Under AJK's Interim Act 1974 – which many now explicitly consider as a document of slavery – effective power rests with the Government of Pakistan through its Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA)
Politics and power distribution in Pakistan-controlled ‘Azad Jammu & Kashmir’ (AJK) is conditioned by three main factors. Firstly, it is driven by the Kashmir conflict at large, which resulted in AJK acquiring a disputed status that further lead to interim arrangements and uncertainty. Secondly, becoming a de facto federal unit of the state of Pakistan, has sidelined it from the mainstream which – in turn - created ‘systematic’ dependency in almost all spheres of political, economic and societal life. Thirdly, at the internal level, ethnicity or cross-cutting cleavages based on tribes (biradri) and regional divisions play a significant part in political shaping and reshaping.
The search for autonomy or self-rule as compared to regional or provincial equality in terms of rights and obligations is an unfolding debate in AJK, especially after Pakistan's 18th constitutional amendment which bestowed greater provincial autonomy to the provinces. Many politicians and writers often argue that AJK has its own self-governance structure and some don't hesitate in describing it as an autonomous territory. That may be theoretically correct but empirically it appears not, as much of the literature on governance concerns the way power is exerted and shared - and more pointedly - in the manner through which resources are allocated within a society. Renowned intellectual Stefan Wolff describes, “one of the key questions to ask any self-governance regime is where powers rests; i.e. how different competences are allocated to different layers of authority and whether they are their exclusive domain or have to be shared between different layers of authority”. In the context of AJK's Interim Act 1974 – which many now explicitly consider as a document of slavery – despite an apparent self-governance structure, effective power rests with the Government of Pakistan through its Kashmir Council, which in turn is being operated by its Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA).
An analytical study of the Interim Act of 1974 indicates many weaknesses, seemingly systematically enshrined, thus causing fragility in governance on one hand and allowing the Council to function as a parallel government on the other. Thus, can a government be considered as functioning as a self-government which does not even have permission to collect taxes from its territory and responsibly deliver welfare to its people? According to Tanveer Ahmed - a civil society activist - AJK is a legal anomaly and its current governance structure is most certainly not a structure, which accommodates accountability and transparency of any kind.
The history of AJK indicates that the right to vote and the existing basic governance structure was a result of political parties putting up an incredibly hard-fought struggle even for attaining these rights, which form just a modicum of what was envisaged in the United Nations’ charter. Alas, what little was attained was subsequently diluted, whereby strengthening self-government and promoting good governance was abandoned.
Some analysts believe that the mere holding of elections is a sufficient condition for the existence of democracy. In this respect, the sole rationale given by the traditional political elite of AJK is that democracy has sustained by virtue of elections being held uninterrupted since 1985, thus providing testimony of continuity of ‘democracy’. That may only be partially correct given that elections are the paradigm of enforceable accountability. However - there is always a risk - proved by studying the history of politics, elections and government formation in AJK that certain groups or parties holding more resources, accompanied by strong ties and support from the ruling party in Pakistan, always succeed. In this respect, some essential elements required for democratic governance are absent in AJK's current 'democratic' structure; including a vibrant civil society, an accessible media, an independent judiciary, an independent election commission and genuinely transparent electoral rolls. Therefore, democracy is more than just having the right to vote.
Controlled ‘democratic’ mechanisms in the disparate regions of the divided and disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir do not fulfil the needs and aspirations of the people, rather they are considered to be instruments to maintain a status quo conditioned to the national and security interests of India and Pakistan. Arguably, imbalanced power-sharing between a contested territory and its controlling nation-state appears to be the primary obstacle in establishing a genuinely autonomous governance structure. In the context of AJK, one can see that ordinary people are merely voters, who despite casting their vote are subordinate to ‘electoral engineering’ authorities sitting in Islamabad, effectively deciding the outcome of elections. Furthermore, the twelve refugee seats based in Pakistan form a bargaining-chip to manipulate the political process before government formation in AJK. Consequently, the people having the right to vote but not having the right to rule exemplifies the characteristics and type of ‘democratic fabric’ this region entails. Nevertheless, there is consensus amongst the political parties of AJK on redefining the current relationship with the government of Pakistan that is based on Act 1974. They differ though on quantum and strategy.
Against this backdrop, political and constitutional reforms are required in AJK. However, there is a distinct difference of opinion on what exactly the territory should seek for. Some are in favour of restoring a sovereign government which takes some reference and spirit from the declaration of October the 24th 1947. A well-known retired jurist Majeed Malik and nationalist forces favour such a solution. This remains an ideal scenario but perhaps not practicable in the given circumstances. Others are in favour of restoring Act 1970 with the exception of converting it into a parliamentary form of government. Thirdly, some support the idea of giving AJK something close to a ‘provincial’ status but without declaring it a province. In this respect, the basic theme has been presented by another retired jurist Manzoor Gillani. In a similar vein, an Australian analyst Christopher Snedden, in his recent book ‘The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir’ argues that AJK's de facto link should be made de jure with Pakistan.
The conflicting issues between Muzaffarabad and Islamabad require an inclusive and constructive approach whereby both parties address the genuine political and constitutional needs of AJK. In my opinion, a genuinely wide-reaching autonomy could provide the best answer to the current predicament, until the final disposition of the Kashmir conflict. Peter Sellers once said, “What you need around here is a government that isn’t afraid of doing a little governing”.