan-administered Kashmir was given the status “Not Free”. This index awards a score of 1 to a “free country” based on ratings of political rights and civil liberties. These ratings are averaged, ranging from 1 to 7, i.e. countries or disputed territories with scores from 1 to 2.5 are considered Free, 3 to 5 are Partly Free, and 5.5 to 7 are Not Free. In 2008, this index gave AJK a Political Rights Score of 7 and a Civil Liberties score of 5. The scores for AJK have improved to a 6 and a 5 respectively in 2010. In comparison, Indian Occupied Kashmir has better scores of 5 for political rights and a 4 for civil liberties, and a status of ‘partly free’, which ironically is exactly equivalent to Pakistan’s national score and status!

According to Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch , the “Pakistani authorities govern Azad Kashmir with strict controls on basic freedoms… The military shows no tolerance for dissent and practically runs the region as a fiefdom.” The presence of an elected local government is a mere formality. In 2006, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the federal government in Islamabad, the army and the ISI control all aspects of political life in AJK. Torture is routinely used in Pakistan, and this practice is also common in AJK. HRW also documented incidents of torture by the intelligence services and other agencies and individuals acting at the behest of the security establishment but knows of no cases in which members of military and paramilitary security and intelligence agencies have been prosecuted or even disciplined for acts of torture or mistreatment.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has also articulated tight controls on freedom of expression as a key pillar of government policy in AJK. While militant organizations promoting the incorporation of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir State into Pakistan have had free reign to propagate their views, groups promoting an independent Kashmir find their speech curtailed. Publications and literature favouring independence are banned.

Pakistan has prevented the creation of an independent media in the territory through bureaucratic restrictions and coercion. Looking at the freedom of expression in AJK, before 2005, the only radio allowed to operate was the Azad Kashmir Radio, a subsidiary of Radio Pakistan. Similarly before the earthquake telephone landlines were limited and being strictly monitored and a very limited mobile telephone service was operational. HRW reports that all telecommunications stations were controlled by the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a functional unit of the Pakistani army. Only after the earthquake did the government allow private mobile phone companies to operate in Azad Kashmir when it was pointed out that the loss of life could have been lessened had people and rescue workers had this technology as they did in affected areas in NWFP (as it was then called).

It has been widely reported that refugees from Jammu and Kashmir are discriminated against and mistreated by the authorities. Kashmiri refugees and former militants from India, most of whom are secular nationalists and culturally and linguistically different from the people of AJK, are particularly harassed through continuous surveillance, arbitrary beating and arrests and restraints on political expression. Pakistani military bases in AJK are usually placed in close proximity to highly populated civilian areas supposedly because of a lack of space. But many Kashmiris told HRW that the Pakistani military uses the bases to keep a close watch on the population to ensure political compliance and control.

Freedoms of association and assembly are restricted and constitutionally repressed. Article 4(7)(2) of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974, states: ‘No person or party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the States accession to Pakistan’. In recent years anti-government demonstrations have been violently suppressed and examples of these incidents are not hard to find. In 2005, at least ten people were killed when the police fired on a group of Shia students, after which curfews were imposed in Gilgit to prevent demonstrators from assembling. In 2006 police detained leaders of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, including Amanullah Khan, after they attended a peaceful rally in Rawalpindi against the construction of the Bhasha Dam. Khan was detained for a week and was not permitted to receive visitors during that time, according to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report. In October 2008, police baton-charged dozens of people demonstrating against the proposal to move the capital of Azad Kashmir from Muzaffarabad. Three people were arrested but released the same day. In November 2008, the police blocked activists of the pro-independence APNA who were protesting in favor of truck services across the line-of-control from entering a town near the line-of-control.

In 2007, the European Union (EU) passed Emma Nicholson’s Kashmir report with an overwhelming majority and adopted it as an official EU document. This kind of report sits squarely in the grey area of the AJK problem. It has been touted in the media as being anti-Pakistan and there are Kashmiris who find it pro-Kashmiri rights and some call it dubious. The key problem with this report is that it fails to acknowledge Indian repression in Kashmir and portrays a benign image of a “pro-people” India.

The EU report titled ‘Present situation and future prospects’ was critical of the fact that the Pakistan side of Kashmir was governed through the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad, that Pakistan officials dominated the Kashmir Council. This report also highlighted the facts that at the time the Chief Secretary, the Inspector-General of Police, the Accountant-General and the Finance Secretary were all from Pakistan. Nicholson disapproved of the provision in the 1974 Interim Constitution, which forbids any political activity that is not in accordance with the doctrine of Jammu and Kashmir as articulated by Pakistan, and obliges any candidate for a parliamentary seat in AJK to sign a declaration of loyalty to that effect.

Looking at the rule of law, the whole system of law and order seemingly rests on the control by the army and Islamabad. A clear illustration was given at the time of the 2005 earthquake when the AJK governmental structure collapsed. Analysts noted how, in the aftermath of 2005 earthquake the local government system was exposed. To quote Akbar Zaidi, “the local government system and its elected bodies are part of the rubble along with the entire physical infra-structure of the area.”

Due to the limited mandate of the AJK Legislative Assembly, the elected political leaders of Azad Kashmir essentially remain ostensible heads of the territory while the real power resides in Islamabad with the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas (KANA). Naturally this requires an obedient AJK administration. Since the early 1990s, the decision-making authority and management of the Kashmir issue has been under the Pakistan military, the ISI and ISI backed militant organizations.

In this unique case of “self-rule”, under the constitution, the elected representatives are acquiescent to the Kashmir Council controlled by Islamabad. The High Court and Supreme Court Judges can only be appointed by approval of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad. The Minister of Kashmir Affairs can dismiss the Prime Minister, as can the Chief Secretary – another Islamabad appointee. Under Article 56, the President of Pakistan can dissolve the Legislative Assembly.

Adding to the already dismal situation of human rights in AJK is the instability of the Northern Areas and the migration of these people into AJK. It can be argued that the appropriation of land in the Northern Areas by non-Kashmiri migrants with the tacit encouragement of the federal government and army has diminished economic opportunities for the local population. An externality of this has been an increase in sectarian tension between the majority Shia Muslims and the growing numbers of Sunnis in AJK and 2009 and 2010 have seen increasing tension and sectarian violence.

So is the human rights and law and order situation of AJK worse than that at the east of the line of control? Answers can range from “yes” to “maybe” to “no”. The truth is that this is a loaded question, and this sort of a comparison is hard to make. Reports and perspectives of AJK from the Indian side refer to AJK as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is indeed true that there is a lack of consideration of human rights on both sides. Yet the facts are blurred by the political biases of both sides, and neutral reports become emotionally charged. External reporting by international watchdogs like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch are a step behind. Research by organizations like the HRCP and reporting by local news channels is only just making headway.

The 2006 Human Rights Watch report on Kashmir quotes a Muzaffarabad resident, “Pakistan says they are our friends and India is our enemy. I agree India is our enemy, but with friends like these, who needs enemies?”

AJK is yet to operate as a ‘free’ territory given the way we control it. Yet, understandably, we are loathe to accept this reality and our mainstream media is usually silent about this. Our rhetoric on AJK remains inflated and questionable.

The Friday Times, 14th May 2010 www.thefridaytimes.com/

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