By: Jalaluddin Mughal
In a recent development Prime Minster of Pakistan Mr. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has shown willingness to abolish the Azad Jammu & Kashmir Council aka Kashmir Council—a supra-constitutional body with most of the legislative, executive and judicial powers in its pocket and having authority over 52 out of 56 subjects related to Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK).
PM Abbasi, who also heads Kashmir Council, has agreed to introduce constitutional reforms to empower the elected government in Muzaffarabad in order to address a long standing demand by the political leadership and civil society of the region. A constitutional amendment draft is expected in coming days to enact these reforms which may not only put the economic development of the region on the right path but also help remove the deep-rooted sense of deprivation and marginalization among masses.
Established under section 21 of the Interim Constitution Act of 1974, Kashmir Council serves as a liaison forum between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad. But for its unlimited power, ambiguous role and inalienable authority, the forum has been under widespread criticism by almost every political actors in AJK.
The current AJK Prime Minster, Raja Farooq Haider Khan has been a vibrant critic of Kashmir Council and termed it as, “root of all problems” in his speeches during election campaign in 2016. After coming into power in July 2016, Haider took the matter with Federal authorities to curtail the powers and influence of Kashmir Council in order to empower the elected government in Muzaffarabad.
Here are five reasons why AJK political leadership and people consider Kashmir Council, a hurdle in empowerment and development of the region and demand its abolishment or at least curtailment of the powers to a minimum level.
- Not an AJK representative body
The composition of AJK Council makes it controlling authority of the Federal Government rather than a representative body of the people of AJK. Six members of Kashmir Council are elected by AJK Assembly. President as well as Prime Minister of AJK are also members of the body, most the powers lay with Prime Mister of Pakistan, as its chairman, and are used by Federal Minister of Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan Affairs besides five other members nominated by the chairman. The minister in-charge of the Kashmir Affairs is an ex-officio member while other nominated members need to be either a federal minster or a member of the parliament. The chairman and nominated members are neither elected by the people of AJK, nor are they answerable to assembly and accountable to institutions in AJK.
- Zero accountability
In most of the cases, especially those related to financial corruption, Kashmir Council avoids answering queries of the intuitions including judiciary in AJK as well as in Pakistan. According to some constitutional experts Kashmir Council acts as a national parliament while the legislative assembly acts as a local assembly. However, when it comes to accountability, Kashmir Council neither falls under federal jurisdiction nor can it be tried in AJK courts. When asked to appear in AJK Supreme Court, Kashmir Council officials claim that being a Federal body, they are not bound to answer AJK institutions, while on the other hand National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been refused to investigate the complains about financial corruption in projects initiated by Kashmir Council, on the grounds that the NAB don’t have its jurisdiction in AJK. Kashmir Council has enjoyed the ambiguous status for many years and remain unaccountable at all levels.
- A parallel government
The establishment of the AJK Council was aimed at “serving as a bridge’’ between Pakistan and AJK. Kashmir Council was considered to act as an upper house; but given the unquestionable executive, judicial and legislative powers, it started acting as a parallel government directly operated from Islamabad—apparently with the aim to cut the wings of elected government in Muzaffarabad. Times and again, there have been allegations of misuse of Kashmir Council’s funds for political motives especially to manipulate AJK Assembly’s elections. In 2011 elections, PPP-led Federal Government remained under criticism for using Council’s funds to buy the electables and voters in bulk. Nawaz Sharif-led PMLN government reciprocated in 2016 election in AJK. It is an everlasting trend that the ruling party in the Federal Government always wins election in AJK. A common perception among the people is that Kashmir Council’s funds are the main reason behind—beside different schedules of election in AJK and Pakistan. Some figures show that the Kashmir Council provides over 80 percent employment to Pakistani citizens and only 20 percent or less to state subjects, including Kashmiri refugees living in Pakistan.
- Absolute power lays with PM Pakistan
Being the chairman, PM of Pakistan has unrestrained powers in Kashmir Council. Chairman is the final authority to approve or reject any type of legislation including financial bills and the annual budget of Kashmir Council. The AJK President can call Kashmir Council’s session only after chairman’s approval. Neither a normal legislations bill, nor a constitutional amendment can be tabled without chairman’s consent and prior approval. Nominated and ex-officio members [from the Federal Government] also use their positions to manipulate Kashmir Council’s proceedings. It is the best known reality that a considerable amount of Kashmir Council’s budged is allocated back in Pakistan rather than AJK territories—sometime in the name of development schemes for Kashmiri refugees living in Pakistan and most of the time in constituencies of PM Pakistan and respective nominated members. AJK President and PM as well as elected members of Kashmir Council are found, more often, complaining to get less than their fair share in development funds.
- No shared legislation with AJK Assembly
Both, AJK Legislative Assembly and Kashmir Council, have no working relationship except the joint session which usually happened to held once in a year, or on some special occasion. Kashmir Council has a legislation mandate and executive powers in 52 out of 56 AJK related subjects. Surprisingly, AJK Assembly and Kashmir Council don’t have any shared legislation except the constitutional amendments. Kashmir Council is using legislative, administrative and judicial powers at the same time. Most of the times, elected members have raised their concerns over slow legislation process, nonfunctional standing committees and irregular sessions of Kashmir Council. According to a member of Kashmir Council, in last three years, not a single standing committee has been able to hold a meeting to clear pending business. The reason best known is, “the less interest shown by nominated members.” Another member of Kashmir Council told this scribe that sometimes Kashmir Council is not even able to hold an annual budget session due to busy schedule of the chairman. In that case, the provisional budget is utilized subjected to chairman’s approval.
Being a revenue collecting authority, Kashmir Council is collecting all kind of taxes from AJK and using 20 percent of total collection for its administrative cost. But recently AJK government has been complaining that Kashmir Council is deducting extra 20 % and returning only 60 % of total tax collected.
The recent consent by PM Abbasi, to abolish Kashmir Council, has created a ray of hope for the people of AJK to be more empowered in the future, despite, they have been over-promised and less-delivered in past.
Jalaluddin Mughal is editor at Kashmir Image. He tweets @jalalmughal