Silence on Azad Jammu & Kashmir in the Pakistani mainstream, other than the juicy breaking news, is a tacit acceptance of the marginalization of this area

Arundhati Roy has been exposing the brutalities of the Indian State in the ‘occupied’ Jammu and Kashmir. She has questioned the presence of over half a million Indian troops and the naked violations of human rights there. Roy’s the lone domestic voice that has earned the ire of the patriots and nation-state parrots. In Pakistan, we face a dilemma whereby commenting on the status and predicament of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) remains a forbidden territory. Any discussion on AJK has to locate itself within the narrow confines of the Partition mess. This is why a zone with ambiguous citizenship continues to exist next to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The current government has accorded a quasi-provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan but the state of AJK like its other strategic sibling, the federally administered tribal areas (FATA) is quite low on the national agenda. Indeed, the national security doctrines inform such discussions and leave little option for introspection, let alone deliberating policy shifts.  Ostensibly an autonomous state government exists in AJK with institutions of governance but their remit and outreach are limited. If anything, Islamabad is the real capital. Ironically, both the Indian and Pakistani states despite their rhetoric and habitual one-upmanship display the worst characteristics of their original cast – the colonial apparatus that constructed fragile and unsatisfactory notions of citizenship.There is a Constitution, Parliament, an AJK Supreme Court and a High Court. However, the Ministry of Kashmir affairs  calls the shots. Pakistan has diverted substantial funds for the development of the area but rampant corruption, a requirement to nurture a pliant political class, is the hallmark of governance. AJK’s Chief Secretary is posted from Islamabad and while he heads the local administration, his reporting authority sits in Islamabad. In fact, even a slight deviation from the central diktat, as the recent case of AJK Chief Secretary’s transfer demonstrates, the top-job can only be retained if Islamabad is happy with the incumbent.

The AJK legislative assembly also testifies to the overall governance syndrome. At least, 20 out of its 49 members are indirectly elected (12 members of the assembly are elected throughout Pakistan). The contradictions of the judicial system were also revealed in the recent judges’ crisis where Islamabad’s direct interference was notable.

If it were not for the remittances from the Kashmiris abroad, absolute poverty would have been the fate of AJK. Even the official estimates indicate that an unemployment rate of 35-50% persists in AJK. Lack of opportunities leaves migration towards Pakistan as the rational choice for youth and the skilled workforce. Such was the state of public construction standards that the 2005 earthquake ravaged all the buildings; and tragically the Pakistani state gave little priority to the locals in the immediate aftermath of the quake. There was widespread resentment which was picked up by Pakistani media as well. Due to the media pressure, Pakistani state had to change its course and show more concern for the thousands of Kashmiris who were injured, stranded or stuck due to the calamity.

Even in terms of reconstruction the Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Authority (ERRA) and its AJK counterpart, the State Earthquake Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, have been slow to even achieve modest targets. They have only been able to utilize 20-25% of the funds for development of the affected areas. Once again the much maligned international NGOs, the private sector and the overseas philanthropists have been far more effective. A random visit to Muzaffarabad will confirm this sad reality.

After the 2005 tragedy, there was a unique opportunity to rebuild the state institutions but the limited imagination of Pakistani public sector held its way. Mammoth bureaucracies were created for reconstruction; and a poorly staffed and an under resourced AJK administration was revived with the original red tape. In part, the AJK elites and their patrons in Islamabad did not see an effective and citizen-responsive state as a necessity. Commentaries in the present TFT issue will analyse how the Pakistani national security doctrine defines the manner in which the local state is managed and controlled.

Overtime, an unequal and worrisome relationship has evolved between Pakistan and AJK which has been further exacerbated by controls on political expression and a situation where dissent is not tolerated.

It is a matter of grave concern that external monitors such as the Human Rights Watch and other such groups have to undertake assessments of AJK. Silence on AJK in the Pakistani mainstream, other than the juicy breaking news, is a tacit acceptance of the marginalization of this area.

It is time that we focus on what happens in the midst of our polity rather than churn out propaganda as to how India has destroyed the other side of this territory. Kashmiris are increasingly vocal about their demands for autonomy and some say independence. How long will the two establishments keep them poor, marginalized and objects of manipulation? Only time will tell.