We would not abandon our benefactorNovember 11, 2009
Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent
KARIMABAD, PAKISTAN – Chants rang across a polo ground in the hamlet of Karimabad, the capital of the idyllic valley of Hunza, Pakistan’s northernmost district and the likely setting for the mythical kingdom of Shangri-La.
With elections beckoning on Thursday in Gilgit-Baltistan, a sparsely populated region of former valley kingdoms nestled between Asia’s mighty Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, hundreds of ethnic Hunzakut villagers had gathered on November 4 to voice support for their favoured politician.
“We were with you yesterday! We are still with you today!”, they shouted. But Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s former president, the man they were calling to, was there only in spirit, his beaming portrait adorning dozens of posters and banners, beckoning to the attentive, well-behaved crowd with his military salute.
Reviled elsewhere in the country after eight years of unpopular military rule, culminating in his resignation in August 2008, he had departed Pakistan in July, ostensibly on a lecture tour of the West, and is now living in virtual exile in London.
He has vowed to return home “when the time is right”, but such bravado masks genuine fears that he could be sent to the gallows if he does – either for the 2006 killing in a military operation of Nawab Akbar Bugti, an insurgent Baloch tribal politician, or for staging the 1999 coup that brought him to power, an act of high treason according to a Supreme Court verdict delivered on July 31.
However, Mr Musharraf may, one day, find a home in Hunza where popular sentiment, as in the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan, is swayed by sectarian, ethnic and clan loyalties.
The region has evolved independently from the Pakistani hinterland, to which it is linked by a single road, the 1,300km Karakorum Highway, a stunning feat of engineering that took Chinese and Pakistani army engineers 12 years to build and was completed only in May 1978.
As an army officer who specialised in military strategy, Mr Musharraf recognised the geopolitical importance of Gilgit-Baltistan, which shares borders with China to the north, India to the east and Afghanistan to the west – something that made it a flashpoint of the “Great Game” in central Asia contested by czarist Russia and the British empire in the late 19th century.
To that end, Mr Musharraf wooed the people of the region with speeches in the native Shina and Burushaski languages, read from Roman scripts, gave legislative powers to the region’s elected assembly and held party-based elections.
He funded development projects, including the region’s first university, new motorways and power plants.
And, perhaps most importantly for the estimated 60,000 residents of Hunza, practically all of who are members of the Ismaili sect, followers of the Aga Khan, and fearful of militant Sunnis, he took on the Taliban.
“He is a man who delivered on the promises he made to us, and we are not so dishonourable that we would abandon our mohsin [benefactor],” said Karim Beg, a 24-year-old shopkeeper of Hyderabad village, speaking among chants of “Long live, President Musharraf!”
That sentiment may yet determine the outcome of the Hunza seat, but the symbolic vindication of a victory by Rai Rehmatullah Beg, the pro-Musharraf candidate, would still be tainted with irony.
Mr Beg is contesting as the nominated candidate of the Quaid faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, a party cobbled together by Mr Musharraf largely with the help of deserters from popular political parties before national elections in 2002.
However, after Mr Musharraf stepped down, the faction split in two, with the larger group, which is contesting the Gilgit-Baltistan election under the Quaid League banner, distancing itself from the former president in an attempt to gain political credibility.
That has not gone down well with voters in Hunza, whose loyalty to the Pakistan Muslim League predates the independence of Pakistan in 1947 because of the involvement of Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, the then Aga Khan, in politicking to create a separate homeland for the Muslims of British-ruled India.
During the Karimabad rally, local politicians and the audience mocked unnamed politicians, calling them “selfish opportunists”, for abandoning Mr Musharraf with chanted pledges of loyalty for the former president.
Marvi Memon, the member of the federal parliament running the Quaid League campaign for the this week’s elections in Gilgit-Batistan, said the voters’ adverse reaction was a “wake-up call” for politicians who had vilified Mr Musharraf.
“I think this has proved that support for Mr Musharraf continues in many parts of Pakistan,” she said.
“Certain elements were responsible for creating a gulf between our party and Mr Musharraf.
“I am confident that, one day not too far from now, the party will realise it was hoodwinked, and will reunite with Mr Musharraf and emerge as a stronger political force than ever.”
Source: The National