THE 'autonomy package' introduced by the government for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is a mix of good and bad news. The good news is that the area will now have an autonomous status with a chief minister and a governor. The bad news is that it has been given only a province-like status and has no institutional link with the four provinces or the Pakistani constitution.
It is not yet clear how the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 signed by the president will affect the area's denizens and other stakeholders. What is obvious, though, is that this is an entirely new experiment in statecraft where a democratically elected government has created a province-like entity through an order.
Prime Minister Gilani's statement that Gilgit-Baltistan cannot be given constitutional status and representation in parliament because of Pakistan's commitment to a UN resolution is a lame excuse as there is nothing in it that forbids Pakistan from providing legitimate constitutional rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. After all, Azad Jammu & Kashmir operate under an interim constitution enacted by the AJK Legislative Assembly in 1974.
Only recently President Zardari signed a memorandum of understanding with China for a 7000-MW power project in Gilgit-Baltistan. Then there's the border agreement between Pakistan and China which is also provisional and subject to revision upon resolution of the Kashmir dispute. If the Pakistani government can enter into an agreement concerning Gilgit-Baltistan territories with a third party, there is hardly any justification for not entering into a constitutional accord, even if a provisional one, with the region's people.
There are two clear strands of thoughts regarding a possible way forward. The pro-Pakistan majority supports the area's inclusion in the federation of Pakistan as a province by adding Gilgit-Baltistan in Article 1 of the 1973 constitution as a territory of Pakistan — it could be subject to revision upon a final resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Others inspired by Kashmiri nationalist leaders call for an independent united states or confederation of Kashmir. Kashmiri leader Yasin Malik is talking about this and prefers that the status of Gilgit-Baltistan remain in limbo, followed by the option that the local assembly draft an interim constitution to enable the region to have a legitimate and comprehensive judicial, executive and legislative structure.
Prime Minister Gilani failed to admit that there has been tremendous pressure from Kashmiri nationalist leaders whenever the government has taken a policy decision on Gilgit-Baltistan. It is correct that the predicament goes back to the Kashmir dispute. The demand for a plebiscite on Kashmir may appear erroneous but it would be doubly wrong to make the innocent population of Gilgit-Baltistan (whose future was tied to the plebiscite) pay for someone else's blunder.
The people insist that their area, as large as the NWFP, is not a territory awarded to Pakistan by the Radcliffe Boundary Commission. According to them, neither were they freed from foreign tribes as in AJK's case. Gilgit-Baltistan, they argue, was liberated as a result of a spontaneous local revolt. Denizens opted to become a part of Pakistan and hence they believe that by get
ting rid of Dogra occupation, which predates the Amritsar treaty through which the regime acquired Kashmir from the British, they severed whatever symbolic relationship existed between Gilgit-Baltistan and the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir.
On the other hand, the Kashmiri leadership has had difficulty in understanding Pakistan's dilemma as, over the years, Gilgit-Baltistan's geo-strategic importance has risen to a level where the area cannot be 'donated'.
There was no Karakoram Highway in 1947 and the water and power crises in Pakistan has never been so acute as now. Policy circles realise that in a region beset with conflict and intense competition, Gilgit-Baltistan is crucial as a trade, water and oil corridor for South, West and Central Asia. With the Kalabagh dam off the table for the moment and climate change looming large, upstream water projects have become crucial for the survival and development of the country.
Containing some of the world's largest freshwater resources on which the irrigated agriculture of Punjab and Sindh depends, the estimated hydroelectric potential of the eight rivers and countless streams in Gilgit-Baltistan goes beyond Pakistan's current needs.
Ongoing mega projects like the Bhasha-Diamir dam further necessitates that Gilgit-Baltistan be brought into the mainstream and that its people be given a voice in national decision-making so that the region's public representatives can also take part in inter-provincial deliberations to safeguard socio-economic interests.
Renaming the Northern Areas as Gilgit-Baltistan is perhaps the most significant part of the deal as far as the locals are concerned as this change in nomenclature will help people regain their lost identity and go a long way in resurrecting the tourism industry in an area otherwise devastated by the Taliban.
Moreover, the creation of the offices of an auditor-general, public service commission and chief election commissioner are positive steps that should have been taken years ago. But the increase in the list of subjects for the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly to legislate would mean little if the powers of the governor to discard edicts are not curtailed. Similarly, while the provision allowing the local assembly to debate the budget is a positive move what is also needed is to build the administration's revenue-generation and financial-management capacity.
True, province-like status given to the region may have saved it from a situation similar to the one in restive Balochistan. However, if the reforms prove only cosmetic, the reaction of the people there could turn violent. If this happens, it would not only hurt the patriotic sentiments of nearly two million locals but also harm the country's interest in a strategic and resource-rich region currently surrounded by the Indian military, the Chinese army, Nato forces and the Taliban.