By Manzoor Ali (Express Tribune)
PESHAWAR, May 5: The Chitral district administration has officially asked the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government to cancel a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed with Gilgit-Baltistan on co-hosting the Shandur Polo Festival.
Chitral Deputy Commissioner Aminul Haq confirmed that he had written a letter to the Malakand commissioner, asking to cancel the MoU. “I wrote the letter in accordance with what the public wants,” said Haq.
For the last few years, the Shandur Polo Festival has either fallen prey to security concerns, floods or ownership disputes. At least thrice, GB has not participated in the festival.
The Chitrali side
The MoU was signed on April 20 in Peshawar at a seminar Shandur for peace and tourism. It rekindled hopes that GB would participate in the polo game played on top of the world, even though it has been adamantly protesting, claiming ownership of Shandur.
Instead, the MoU sparked a public controversy in Chitral – polo players and the public objected, pulling in erstwhile pro-MoU politicians as well.
Even though Chitral MPAs Bibi Fozia and Sardar Hussain had attended the MoU signing and spoken at length of the positive impact the festival would have on both regions, they did an about-turn amidst public outcry. The backlash was so severe that it forced both MPAs to distance themselves from the MoU.
The mutual agreement
The MoU, a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune, says a delegation of ministers from GB led by Minister for Sports and Tourism Inayatullah Shumali held talks with KP Adviser to CM on Sports Amjad Afridi. The document acknowledges the territorial dispute is under arbitration with the commission constituted by the government of Pakistan. However, it adds, keeping aside this dispute, a workable solution can be reached to hold the annual polo festival in a befitting manner.
The MoU agrees the event should be held jointly by both KP and GB. The relevant deputy commissioners, MPA/MLAs of adjoining constituencies of Chitral and Ghizer, presidents of respective polo associations would be members and the president of Shandur Welfare Organization would be the ex-officio member/convener of the event. It also ensures an equal share for both regions in all administrative, seating, security and seating arrangements through the above committee.
In addition, the MoU discusses the distribution of sponsorship money, royalty and funds and proposes both sides equally distribute this amount. It was also agreed that KP and GB police would man the entry and exits points leading to both districts.
Before the ink on the document could dry, many in Chitral stood up in opposition to this MoU, calling it a sell-out.
Jamaat-e-Islami’s district chapter arranged an all-parties conference, denouncing the agreement and demanding the MoU be annulled.
The district polo association’s president told The Express Tribune over the telephone that stakeholders from Chitral were “kept away from the seminar in Peshawar where the MoU was signed.” Shahzada Sikandarul Mulk added, “Those who arranged this seminar were not stakeholders.”
Mulk said he had already advised lawmakers from Chitral to not take up this issue as it would open the proverbial Pandora’s Box.
“Chitral has always hosted the Shandur Polo Festival and Gilgit-Baltistan has been our guest but this MoU puts a controversial spin on all perks enjoyed by Chitral,” added Mulk.
Prominent columnist Dr Inayatullah Faizi said it was decided at the seminar to hold the event during August. “Shandur experiences duststorms in August, June is more favourable.”
Lashing out against the “sharing the festival”, Faizi said Chitral has played host for the past 85 years in the Shandur Polo Festival’s history. “Gilgit’s teams were not even a part of this festival; they only started participating under Ziaul Haq’s rule.”
If historical boundaries constituted current truths, Faizi’s proof of Shandur’s ownership lay in the gazetteers published in 1900s. He said the district’s gazetteers in 1903 and 1928 show Shandur to be a part of Chitral.
But is an MoU binding? Not according to Faheem Wali, a Supreme Court lawyer. “Unless a formal contract is signed an MoU in itself has no binding effect and can be cancelled anytime.”
In 2013, the festival was cancelled after floods ravaged the main linkages between GB and Chitral and the wounds from the Nanga Parbat assault were still raw.
In 2014, then minister for information Sadia Danish announced the region was withdrawing from the festival. Gilgit’s residents have repeatedly complained of not being given their due share in the polo event by the KP government. As a result, the polo team from Gilgit – who were traditional rivals to teams from Chitral – was not allowed to participate in the event.
In 2010, Gilgit boycotted the festival to protest against the federal government’s decision to assign the management and organisation of the event to K-P and over a dispute as to which government has ownership rights over Shandur, a mountainous pass which lies between GB’s Ghizer Valley and Chitral district of KP.
By Manzoor Ali (Express Tribune)