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EFSAS Commentary

It is Pakistani political parties that rule the roost in what Pakistan calls Azad (Free) Jammu & Kashmir


The terminology that has evolved over the years to describe Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) is intriguing. It demonstrates how the reluctance or the inability of the international community to uphold a perfectly legal accession of the then Princely State to India has harmed the cause of the people of J&K. Even if it suited the strategic interests of some of the powerhouses of the late-1940s, the unwise and legally unsound cognizance that was given to Pakistan’s forcible grab of J&K territory only encouraged the notion in several other countries in later years that taking such a route was okay. Pakistan still holds on to this territory and has given it the fancy and highly deceptive name of Azad (Free) J&K. The elections in this territory that were held earlier this week, more about which we shall touch upon in subsequent paragraphs, served as a fine example of how hopelessly subjugated the free J&K actually is. As Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) put it, “Although ‘azad’ means ‘free,’ the residents of Azad Kashmir are anything but”.

Pakistan calls the roughly two-thirds of J&K that India governs in accordance with the provisions of the Instrument of Accession of 1947, India-occupied J&K. This is a rather tacky description if one were to consider that Pakistan had invaded and occupied large parts of a State that had acceded, in accordance with all the rules that such accession required, in its geographical entirety to India. The Pakistani terminology is a strange case of the land grabber declaring the legal title holder an occupier. India, on the other hand, refers to J&K as including the entire geographical area of the undivided Princely State, which basically corresponds with the actual legal position. It calls the portions forcibly held by Pakistan as Pakistan-occupied J&K, which again is a legally sound description. India could, however, reasonably wish to wonder whether in the last three-quarters of a century it could have done more to end the occupation and correct a historical wrong.

This is where the widely used terminology in the international arena comes in, and that is problematic to say the least. The United Nations and most of the international community use the terms Indian-administered J&K and Pakistan-administered J&K. They have done so since the early days of the J&K imbroglio. The use of two separate terms for the two illegally split parts of J&K have served to perpetuate the myth of there being more than one single J&K, the one as it existed when the British left. The equating of the legal title holder with the aggressor and land-grabber has not only humoured Pakistan’s legally unjustifiable position, but has also allowed and emboldened it to agitate a cause that has heaped misery on the people of J&K and served only Pakistani purposes and interests.

The international order, therefore, has contributed in no small measure to the fact that a farcical election was held in a part of Pakistan-administered J&K on 25 July in which the Pakistani government once again brashly demonstrated that hollow talk of Azad J&K aside, there was absolutely no place for Kashmiri aspirations in the region’s political discourse. As Freedom House noted in its recent 2021 report on ‘Pakistani Kashmir’, the territory “is administered as two territories: Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Each has an elected assembly and government with limited autonomy, but they lack the parliamentary representation and other rights of Pakistani provinces, and Pakistani federal institutions have predominant influence over security, the courts, and most important policy matters. Politics within the two territories are carefully managed to promote the idea of Kashmir’s eventual accession to Pakistan. Freedoms of expression and association, and any political activity deemed contrary to Pakistan’s policy on Kashmir, are restricted”. The report rated the region as “Not Free”, and gave it 9 out of 40 points in political rights and 19 out of 60 in civil liberties. The combined count out of 100 was a lowly 28. Having occupied the territory through military force and received undue recognition from the international community for doing so, it was hardly likely that Pakistan would empower the inhabitants by handing over even a semblance of political power to them.

