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Elections in PoK and Protests in Kashmir Valley: The Linkage

Prabha Rao is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 28, 2016

    Burhan Wani’s death on July 8 occurred just before the elections in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). Expectedly, election rhetoric from all concerned political parties, including the ruling Pakistan Muslim League ­Nawaz (PML­N), and the opposition, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and others, contained passionate eulogies for the ‘martyr’ Burhan Wani, and re­runs of the usual Pakistani litany of Indian atrocities and human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chaired a cabinet meeting on July 15 in which he declared Pakistan’s unstinting support for the Kashmiris’ “just struggle for self-determination.”1 Interestingly, he announced Islamabad’s intention to observe July 19 as a “Black Day”, which was swiftly postponed to July 21, to coincide with elections in PoK. In a campaign speech in Islamabad, he asserted that Pakistan was and will continue to be a stakeholder in Kashmir, which could not be considered India’s internal matter. Nawaz Sharif was echoed by the Pakistani establishment. Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhary requested the Islamabad-based Ambassadors of the member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) Contact Group on Jammu and Kashmir, which comprises Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Niger, to raise their voice against “the blatant human rights violations” of Kashmiri Muslims in the Valley.2 Foreign Affairs Advisor Sartaz Aziz stated on July 25, in reply to Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s statement that Burhan Wani was considered to be a terrorist by India, thus: “Let us not forget, that not long ago the British labelled Indian freedom fighters as traitors and terrorists because at that time India was considered an integral part of the British Empire.”3 While the intention to rile India, especially in international fora, is always an objective with Pakistan, the political mileage that Nawaz Sharif and the PML­N has extracted from this situation in the past two weeks needs to be evaluated and factored.

    PML­N swept the polls in PoK, winning 31 of the 41 seats. In his victory speech in Muzaffarabad on July 22, Nawaz Sharif grandiloquently stated that “We await the day of Kashmir's accession to Pakistan.”4 And he added that he was as much a Kashmiri as a Pakistani and promised to work extensively for establishing schools and universities in Azad Kashmir. Sharif, who was under a cloud due to his family connections with shell, front, companies allegedly involved in money laundering, which had been disclosed in the Panama Papers, and under threat from a section of the armed forces and public obliquely supporting Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, took the opportunity to proclaim his political relevance and resilience. He and his party adroitly used the media hype generated by the current crisis in Kashmir to portray himself as an indefatigable activist for Kashmiri rights. Consequently, the PPP, which had formed the government in PoK in 2011, managed to get only two seats, with the Muslim Congress getting three seats, the PTI one, the Jammu Kashmir Peoples’ Party (JKPP) one, and another being won by an independent who has affiliated himself with the PML-N.5 Chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto, had made visits to all the districts of PoK, along with the outgoing Prime Minister of PoK, Choudhary Abdul Majed, but the anti-incumbency factor kicked in to his disadvantage. The dominance of national parties in PoK, as against the hold of regional political parties in the Kashmir Valley in India, has been touted as evidence of the integration of Kashmiris within the Pakistani state.

    The Muslim Congress, the oldest party in PoK, has been steadily losing ground. The PML¬-N encouraged factional rifts within the Muslim Conference, which caused a vertical split in the party. As a result of this split, the former PoK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider established a PML-N chapter in PoK. This move divided the vote bank and severely weakened the Muslim Conference. The remains of the party, led by another ex-Prime Minister, Sardar Atteque Ahamad, had formed a coalition with Imran Khan’s PTI, which latter had also fielded a former PoK Prime Minister, Barrister Sultan Mehmood.6 The significant lack of public response to the PTI, which resulted in a loss even for Barrister Sultan Mehmood, is symptomatic of the party’s and Imran Khan’s waning popularity, which is also evident in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Also, the PPP’s substantial downslide is indicative of its fast diminishing role as an opposition. The Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), which had managed to get two nominees elected in the previous elections, drew a blank in the latest round. This is significant as the number of Kashmiri voters residing in Pakistan is 438,884, mainly in Karachi.7 MQM’s defeat here reveals not only its declining fortunes but also its inability to control the street in Karachi.

