A new and empowered political setup is in the offing in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). This arrangement will clip the unprecedented powers of the federal government that are being exercised through the Kashmir Council – the so-called upper house.
The intensive lobbying efforts by Kashmiri politicians, led by AJK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan, to seek the support of Pakistan’s PM and the senior officials of Islamabad have reaped results. A draft of constitutional reforms has reportedly been finalised and will drastically change the local political dynamics.
The chequered history of constitution-making and the political evolution of AJK encompasses the immense political acumen and courage of the local leadership. Efforts to institutionalise the relationship between the governments of Pakistan and AJK began in April, 1949 with the signing of Karachi Agreement that provides a foundation for the future system of governance. It was decided that the government of Pakistan would be responsible for specific matters while other areas would be dealt with at the local level.
The following issues fell within the remit of the Pakistan government: defence; foreign policy; issuing a currency and coinage; negotiations with the UNCIP; and coordination for the plebiscite and control of Gilgit-Baltistan. The AJK government was only left to look after the day-to-day affairs and the rehabilitation of refugees displaced from Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir.
Until 1961, elections and the creation of a democratic setup had not taken root in the region. However, the rules of business had been framed in 1950, 1952 and 1958 to further empower the local people. In 1961, the first presidential elections were held on a system of basic democracies, which was introduced by the then president Muhammad Ayub Khan.
The quest for empowerment did not end here. Kashmiri leaders and the civil society demanded more administrative and financial powers. Two new acts were introduced in 1964 and 1968, respectively, to provide an improved governance system. But locals were of the view that AJK should have a democratically-elected government on the basis of an adult franchise.
In this background, a new constitution was enacted in line with the Karachi Agreement and the AJK government was fully empowered. A president was elected through a direct election. Ironically, the federal bureaucracy convinced the then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to clip the wing of the AJK government. As a result, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan’s government was toppled and he was jailed. Fresh but fraught elections were held under the supervision of the federal government and the PPP installed its local chapter in Muzaffarabad.
Subsequently, a unique system of governance was put in place wherein legislation as well as the executive and financial authority of the AJK government was shared with the Kashmir Council whose chairman was the prime minister of Pakistan. The elected prime minister of the AJK and the assembly were barred from legislating on 52 subjects that fell within the Kashmir Council’s jurisdiction whose headquarters was situated in Islamabad.
Above all, the Kashmir Council established a parallel government in AJK from Islamabad. Billions of rupees collected from taxpayers in AJK were being spent arbitrarily without the consent of the region’s government. The appointment of judges and an election commissioner as well as the collection of taxes were the areas controlled by the Kashmir Council.
The council gradually turned into a supreme constitutional institution that was not accountable to the AJK Assembly at all. The executive authority was attributed in the name of the council to the chairman (the prime minister of Pakistan) and was actually exercised by the secretariat of the council or a federal minister for Kashmir and GB affairs.
The way the Kashmir Council and the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs have treated the AJK government during the last 44 years has created deep-seated discontent among the people, especially among the political class who believed that the federal government was responsible for the disempowerment of the region.
Widespread criticism and public protests were held across the region several times. But the Kashmir Council and its bureaucrats never budged from their traditional policies. Even the prime minister of AJK staged a sit-in in Islamabad against their attitude in 2016, which was a vivid manifestation of the sour relations between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad.
In 2010, the 18th Amendment of the constitution of Pakistan decentralised powers and empowered the provinces. This kindled hope in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Civil society groups and political leaders started a debate on the devolution of powers and empowerment for the elected government of AJK. A process of constitutional reforms was initiated in 2012 and Raja Farooq Haider Khan accelerated this process after he assumed power in Muzaffarabad. He was of the view that until the AJK government is fully empowered, administratively and financially, it cannot bring any tangible improvement in the lives of the people.
Several committees had been constituted, which comprised senior ministers and officials, to review and prepare a draft of the proposed reforms in the Interim Constitution Act 1974.
After a long struggle, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has now given consent to abolish the Kashmir Council. The move aims to fully empower the AJK Assembly and the elected government. It is assumed that within the next few weeks, a new setup will be introduced in AJK.
This arrangement will not only politically empower the people of AJK but will also remove the deep-seated sense of marginalisation and deprivation in their hearts. It is widely expected that the political discourse of the region will change and people will have more resources and authority to work freely for their development and progress. An empowered, confident and resourceful AJK will be in a better position to serve the case of Kashmir and also inspire people who are living on the other side of the Line of Control.
With the doubling of the development budget to Rs22 billion during this fiscal year, AJK is on the right path to achieve economic development. A number of infrastructural and hydel power generation projects, which have been planned for the region, are geared towards introducing a paradigm shift in the socioeconomic life of the people of AJK in the years to come. In this context, the region will be more economically viable and politically empowered and will, therefore, be more content with mainstream Pakistan.
The writer is a freelance contributor.