Under the farcical 1974 interim constitution of Azad J&K drawn up by Pakistan, a President elected by the Legislative Assembly serves as head of State, while the elected Prime Minister is the chief executive. The Legislative Assembly has a total of 53 seats, of which 45 are directly elected. The remaining 8 seats are reserved, 5 for women and 1 each for representatives of overseas Kashmiris, technocrats, and religious leaders. Of the 45 directly elected assembly members, while 31 are elected from constituencies carved out within the territory, 12 are meant to represent Kashmiri refugees across Pakistan. However, as Freedom House pertinently points out, “Politics in both AJK and GB are dominated by local branches of the main Pakistani parties and some local parties, such as AJK’s Muslim Conference, that are closely allied with the Pakistani establishment. Small nationalist parties that are opposed to union with Pakistan are actively marginalized or barred outright from the political process, and they played no significant role in the 2020 GB elections. Activists accused of opposition to Pakistani rule have been subject to surveillance, harassment, and sometimes imprisonment. The interim constitution of AJK bans political parties that do not endorse the territory’s eventual accession to Pakistan, and similar rules prevail in GB”.

The situation described by Freedom House found clear reflection in the 25 July elections. Amid widespread violence and allegations of poll rigging by the opposition, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won 25 of the 45 elected seats. Remarkably, every single election in Azad J&K so far has been won by the party in power in Islamabad. Freedom House attributes this phenomenon to the “institutional benefits that accrue to the incumbent party in Pakistan with regard to AJK and GB elections. While the PML-N was in power in Islamabad, federal authorities were similarly accused of working to manipulate the 2016 AJK Legislative Assembly elections in favor of that party”. Islamabad, thus, firmly holds the reins of the entire political narrative in Pakistan-administered J&K and it actively exploits and guides it to its own advantage.

Karachi-based journalist Zia-ur-Rehman, a regular contributor to The New York Times, pointed out one of the other tools that the Pakistani State uses to influence these elections – the 12 seats reserved for the estimated 430,456 Kashmiri refugees who reside in Pakistan. He averred in a 27 July article that “Analysts believe that because of the inability of the administration and election commission of AJK in these constituencies in Pakistan, the refugees’ seats are considered to be the biggest obstacle in holding free and fair elections to the AJK Assembly”. He quoted political activist Raja Nafees as saying, “Pakistan’s political parties use their influence and resources to win the polls in AJK through these seats”.

At the 25 July elections, the other two mainstream Pakistani political parties the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) won 11 and 6 seats respectively. The All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference (AJKMC), the oldest political party of the region, and the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Party (JKPP) were the only two local parties that found a way to sneak in to the assembly, and they secured merely one seat each. The result of one constituency, LA-16 Bagh-III, was withheld as polling in four of its stations could not be held due to rioting and violence. It has been a very long time since elections in Azad J&K were predominantly a contest between the local leaders of the contesting parties, with low-profile support from their parent parties in Pakistan. Pakistani political parties had first entered into the political fray in Azad J&K with full force only after the former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, also the founder of the PPP, introduced his party’s branch in the region and captured power in the first elections held under the 1974 Interim Constitution. As Zia-ur-Rehman pointed out, “The 2006 polls were the last electoral exercise that AJKMC, the oldest and long-time ruling party, contested to fight the PPP and retain its government in the region”. He added that new electoral laws that had been introduced through an amendment in the region’s constitution in 2018 allowed only those political parties that favoured Kashmir's accession to Pakistan to take part in the polls. Restrictions placed on pro-independence political parties effectively barred them from participating.

The 25 July elections were marred by shrill allegations of manipulation. The Pakistani daily Dawn in an editorial titled ‘AJK’s ugly elections’ on 27 July expounded that “As election campaigns go, this was one of the ugliest in recent times. The tone and tenor of speeches, the intensity of partisan attacks and the level of personal mudslinging was, to say the least, abominable. All party leaders focused on insulting their rivals instead of talking about issues concerning the AJK electorate. These leaders brought their animosity and mutual loathing into the AJK arena and polluted the air with their toxic brand of politics. They had no qualms about relegating the issues of Kashmir into the background and highlighting instead what they considered the most damaging aspects of their rivals’ politics”.

