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Relations between archrivals India and Pakistan thawed further in 2004 as the two governments held several rounds of talks over the status of Kashmir and other issues. Although Pakistani leader General Pervez Musharraf continued to face international pressure to crack down on the Islamist militant groups that make incursions into Indian-administered Kashmir from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, some militant activity continued to be reported. Meanwhile, the Pakistani government faced demands from nationalist and pro-independence Kashmiri groups for increased political representation in Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas. Sectarian tensions also remained high; when protests by the majority Shia population in the Northern Areas turned violent, a curfew was imposed in much of the territory in June.
For centuries, Kashmir was ruled by Afghan, Sikh, and local strongmen. In 1846, the British seized control of the territory and sold it to the Hindu maharajah of the neighboring principality of Jammu. The maharajah later incorporated Ladakh and other surrounding areas into the new princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. When British India was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947, Maharajah Hari Singh tried to maintain Jammu and Kashmir's independence. However, after Pakistani tribesmen invaded, he agreed to cede Jammu and Kashmir to India. In return, India promised autonomy and eventual self-determination for the territory.
India and Pakistan went to war over Kashmir within months of gaining their independence. As part of a UN-brokered ceasefire in January 1949 that established the present-day boundaries, Pakistan gained control of roughly one-third of Jammu and Kashmir, including the far northern and western areas, as well as a narrow sliver of land adjoining Indian-held Kashmir. India retained most of the Kashmir Valley along with Jammu and Ladakh.
Unlike India, Pakistan never formally annexed the portion of Kashmir under its control. The Karachi Agreement of April 1949 divided Pakistani-administered Kashmir into two distinct entities, Azad (free) Kashmir and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas consist of the five districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Ghanche, Diamer, and Baltistan. Pakistan retained direct administrative control over the Northern Areas, while Azad Kashmir was given a larger degree of nominal self-government.
For several decades, an informal council administered Azad Kashmir. A legislative assembly was set up in 1970, and the 1974 interim constitution established a parliamentary system headed by a president and a prime minister. However, the political process in Azad Kashmir has been suspended on several occasions by the military rulers of Pakistan. In 1977, General Zia ul-Haq dissolved the legislative assembly and banned all political activity for eight years, while in 1991, the prime minister of Azad Kashmir was dismissed, arrested, and imprisoned in Pakistan.
Chronic infighting among Azad Kashmir's various political factions has also allowed Islamabad to interfere with ease in the electoral process. In the 1996 state elections, Sultan Mahmud Chaudhary's Azad Kashmir People's Party (AKPP) emerged with a majority of seats. The outgoing Muslim Conference (MC) had boycotted the elections, accusing the AKPP of vote rigging and fraud. In elections held in July 2001, with a 48 percent turnout, the MC swept back into power, winning 30 out of 48 seats. However, Musharraf installed a serving general as the president of Azad Kashmir later that month, amid speculation that Islamabad intended to reassert its control over the territory.
The lack of political representation in the Northern Areas has fueled demands for both formal inclusion within Pakistan and self-determination. In 1988, Gilgit was wracked by unrest after the majority Shias demanded an independent state. The Pakistani army suppressed the revolt with the help of armed Sunni tribesmen from a neighboring province. In May 1999, the Pakistani Supreme Court directed the government to act within six months to give the Northern Areas an elected government with an independent judiciary. After the verdict, the Pakistani government announced a package that provided for an appellate court and an expanded and renamed Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC). In August 2003, the NALC submitted a proposal to the Pakistani government that called for a more autonomous form of provincial government along the lines of what currently exists in Azad Kashmir. Elections to the NALC were held in October 2004, but the NALC continues to have few real financial and legislative powers.
Since early 2002, Musharraf has been under sustained international pressure to curb the activities of Pakistani-based militant groups. However, when Musharraf banned the movement of militants from the Pakistani portion of Kashmir into the Indian-held section of Kashmir in June 2003, hard-line Islamist groups in Azad Kashmir organized protest rallies denouncing his decision and vowed to continue their armed insurgency.
