By Tilak Devasher*
The July 21, 2016 elections to the Legislative Assembly in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) – or Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) as Pakistan seeks to call it – went almost unnoticed in India. The Indian media’s attention being drawn almost exclusively to the situation in the Kashmir Valley, these elections, the results and the possible impact on India, continues to be ignored here.
The PoK Legislative Assembly has 41 directly elected seats: 29 in POK itself and 12 for the refugees from Jammu and Kashmir (6 each for Jammu and the Kashmir Valley) in different parts of Pakistan (nine in Punjab, two in Sindh and one in Peshawar). In addition, there are five seats reserved for women and three, one each for technocrat, overseas Kashmiri and Ulema-Mashaikh elected by the elected members making it a 49 member Legislative Assembly.
The PML (N). the ruling party of Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, won 31 out of the 41 seats as against 11 seats in the outgoing assembly. Its tally included 22/29 in PoK and 9/12 from the refugee constituencies, of which eight were from Punjab and one from Karachi. The PPP got three as against 29 seats in the outgoing assembly. Of these two were from POK and one from Karachi. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won two (Lahore and Peshawar) as against one previously; the Muslim Conference got three (all PoK) as against five earlier; the MQM got no seats against two previously, both from Karachi; one seat each was won by the Jammu Kashmir Peoples Party (JKPP) and an independent.
Two factors have dominated elections in POK and the recent elections were no exception. First, as always, ‘biradari’ played a vital role. Biradari in PoK is not merely an identity but a category vital to procure government jobs, to exert influence on the police, the administration and the judiciary.
Interestingly, of the various ‘biradaris’, the Rajputs and Jats have dominated and are traditional rivals. The former favour the PML-N and the latter, the PPP. This is especially in the southern districts of Kotli, Mirpur and Bhimber. However, in these elections, with the PPP Jat stalwart Barrister Sultan Mahmood, switching allegiance to the PTI, the Jat vote got divided between the PPP and the PTI allowing PML-N major gains in these areas. In fact, eight times winner, Sultan Mahmood lost in his home constituency of Mirpur to a novice PML-N candidate. The other major tribe – the Gujjars – while not affiliated to any one political party also voted on clan lines.
The second factor is the power equation in Pakistan. Since elections started in PoK in 1975, the trend has been of the electorate voting to power that party that rules the roost in Islamabad and Lahore. The latter is vital since nine out of the twelve refugee seats are in Punjab the results of which are tailor-made to suit the party in power. Political association with the former helps in obtaining resources for development. Thus, a feeling has developed that likeminded governments in the three capitals would help the people of PoK.
The demographics of PoK have an important bearing in this regard. While dependence on agriculture for livelihood and remittances from overseas family members is a crucial element, there is a large dependence of the population on government employment, both civil and military. In fact, most of the financial resources of POK are spent to meet expenditure on salaries and perks of government employees. These number almost 80,000 permanent employees plus an additional 20,000 on temporary contracts.
According to one estimate, about 95.5 per cent of the recurring budget goes to pay salaries while the remaining fraction comprising around five per cent is spent on all types of expenditure, including the running of government departments as well as covering official expenditure. Such a governance model together with poor infrastructure explains why having the same party ruling in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad is so important.
At one level, of course, the election results do not mean much since PoK will continue to be administered by the federal government through the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad and all important decisions taken by the Kashmir Council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.
For Pakistan, especially the Army, ‘Azadi’ means only accession to Pakistan. Thus, according to the 1974 Interim Constitution of PoK, “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.”
Likewise, any candidate contesting the elections has to sign a declaration that, “I believe in the ideology of Pakistan, ideology of state’s accession to Pakistan, and the integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan.”
Thus, any one who does not take the oath of Kashmir being an integral part of Pakistan is not allowed to contest elections. The same is also true for any government employee. So much for the right to self-determination that Pakistanis keep shouting about.
Despite this, for India, two factors need to be noted. First is the lack of resonance of the Kashmir issue, except as rhetoric, in the elections. Given the conditions in POK, slogans of accession of the entire princely state of Kashmir to Pakistan or the alleged human rights violations in J&K had little traction with the common man who was more concerned about his own socio-economic conditions than about the fate of his brethren across the LOC.
In this context, the defeat of the PTI president Sultan Mahmood is illustrative. Sultan had developed a reputation for internationalising the Kashmir issue and has travelled to almost ever major capital in the world for this purpose. Despite being the flag- bearer of the Kashmir cause, he was rejected by the voters.
Second, after having won the elections, the PML-N’s nominee Masood Khan has been elected as President. Masood Khan, a retired career diplomat from Rawalakot, Poonch, has served in key positions like Spokesperson of the Foreign Office, Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Pakistan’s Ambassador to China, DG UN desk at Ministry of Foreign Affairs etc. It is his diplomatic experience at the UN and in China that the PML-N government would like to tap into.
Almost immediately after his swearing in on August 16, 2016 he has presented a six- point proposal to resolve Kashmir issue in accordance with UN resolutions. These proposals include a systematic highlighting of the Kashmir issue and human rights violations by Indian forces internationally through the Organization of Islamic States (OIC); using Kashmiris and Pakistanis settled in North America, Europe and Gulf States; lobbying the US administration, US Congress, EU parliament, the UN Human Rights Council; urging the UN to appoint a special representative for monitoring the situation in J&K; and enhancing contacts with the representative leadership of Jammu and Kashmir.
With the PML-N firmly ensconced in PoK (as also in Gilgit-Baltistan) and with a pro-active Chinese-speaking retired diplomat as President, it should be presumed that Pakistan will up the ante and rhetoric on Kashmir by several notches. This, coupled with the continuing support to terrorist groups targeting Kashmir and the rest of India, should forewarn our security agencies on what to expect. Equally, the Indian media needs to pay far more attention to developments in PoK than hitherto.
*Tilak Devasher retired as Special Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent on: [email protected]