The outgoing Prime Minister of the region Raja Farooq Haider alleged that “The assembly elections were nothing but a farce exercise to hoodwink the people”. Maryam Nawaz, the Vice-President of PML-N tweeted, “I have not accepted the results and will not. I have not even acknowledged the results of this fake government. Congratulations to the workers and voters. What will be the course of action on this shameless fraud, the party will decide soon, God willing”. PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb, referring to the widespread violence during the elections in which 2 people died, alleged that the “PTI has been allowed to engage in hooliganism with complete liberty”. Not to be left behind, PPP Vice-President Senator Sherry Rehman accused the PTI government in Islamabad of “systematic rigging” aimed at “stealing” the elections. She also alleged that PTI workers had fired on a PPP worker’s car during polling, and that the police had uprooted camps belonging to her party. Large crowds of protestors, meanwhile, hit the streets to protest against the Pakistani military establishment, which they accused of engineering the election manipulation to favour the PTI. Not many accepted Chief Election Commissioner Abdul Rashid Sulehria’s claim that “we have fulfilled our responsibility by holding free, fair and impartial elections”.

While the Pakistani parties bickered over the manipulation that each one of them has indulged in over the years in Pakistan-administered J&K, India expectedly took umbrage to the holding of the elections. The spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs yesterday described the elections as a “cosmetic exercise, which has been protested and rejected by the local people”. He added, “The so-called elections in Indian territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan are nothing but an attempt by Pakistan to camouflage its illegal occupation and the material changes undertaken by it in these territories. Pakistan has no locus standi on these Indian territories. We call upon Pakistan to vacate all Indian areas under its illegal occupation”. He further asserted that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passed through “India’s territory that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan”.

The most morbid aspect of the elections was that the people of the region in which the elections were held did not seem to matter or figure in the political imagination at all. As Mirza Hasan, an academic from the Mirpur district of Pakistan-administered J&K who teaches politics in Karachi put it, “not a single party has put forward a comprehensive future plan of action to develop the region and sort out its uneven relationship with Islamabad. Kashmir dispute has always been a secondary issue in elections”. The Pakistani author and commentator Zahid Hussain similarly noted in the Dawn that “There was hardly anything on local issues linked to the elections taking place in the region which is not administratively part of Pakistan… There is also the question about whether the region should be made a battleground for Pakistan’s political parties”.

This is not surprising given what the Freedom House report has to say about the atrocities that are meted out to residents of Pakistan-administered J&K every day. The report notes that “The powers of the elected chief executives in AJK and GB are limited by the fact that the Pakistani prime minister, the Pakistani minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, and through them the federal civil service, exercise effective control over government operations in both territories. As in Pakistan, federal military and intelligence agencies also play a powerful role in governance and policymaking”. It further underlined that “AJK and GB are subject to laws that curb freedom of expression, particularly regarding reporting or commentary on the political status of the territories… Even in the academia, there are acute sensitivities around the issue of constitutional status, and debate or materials questioning Pakistan’s claims over Kashmir are not tolerated”.

The report added that Pakistani intelligence agencies maintain a prominent and intrusive presence in both territories. Discussion of heterodox political or religious views consequently carries significant risks, and the authorities have increased their monitoring of social media and severely punish expression of anti-Pakistan or separatist opinions. Freedom House also asserted that “Torture and deaths in custody at the hands of security forces have been reported, especially for independence supporters and other activists. Separately, armed extremist groups devoted largely to attacks on Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir operate from AJK and GB and have links with similar factions based in Pakistan and Afghanistan”. This lends credence to the view held by many in Azad J&K that the only freedom that they are granted in full measure by the Pakistani State is to join a terrorist organization and sacrifice their lives.

Pakistan-administered J&K needs, perhaps, to take a leaf out of the book from the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) where despite reservations on the 5 August 2019 moves by the Indian government to dilute their region’s autonomy, local political parties nevertheless remain at the heart of the political discourse as was demonstrated at the District Development Council elections of late last year, and again at the talks Prime Minister Modi held with local leaders last month.