While the Pakistani authorities have readily provided support to armed militants fighting in India, they have been less tolerant of groups that espouse Kashmiri self-determination. In January 2001, 12 small Kashmiri separatist groups in Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas announced the formation of the All Parties National Alliance, which committed itself to fighting for an independent Kashmir and demanded that both India and Pakistan release jailed members of the group. Nationalist and pro-independence groups in Pakistani-administered Kashmir have continued to agitate for increased political representation. In August 2003, Shabir Choudhury, the leader of the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), accused the Pakistani government of denying human rights to the Kashmiri people.
Sectarian tension between the majority Shias and the Sunnis in the Northern Areas continues to be a concern. Violent protests erupted in 2003 among Shias in Gilgit over the government's decision to introduce a new educational curriculum. Attempts by Shias to campaign for changes to the curriculum led to the imposition of a curfew in Gilgit and several other parts of the Northern Areas in June 2004 after thousands of Shia protestors clashed with security forces and attacked government buildings, offices, and a state-run hotel.
The political rights of the residents of Pakistani-administered Kashmir remain severely limited. Neither the Northern Areas nor Azad Kashmir has representation in Pakistan's national parliament. The Northern Areas are directly administered by the Pakistani government and have no constitution guaranteeing them fundamental rights, democratic representation, or the separation of powers, according to Amnesty International. Executive authority is vested in the minister for Kashmir affairs, a civil servant appointed by Islamabad. An elected 29-seat Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) serves in an advisory capacity and has no authorization to change laws or spend revenue. Elections to the NALC were held in October 2004; candidates who won seats included independents as well as representatives of several national political parties.
Azad Kashmir has an interim constitution, an elected unicameral assembly headed by a prime minister that sits for five-year terms, and a president. However, Pakistan exercises considerable control over both the structures of governance and electoral politics. Islamabad's approval is required to pass legislation, and the minister for Kashmir affairs handles the daily administration of the state. Twelve of the 48 seats in the Azad Kashmir assembly are reserved for Kashmiri "refugees" in Pakistan, and the elections to these seats are the subject of some manipulation.
In addition, candidates in elections are required to support the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities barred at least 25 candidates from the pro-independence JKLF from contesting the July 2001 elections after they refused to sign a declaration supporting the accession of all of Kashmir to Pakistan. Several hundred JKLF supporters, including its chief, Amanullah Khan, were arrested while protesting against the decision. Fifteen other nationalists who agreed to the "accession" clause competed in the elections, but none won a seat.
Azad Kashmir receives a large amount of financial aid from the Pakistani government, but successive administrations have been tainted by corruption and incompetence. A lack of official accountability has been identified as a key factor in the poor socioeconomic development of both Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas.
The Pakistani government uses the constitution and other laws to curb freedom of speech on a variety of subjects, including the status of Kashmir. In recent years, authorities have banned several local newspapers from publishing and have detained or otherwise harassed Kashmiri journalists. In addition to pressure from the authorities, journalists face some harassment from other, non-state actors. In June 2002, political party activists attacked the office of the weekly Naqqara, a Gilgit-based newspaper, and assaulted the staff. Azad Kashmir has 1 daily, 10 weeklies and 3 monthlies that publish regularly. While the Northern Areas have no local broadcast media, a local radio station was inaugurated in Azad Kashmir in 2002 and the government also announced plans to launch a satellite television station.
Pakistan is an Islamic republic, and there are numerous restrictions on religious freedom. In addition, religious minorities face unofficial economic and societal discrimination and are occasionally subject to violent attack. Shia Muslims, who form the majority of the population in the Northern Areas, include a large number of Ismailis, a group that follows the Aga Khan. Sectarian strife between the majority Shia population and the increasing number of Sunni Muslims (many of whom are migrants from elsewhere in Pakistan) continues to be a problem. In June, violence erupted in Gilgit between security forces and Shia protestors who were campaigning for changes to be made in religious textbooks, which they allege present only a Sunni version of Islamic history. The Aga Khan Rural Support Program, run by the Aga Khan Foundation, an international development organization that focuses on Ismaili Shia communities worldwide, has in recent years been subjected to harassment and violence from extremist Sunni religious leaders. Extremists have also targeted girls' schools; in February, the BBC reported that nine schools had been burned down or dynamited by suspected Islamists who oppose the educating of girls and women.
Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. The constitution of Azad Kashmir forbids individuals and political parties from taking part in activities prejudicial to the ideology of the state's accession to Pakistan. Political parties that advocate Kashmiri independence are allowed to operate, but not to participate in elections. According to Amnesty International, some people who do not support the accession of Azad Kashmir to Pakistan have been dismissed from their jobs and denied access to educational institutions. A number of nationalist political parties have been formed in the Northern Areas that advocate either self-rule or greater political representation within Pakistan. However, their leaders are subject to harassment, arbitrary arrest, and long jail terms. The Balawaristan National Front (BNF), which advocates for independence for the Northern Areas from Pakistan, estimates that more than 70 individuals are facing sedition or treason cases as a result of their political activities.
In recent years, police have suppressed antigovernment demonstrations, sometimes violently, in both Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas, and have imposed lengthy curfews in order to forestall protestors from assembling. These have included rallies by nationalist political organizations, as well as student protests and demonstrations by the Shia or Sunni communities. A report by the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that during the curfew imposed in June 2004, police used excessive force against civilians and arrested the leadership of the Shia community that had organized the protests and hunger strikes.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are generally able to operate freely. In July 2003, the HRCP established an office in Gilgit to monitor the human rights situation in the region. However, employees of NGOs that focus on women's issues are sometimes subjected to threats and other forms of harassment from religious leaders and Islamist militant groups.
The judiciary of the Northern Areas consists of district courts and a chief court, whose decisions are final. The Northern Areas Council Legal Framework Order of 1994 provides for a court of appeals, but this court has not yet been established. The territory continues to be governed by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulations, under which residents are required to report to local police stations once a month. Law enforcement agencies have reportedly used torture on political activists who have been detained or imprisoned. Azad Kashmir has its own system of local magistrates and high courts, whose heads are appointed by the president of Azad Kashmir. Appeals are adjudicated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
A number of Islamist militant groups, including members of al-Qaeda, have bases in, and operate from, Pakistani-administered Kashmir with the tacit permission of Pakistani intelligence. Several militant groups that advocate the accession of Kashmir to Pakistan receive weapons and financial aid from the Pakistani government in support of their infiltrations into Indian-administered Kashmir. Under pressure from the United States, General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, undertook several steps to curb infiltrations across the line of control (LOC), such as banning the main militant groups and persuading them to close some of their training camps in Azad Kashmir. However, by 2003, militant activity had increased to previous levels. Tension between the Islamist, pro-Pakistan groups and the pro-independence Kashmiri groups has reportedly intensified. In April 2003, police in Azad Kashmir arrested more than a dozen Kashmiri militants over fears of a possible clash between two rival groups.
Until a bilateral ceasefire was declared in November 2003, shelling between Indian and Pakistani forces around the LOC in Kashmir killed or displaced numerous civilians; some of these people remain unable to return to their homes. In addition, the Azad Kashmir government manages relief camps for refugees from Indian-administered Kashmir, which are funded by the Pakistani government. The appropriation of land in the Northern Areas by non-Kashmiri migrants from elsewhere in Pakistan, which has been tacitly encouraged by the federal government and army, has led to dwindling economic opportunities for the local population as well as an increase in religious and ethnic tensions.
The status of women in Pakistani-administered Kashmir is similar to that of women in Pakistan. Domestic violence, rape, honor killings, and other forms of abuse continue to be issues of concern. Women are not granted equal rights under the law, and their educational opportunities and choice of marriage partner remain circumscribed. In February, a spate of attacks by suspected Islamist hard-liners opposed to women's education targeted girls' schools in the Northern Areas.