    It is noteworthy that in the run up to the elections, media bans on the Lashkar-e Taiba/Jama’at ud Dawa were quietly kept in abeyance. JuD Emir, Hafiz Saeed, who has been listed as a terrorist by the UN Security Council’s Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee and has an Interpol Red Corner Notice against him, was permitted to organise a ‘Kashmir Caravan,’ comprising several trucks and buses from Lahore to Islamabad. The ‘Caravan’ passed through the towns of Gujranwala, Jhelum and Gujrat, and organised major rallies that were well attended by federal ministers and religious leaders, garnering a fair amount of coverage in print and airspace. Islamabad’s, and Nawaz Sharif’s, high degree of tolerance for extremist invective can be gauged from Hafiz Sayeed’s claim on July 22 that he had received a call from Asiya Andrabi, the founder of the Dukhtaran-e-Millat, begging for his help to resolve the “crisis” on the Indian side of Kashmir. With his characteristic dramatic flourishes, Saeed told the cheering mob “I am telling my sister Asiya – my sister, we are coming. This act of violence will come to end and nobody can stop Kashmir from becoming independent.” Saeed further emphasised that he had received a call from Hizbul Mujahideen militant Burhan Wani in early July, when the latter reportedly told him over phone that it was his desire to talk to the JuD emir, and that then he could face martyrdom! Hafiz Saeed’s statements make it evident that Burhan Wani was in touch with hard-core terrorist elements like the LeT and had established contacts across the border, diminishing his chocolate-box, romantic, image of an idealistic separatist. Hafiz Syed used these rallies to reiterate his and Pakistan’s support for Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s four-point formula on Kashmir and to call for withdrawal of security forces from the Valley8

    Earlier, Nawaz Sharif had held a meeting with the Pakistan Parliament Special Committee Chairman and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam Fazal (JUI-F) President Maulana Fazlur Rehman in Lahore, during which Rehman apprised him about his recent talks with separatist leaders over "human rights violations" by the Indian military and paramilitary forces in Jammu and Kashmir. According to Rehman, the separatist leadership in Kashmir was looking towards Pakistan for guidance and succour.5 Like Hafiz Saeed, and other Pakistani leaders, Rehman urged immediate implementation of Syed Geelani’s four point formula on Kashmir.9

    The Pakistani leadership, both mainstream and extremist, takes recourse to recommending Geelani’s proposals as they are aware that there will be no meeting point with New Delhi on this issue, and, despite no forward movement in actually ameliorating the situation, Islamabad is able to generate sound bites for the Kashmiri and international consumption. The leader of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, Syed Ali Geelani, has written a letter on July 18 to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its permanent members – US, UK, China, France and Russia – as well as to the EU, OIC, SAARC countries and ASEAN, apart from separate missives to the heads of Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, China and Iran outlining his proposal. The proposal, which was a near verbatim rehash of previous demands, proposed that the “controversial status of the Indian-held Kashmir and Kashmiris’ self-determination right should be accepted,” Indian troops from heavily populated areas should be withdrawn, AFSPA and other draconian laws repealed, and political prisoners released. He further demanded that the UN and all international human rights and humanitarian organisations should be allowed to enter and work in the region.10 Geelani, while proactively using the issue of Burhan Wani’s death to whip up anti-India sentiments, has earlier tried to underplay the role that Wani and his band of boys had in instigating and mobilising the youth in Kashmir. He has asserted that his Tehreek-e-Hurriyat was the most representative party in Kashmir, with a clear stand on the freedom struggle of Kashmir. On gauging the reach of the social media-led Hizbul Mujahidin (HM) campaign, Syed Ali Geelani issued special directions to the central as well as district officials of his party to use the first fifteen days of April for a concerted recruitment drive to induct more people, especially youth into the cadre.11

    Factors which are being conveniently kept out of the Hurriyat/other separatists’ narrative are the inflexible laws Pakistan has regarding PoK. Pakistan brought out the AJ&K Interim Constitution Act, 1974, which continues to be interim till date. Under Section 4(7) (2) of this Act, “No person or political 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 State’s accession to Pakistan.” Even the oath of PoK’s Prime Minister reads: “As Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, I will be loyal to the country (Pakistan) and the cause of accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan.” Political activists who denounce this constitutional gag attract hostile attention and often face prosecution. Using the interim constitution, the political parties of Pakistan extended their reach into PoK, with their baggage of political enmity, and tribal leaders – from Suddhan, Gujjar, Jat and Rajput clans –have been cultivated by them as representative satraps. The Kashmir Council, which was set up as a nodal body under this act, is headed by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, who is termed the chief executive and is more powerful than the legislative assembly, or the Prime Minister (equivalent to a Chief Minister) of PoK. The Chief Secretary reports directly to Islamabad, and political power in Muzaffarabad is illusory.12

    Some debates on India’s national television, and in some print media outlets, have focussed on the various shortcomings of the security forces, the advisability of using pellets, the possible use of excess force and concurrent human rights violations in Kashmir. The stark images of injured children need to be seen, not just against the backdrop of khaki, but keeping in view the cynical manipulations of Pakistan. The political reality in PoK is that ‘azadi’ is a chimera, and substantive control of the area is shared between terrorist organisations such as the LeT and HM and the political elite of Islamabad. However, a narrative has been fed in the Kashmir Valley that Pakistan is a more favourable option than India. The victim of this mendacious narrative has been the average Kashmiri.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.