General elections were held for the legislative assembly of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, also known as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), on July 25, 2021. Almost all the mainstream political parties of Pakistan campaigned vigorously, but the ruling party in Islamabad, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), gained the clear majority with 25 assembly seats, as was widely expected.
The main losing parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — have accused the PTI of managing and rigging the elections and called for protests against the alleged rigging. But amidst this usual fracas, we have lost out on a meaningful and significant debate.
Given the disputed and ambiguous legal status of AJK, what does the election mean for the people of AJK? Why has it become a tradition that the party ruling Islamabad wins the elections in AJK? What has been happening to the topical issues of AJK and how has the influx of mainstream political parties of Pakistan eroded the statehood of AJK?
While the debate is primarily about the AJK polls, it can also provide meaningful insight into the challenges for autonomy, empowerment and self-determination generally in disputed territories.
THE CASE OF AJK POLITICS
So, what shapes electoral politics and power distribution in AJK? The first factor is that AJK has been attributed a disputed legal status due to the Kashmir conflict at large; this has resulted in interim constitutional arrangements and political uncertainties.
Secondly, AJK — being a de facto administered unit of Pakistan — has been generally overlooked by the mainstream, which has made it systematically dependent on Islamabad, in almost all spheres of economic, social, and political life.
The recently held elections in Azad Jammu and Kashmir point to the fact that the real issues of the people of the area are being overlooked. A new framework for Pakistan’s relationship to the area needs to be forged
Thirdly, being a clan-based society, AJK is politically shaped and reshaped by cross-cutting and segmental cleavages based on clan identities (tabbar, biradris) and regional divides based on districts and divisions — notwithstanding the fact that the interim constitutional arrangements have barred and limited the scope of local political parties. Pro-independence political parties, for example, are not allowed to contest elections until and unless they sign Clause 7b of the constitution, which says that any person nominated for any constituency must consent that they want the accession of AJK with Pakistan and believe in the ideology of the state of Pakistan. Many pro-independence parties, therefore, do not sign it and boycott the elections altogether. Apart from that, twelve electoral seats for Kashmiri immigrants in different cities of Pakistan has been an instrument in the hands of federal government to maneuver, manipulate and form the government of its choice in AJK.
THE HISTORICAL TRAJECTORY
The state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir was declared on October 24, 1947 and resulted in the establishment of a provisional government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The formation of the provisional government was a result of an indigenous resistance movement, known as the ‘Poonch Rebellion’, against the then autocratic ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh. Dealing with the UN in 1947-48, the Government of Pakistan referred to the AJK government as the legitimate successor of the dethroned Maharaja’s government, but India objected to this and the UN did not accept it either.
Initially, the provisional government of AJK defined itself as a ‘War Council’ with the purpose of liberating the areas under Indian control. For power-sharing, the Government of Pakistan established a separate Ministry of Kashmir Affairs to look after the Kashmir dispute and took administrative control of AJK.
As an initial power-sharing framework, an agreement known as the Karachi Agreement was signed on April 28, 1949 between the provisional government of AJK and Pakistan. According to this the roles and responsibilities of the governments of AJK and Pakistan were defined and distributed. The role of Islamabad in forming governments in AJK has been dominant since the Karachi Agreement was signed. AJK’s governance and constitutional developments are shaped by what happens to the governments in Islamabad.
Initially, for governance and administration, the presidential form of government was adopted. It lasted until 1970, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ascendency to power in Pakistan resulted in a parliamentary democratic dispensation in AJK. Bhutto also established the PPP’s branch in AJK, but the local political party — the Muslim Conference — was largely in power since. However, dynastic politics, autocratic attitudes and internal political divisions dismantled the Muslim Conference, which then resulted in the formation of the PML-N in AJK, and further factions formed the local PTI.
According to UN resolutions, AJK is not a state; it is not constitutionally a part of Pakistan or India, it is a local authority to administer the area assigned to it. However, its independent status and sovereignty is conditional on the plebiscite that was promised to be held under UN supervision. But the prospects for such a plebiscite happening are scant and, after the annexation of India-held Kashmir by India in 2019, any expectations have come to naught.
People in AJK have been committed to the Kashmir cause, but political exigencies and urgent topical issues have diverted their attention towards day-to-day political and development issues. For this reason, there is a natural tilt of voters towards the mainstream political parties of Pakistan. People in AJK vote for the ruling party in Islamabad because they feel it will address their issues best, not the opposition.
That demands for the resolution of basic development issues are at the top of concerns is evidenced by voter behaviour. According to a pre-poll survey by Gallup Pakistan, “broken and poorly maintained roads [were] cited as the biggest problem, by 24 percent [of the] respondents in AJK. 13 percent [cited] lack of clean drinking water [as the main issue] while 10 percent [pointed to] electricity load shedding [and] 8 percent [identified] inflation.”
But the mainstream political parties did not even mention all these issues in their campaigns. Instead, they were engaged in the same old rhetoric about the Kashmir conflict, and in blame games, accusations and vitriolic speeches against their opponents.
Overall, it was an abominable campaign that lacked sensitivity towards the region. The sanctity of the state has been eroded, as the formation of the government, the nomination of the prime minister and the choice of cabinet members was all being settled in Islamabad rather than Muzaffarabad.
A political and constitutional power-sharing relationship between AJK and the Government of Pakistan was established in a post-conflict setting. But it has now become a source of contention. It has become the main political and constitutional issue and the demand for the devolution of power from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad has become an important subject of debate.
This has been felt more acutely after the passage of the 18th Amendment, which granted greater autonomy to the provinces. The existing interim constitution of 1974 is imbalanced. It undermines the governmental authority of AJK and does not guarantee an autonomous government.
Contemporary power-sharing theories highlight the idea of autonomy and self-government to address the power imbalance and democratic deficit in disputed territories such as AJK. By taking into consideration the specific context of AJK and indigenous power-sharing mechanisms to face the history of conflict and constitutional requirements, an alternative autonomy model for AJK should be formed and proposed.
The writer hails from AJK and is Visiting Faculty at National Defence University, Islamabad
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 29th, 2021