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Nawaz Khan Naji is the best of what is visible and tangible, a politician hailing from the northwestern part of the erstwhile State of Jammu & kashmir, has campaigned on the outstanding national question of his people and clinically won an election, against all odds
In an era and a region where every politician is interested in capturing the best of what is visible and tangible, a politician hailing from the northwestern part of the erstwhile State of Jammu & kashmir, has campaigned on the outstanding national question of his people and clinically won an election, against all odds.
On April 28 (A date famous for the Karachi Agreement in 1949 when leaders of the Muslim Conference are thought to have effectively deferred control of Gilgit-Baltistan-Ladakh to the Pakistani Government) this year: Nawaz Khan Naji, the founder and supreme head of his faction
of the Balawaristan National Front, won a byelection in his home constituency of Ghizer (L-A 19) and thereby became a member of the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly. This despite a political agenda that directly questions Pakistan's occupation of the territory and being head of a party that espouses the total independence of Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh. He aspires for their re-emergence into a re-union of "Highland People" under the nostalgic name of Balawaristan.
The geographic demarcation of Balawaristan would include all areas referred to as the 'Northern Territories' during Dogra Rule and include Shenaki Kohistan and Chitral at the very least (which are currently considered to be constitutionally a part of Pakistan and thus included as part of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province). Many people in these territories certainly describe themselves as part of the 'Kashmir Issue' but the vast majority of those that this writer has interacted with, do not consider themselves as a part of the erstwhile Dogra State, not on their volition at any rate.
Returning to possibly the most principled, humble and connected politician who propogates that vision - Nawaz Khan Naji – who happens to be a leading authority on the geography of the region too, considers the above geo-political re-configuration to be his first choice. It should be noted that his secondary choice involves a settlement close to the vision espoused by Kashmiri nationalists of
returning to the configuration under Dogra Rule.
Naji hails from humble origins – his father was a lower middle-class farmer in his home village of Sher Qilah in District Ghizer – and he still lives in the modest 'desi' home built by his father. His
committment to his cause has kept him unmarried, he is now 50. So intense has been his political life since 1989 when he produced a manifesto and launched Balawaristan National Front with a few friends. A second of three books followed, probingly entitled "Kashmir ka Chowtha Fareeq (Fourth party of Kashmir dispute). An intolerant regime inevitably tried to curtail his creative political ideas and put him up in jail for more than three months on a couple of occasions, usually under the colonial remnant of section 124(a). This electoral win was his third attempt at testing the prevailing power structure since 2004.
The by-election came about because the then incumbent Pir Syed Ali Shah was ironically (as may become apparent in due course) nominated by Pakistan's Prime Minister as the new Governor of Gilgit Baltistan (after the death of the previous Governor Dr. Shama Khalid). Nawaz Khan Naji's
party cadre contend that their leader would have won the original election in November 2009 if the ruling federal party (PPP) in collusion with Pakistan's clandestine agencies hadn't formented a 'law and order' situation. A seventeen year old BNF party worker Zubair, was also killed in the melee. The ruling party's candidate won by a mere 24 votes. Naji filed a suit in pursuit of justice but to no avail.
His victory is remarkable on many counts, apart from the obvious national one. His two main opponents represented each of the main political parties in Pakistan. The PPP's candidate Eng. Jawahir Ali Khan was reported to be openly supported by both the federal government of Pakistan as well as the governing structure in Gilgit Baltistan. PML(N) was represented by Col. Karim, a descendent of the former ruling family of the region and reportedly backed by the military establishment.
A little more than a month before polling day, Nawaz Khan Naji was arrested and jailed along with party cadre on the March 22. Incessant public protest ensured his release on the fourth day of detention. Some party workers remained detained for 28 days whilst one worker continues to languish in detention under the previously cited section 124(a).
Various sops including cash up to 10 crore for development schemes, wheat, potato seeds and fertiliser were also pushed aside by a committed electorate, carefully nurtured to understand the larger, long term picture by a man who could possibly be regarded as a legitimate standard-bearer of 21st century politics.
There is a clear argument that Naji was able to mobilise the youth to campaign for him round the clock. He won without finances, 'national' party backing or administrative support. Many regard his victory as being far more profound than the winning of a mere constituency seat.
They consider it epic and him iconic for achieving it despite the odds.
The victory was emphatic to boot. 8,399 votes polled for him, 5,200 for PML(N)'s candidate, with the ruling party's (PPP) candidate bagging just 4,400. Some go as far as to regard this victory as unprecedented in the post-47 political configurations of Gilgit, Muzaffarabad, Srinagar and Jammu. "Nawaz Khan Naji is the first (overtly nationalist) politician to win an election devised by occupying forces with his own party flag and manifesto", stated one party official.
Like all great stories, a word or two of caution are in order. Criticism levelled by the other faction of the Balawaristan National Front (led by the exiled Abdul Hameed Khan in Belgium) may attribute Naji's victory to under-the-table compromise with the prevailing power structure, that may not be immediately apparent. Others may quote the example of Muzzafar Relley who started as a nationalist before altering direction to become a loyalist of the former Pakistani President Musharraf's party, namely PML (Q).
Whether he accedes to the prevailing 'status quo' and thereby (in)directly legitimises the presence of Pakistan or utilises this platform to address the 'national question' just as he has done for the past 23 years at various national and international fora- while addressing issues of governance for his constituency - will no doubt prove to be a challenge he has yet to surmount. Nevertheless, his victory possibly indicates the intensity of feeling in his constituency about the state of political affairs that prevail over them. Historic reasoning mixed with the confidence that real positive change is possible, appears to have overcome the dire socio-economic reality that blinds most voters of the so-called 'developing world'.
Nawaz Khan Naji is conspiciously clear that a lack of education amongst the populace of Gilgit Baltistan prevents the formation of a genuine national consensus. He also recognises what un-natural impediments lie ahead in charting this course. Most certainly, he would need to be doing most of the convincing in the national assembly if he is to genuinely emerge as a 21st century politician that other politicians may - in time to come - aspire to emulate.
The writer is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in Rising Kashmir (a Srinagar-based English daily) on the 25th of May 2011