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AJK fault lines

June 29, 2011

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ACCUSATIONS, hysterics and tantrums apart, last week’s election to the AJK Legislative Assembly has revealed fault lines that should cause serious anxiety in Islamabad.

Whatever one may think of the MQM’s decision to once again seek divorce from the PPP, or the allegations of rigging made by more than one party, these are not the central issues. The MQM’s action is not surprising; the extraordinarily harsh rhetoric of its orators is.

Since the parties to the marriage of convenience are supposed to be baligh (sui juris), they may be left to decide for themselves whether reconciliation is possible or whether their refusal to share spoils by consensus has long-term implications.

The allegations of poll rigging are always serious in a normal society, a title Pakistan forfeited quite some time ago. No party can claim to be blameless in the business of manipulating elections, not even the so-called God-fearing lot. The main point of regret is that even when some assurance of elections after regular intervals is available, most of the political groups cannot resist the temptation to win elections by any foul means possible. A return to the system in which the voters’ choices are unreservedly accepted seems to be a long way off, not only in Azad Kashmir but also in the mother Islamic republic.

The storm over poll irregularities, however, does inform the hapless people of Pakistan that their political parties resort to radical action only when their electoral ambitions suffer a setback, while the plight of ordinary citizens hardly ever moves them.

What this election showed above all else is the fact that democratic concepts, such as peaceful and fair polling, inter-party tolerance and respect for the electorate’s will, mean less in Azad Kashmir than they do even in Pakistan. Disconcerting questions are bound to arise when the Election Commission of Azad Kashmir itself concedes critical flaws in the electoral rolls.

These include the exclusion of eligible voters from the list as well as the inclusion of ‘bogus’ voters and the curious fact that the voter-population ratio is too high to be accepted as genuine. The scale of violence, at many places supported by the local authorities, during the polling also was quite high.

These matters cannot be dismissed simply as common and unavoidable features of Pakistan’s political culture. In Pakistan such irregularities undercut the victorious parties’ claim to legitimacy but in Azad Kashmir they have a far more dangerous fallout.

However, it should not be impossible for the Azad Kashmir authorities, or their mentors in the Kashmir Council, to find voter enumerators other than patwaris or other revenue officials and to guarantee peaceful conditions at polling stations, provided that the task is addressed in a truly democratic spirit. Somewhat more intractable seem to be the problems created by the freedom allowed to Pakistan’s political parties to outfit Azad Kashmir politics in accordance with their designs and tastes.

The question whether Pakistan’s political parties should operate in Azad Kashmir and sponsor candidates in elections in the territory needs to be seriously examined, and the reason is not merely the danger of dragging the people of Azad Kashmir into the quagmire that Pakistan’s politics has become. As has already been noted in the editorial columns of this paper, the Kashmiri people’s problems and aspirations usually find no place in the rhetoric of Pakistani politicians out to hunt for legislators in Azad Kashmir. This practice interferes with the Kashmiri people’s right to make their democratic choices in the light of their own assessments and priorities.

The matter acquires a more unwholesome dimension when Pakistan government functionaries, especially the prime minister and other members of his cabinet, go around herding the voters and offering blandishments. Such activities fuel speculation that the government of Pakistan wants Azad Kashmir legislators to be favourably disposed not only towards the state of Pakistan but also, and perhaps more essentially, towards the party in power in Islamabad. That this does not serve Pakistan’s overall stand on the Kashmir issue is obvious.

The government of Pakistan must learn to avoid giving the impression that the people of Azad Kashmir are subject to its diktat. This applies in particular to the Ministry for Kashmir Affairs. Its task should be limited to Azad Kashmir’s relations with Pakistan or helping Islamabad plead its case on Kashmir at international fora and should not include the supervision or management of Azad Kashmir affairs.

Azad Kashmir is not a province of Pakistan. Its status is apparently higher than that of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. The dichotomy in allowing Pakistan’s political parties to function freely in Azad Kashmir and denying them this prerogative in the tribal areas is too glaring to go unnoticed.

Any attempt to take refuge behind the way India’s government and its political parties treat the part of Kashmir that is with them will be in vain. New Delhi and Islamabad have chosen to adopt two different pieces of legal fiction in relation to Kashmir and examples from either side are not valid in the other one.

If Pakistan wishes to avoid serious crises in its relations with Azad Kashmir it must demonstrate greater respect for the indigenous political outfits, otherwise more and more Kashmiris might come to agree with the late Abdul Ghani Lone’s lament on a visit to Muzaffarabad that the Kashmiris had no rights on either side of the divide. Not only Pakistan’s case on Kashmir but the cause of peace and democracy in South Asia demands that the people of Azad Kashmir should have more of democracy than the people of Pakistan choose for themselves, and not less of it. Indeed, maximum possible autonomy and democracy in both parts of the divided Kashmir is a pre-requisite to a fair resolution of the long-festering dispute.