Pok: Is The Worm Finally Turning?
Sushant Sareen

Images of the simmering situation in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir broadcast on Indian TV channels appear to have shaken the Indian media, the army of analysts, and perhaps even the government of India out of their decades long slumber over a part of India which isn’t quite a part of India because it is under alien occupation. Pro forma references to the parts of Jammu and Kashmir state under Pakistan's forcible occupation aside, India hasn’t really agitated strongly or seriously over the territory. Despite the unanimous Parliamentary resolution passed in 1994 declaring that the entire territory of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is an inalienable part of India, somehow India never really focussed its attention on fulfilling the mandate of the resolution. Partly as a result of this, and partly because of the export of terrorism by Pakistan into the parts of Jammu and Kashmir that remained under Indian administration, the entire focus of the international community as well as of India and Pakistan remained fixed on the Indian-administered parts of the state. But if the events of the last few days and weeks are anything to go by, this inexplicable neglect of an issue and an area India claims to be its part might be coming to an end.

While it isn’t entirely clear when the protests, demonstrations and agitations in PoK took place, or where all in the two parts of the Pakistan-occupied territories – Gilgit-Baltistan and the euphemistically named “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (which is neither Azad nor quite Kashmir) they took place, it is an undeniable fact that unrest has been brewing in the occupied territories for years. Whether the unrest and disenchantment with Pakistan has reached the tipping point cannot be said with any degree of certainty just yet. Part of the reason for this is the media clampdown in all those parts under Pakistani occupation where separatist sentiments are boiling over. For instance, it is practically impossible to do independent reporting from Balochistan and any journalist intrepid enough to do so either ends up as a victim of ‘target killing’ (if local) or gets deported (if a foreigner). So too is the case in PoK (especially in Gilgit-Baltistan), something that was very apparent when a group of Indian journalists got an opportunity to visit the area in 2004.

Even at that time, it was quite clear that there was a reservoir of resentment against the Pakistani authorities. The NSF, which appears to have been in the vanguard of the protests in some of the videos aired on TV channels, was very active even back then espousing the cause of Kashmiri nationalism. They would hold small but fairly vocal demonstrations against Pakistani occupation wherever the Indian journalists travelled. Remarkably enough, despite the police crackdown on them and the ubiquitous ‘agencies’ (which felt no need to even pretend being discreet in keeping a watch on their targets and in fact often intimidated anyone ‘undesirable’ who even approached the Indians) the NSF activists would suddenly appear out of nowhere, shouts slogans and then disperse. It was ambush agitation and activism. But if the recent images are anything to go by, they have taken their protests to a new level.

Ten years ago, a lot of the resentment in both Gilgit-Baltistan and “Azad” Kashmir was based on the denial of political and constitutional rights. The pompously titled Prime Minister and President of “Azad” Kashmir are less powerful than a Deputy Secretary of the Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs department of the Government of Pakistan. Executive and legislative powers of both the areas are highly restricted. Locally recruited bureaucrats that we spoke to off the record pleaded helplessness in deciding any policy. On the record however they were all flagbearers of the slogan ‘Kashmir banega Pakistan’. There was great curiosity, even envy, over the development in Jammu and Kashmir. And while there was also angst over the levels of violence, there was grudging acceptance of the fact that a lot of the violence was the result of export of jihadist violence from Pakistan-occupied areas.

Over the years, and despite some minor political and constitutional reforms being ushered in, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan, other factors seem to have come into play which are now fuelling the protests against Pakistan. For instance, in Gilgit-Baltistan sectarianism has always been a big issue. The Sunni majoritarianism of Pakistan's ruling elite has had its impact on Gilgit-Baltistan where not only were Sunni Pashtuns settled in large swathes of territory to change the demographic composition of the region but also extremist and radical Sunni outfits were given a free hand to grow and become a strong counter force to any possible Shia assertion. There have been occasional sectarian riots and there has been an uptick in the target killings of people and leaders from rival sects. Politics in large measure revolves around sectarian lines, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan. Another factor at play is the increasing encroachment of Chinese in the territory. While the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is being sold as a game-changer that will usher in tremendous development in Gilgit-Baltistan, the people of the region aren’t quite convinced and feel that they will get further marginalised with fruits of development, if any, going to outsiders. Plus there is the suspicion that their political rights will get further restricted to please the Chinese.

For decades, religion has acted as a glue between PoK and Pakistan. Even today, despite all the resentment that is brewing against Pakistan, there won’t be many takers for secular India, which has been portrayed as Hindu India to the people of the occupied territories. But with new channels of information opening out, there is a good chance that the malicious anti-India propaganda carried out by Pakistan will start getting dented. Of course, a lot will also depend on how India handles its affairs, not just in Kashmir but also in rest of India. Any communal conflagration in India will hardly endear India to the Muslim population of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

But the critical question remains whether India is really going to change the decades old template of dealing with PoK in a perfunctory manner or if it is going to become pro-active in staking its claim to the occupied territories? Although there are signs of the latter happening, there is also a lingering doubt whether India will go whole hog in this direction. Sceptics believe that India raked up the PoK issue to pre-empt Pakistan’s plans to try and raise a stink on the Kashmir issue. But over the last year or so, India has made a series of statements on developments in PoK – including the protest lodged with China on the use of Pakistan-occupied territory to build the CPEC – which suggest that India’s position on PoK may be undergoing a major shift.

Until now the debate had remained focussed on Jammu and Kashmir as though it is only the area that remains in India whose status has to be settled. Now, however, it seems that India is upping the ante and shifting the debate to the Pakistan-occupied part of the Indian state. Of course, India will have to calibrate how it plays this issue so that it doesn’t unleash forces that cannot be controlled. For instance, while India must provide diplomatic, moral and political support to the people of PoK, such support will be counter-productive if it strengthens forces that seek fulfilment of the utopian, impractical, unworkable and unacceptable idea of an independent Kashmir. In other words, while India must raise its voice in defence of the Human Rights of the people of PoK, support must be given to only those who seek to reunify the state under India. What is more, given the ruthless repression that Pakistani security forces indulge in, it is important to ensure that activists fighting to liberate PoK from Pakistani occupation are not massacred, as is happening in Balochistan. Most of all, India’s PoK policy must not be just a point scoring exercise. If India is getting into the act, then it must be as part of a larger strategic game-plan to complete the ‘unfinished agenda of Partition’. Any half-way measure will only damage India’s cause in PoK.

How serious India is will depend on what measures it takes in the coming months. If India’s interest in PoK remains limited to issuing statements, then chances are that it won’t get much traction. But if India starts taking more substantial steps to show seriousness of purpose, then it will be another matter altogether. One metric on the basis of which India’s seriousness will be judged is how it plays hard-ball by using its political, diplomatic and economic clout. For instance, if India was to put in place measures to blacklist any company that engages in any strategic project – CPEC for example – in PoK, it would send a very strong message and signal not just to the people of PoK but also to Pakistan and rest of the international community of India’s intentions. In other words, India needs to declare that any company that provides turbines or is engaged in road building projects or building telecom infrastructure of a strategic nature in PoK will be banned from doing business in India. It is steps like this and not the pro forma statements or even the occasional media campaigns that will be shake up things up in an area that India has always claimed but never acted to acquire.

Published Date: 21st October 2015, Image Source: http://dunyanews.tv
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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