By Rajeev Sharma
At a time when the focus is on the India-Pakistan Foreign Secretary-level talks, an important event, taking place on June 26, has gone largely unnoticed: elections in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). This Sunday’s polls to elect a new government in PoK have once again raised the issue of how the Pakistan government and the army treat the people of PoK and their basic human rights. Fears of political and military interference in the elections and use of strong arm tactics to extract a pre-determined electoral result are being raised not only in the international community but, now increasingly, within Pakistan itself.
Pakistan Muslim League-N, one of the prominent parties in Pakistan, has already fired a salvo against Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led government in Islamabad accusing it of rigging the electoral lists and distributing fake ID cards to undermine the electoral process and win at all costs. PML N alleged that almost 70 per cent of the rolls were bogus and the PPP government was misusing funds from federal social welfare schemes to subvert the upcoming elections. The party said the election commission of PoK was a puppet of the federal government and was hand in glove with the ruling party to `manage the elections’ in their favour.
As far as India is concerned, the Ministry of External Affairs has gone on record as saying that Islamabad is not sincere in holding genuine elections in PoK. The MEA said by disqualifying political parties and candidates who did not declare their allegiance to the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan from contesting the forthcoming elections in PoK, Pakistan has exposed its ‘‘insincerity” of its proclaimed policy that the future of Jammu and Kashmir should be decided by its people’. ‘‘This confirms that the elections in the so-called ‘AJK’ will be a replay of the earlier exercises, in which the people did not have the freedom to vote for political parties and candidates of their choice,’’ the MEA spokesperson said on June 12. He went on to add that the disqualification was ‘‘particularly glaring’’ in the light of the proposal made by President Musharraf of introducing self-governance in Jammu and Kashmir. ‘‘Besides, the forthcoming elections in the so-called ‘AJK’ underline the absence of any form of representative government in the so-called ‘Northern Areas’ of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the residents of which are deprived of even their basic right to vote, as elections have never been held there,’’ the spokesperson said.
The most damaging indictment of the way the elections in PoK are manipulated from Islamabad is contained in a report of the fact finding mission prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan late last year. The report cited several complaints against the PoK election commissioner and senior judges who were “used to cover up irregularities during and post elections` in the past. The federal government also uses certain questionable laws to punish and weed out candidates from rival parties. The interim PoK constitution has a provision to bar those candidates from contesting the elections that propagate or act against the ideology of PoK’s accession to Pakistan. The petitions filed by the rejected candidates are often dismissed by the election commission and the courts on flimsy grounds.
So worried are some of the candidates from non-PPP parties that one of them has filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the jurisdiction of the election commission in preparing electoral rolls for 12 non-territorial seats in the assembly. Candidates from any part of Pakistan can contest for these seats. Preparation of electoral rolls has been controversial even in the last elections in 2006. The then chief election commissioner, a Supreme Court judge, was keen on preparing a new list while the parties wanted to update the old list. The judge resigned in protest after his recommendations were rejected by the parties and the chief justice took his place as the election commissioner. This chief justice was an army appointee and the parties raised the possibility of massive electoral malpractices including rigging.
Similar allegations have already surfaced in the run up to the present round of elections. Besides bogus identity cards, fake electoral rolls, the federal government was bribing the voters by issuing gas and electricity connections weeks before the elections. These allegations are likely to increase in tempo and tenor as the Election Day nears. The manipulations of the federal government are already becoming visible after two election returning officers were forced to resign. The PoK Prime Minister Sardar Attique Ahmad Khan admitted recently that there were mistakes in the voters list which have raised questions about the credibility of the elections.
More serious interference which the political leaders and people of PoK fear is that of ISI and army. The ISI footprint in PoK is omnipresent and can be seen in the appointment of the chief election commissioner, high court judges and other government officials who have a direct say in the electoral process and results. ISI has always taken an undue and extra-constitutional interest in the electoral process in PoK because of the implications of an `independent` government in Muzaffarabad on its traditional stand on the Kashmir issue. If PoK were to witness a free and fair elections, as it happens in the Indian Kashmir, Pakistan will have no leg to stand on in terms of the hostile policy towards Kashmir and its people as a whole. Pakistan wants to annex Kashmir as one of its provinces but without giving as legitimate constitutional rights. This is one of the reasons why PoK still remains a marginalised area in Pakistan without any constitutional rights as such.
Going by the manner in which Islamabad and Rawalpindi are dictating the electoral process, the forthcoming elections in PoK will only enslave the area and its people further.