GB: changing views

25 Feb 2014


NATIONALISM and its various causes has been a subject of much debate among academic circles. One theory is that nationalism is often exploited by elites or the leadership of centralised states or the elites of non-dominant groups to mobilise the masses to either defend or achieve their larger interests.

These interests can be about more political gains, more political representation or greater economic advantage over other groups. The contention seems applicable to Pakistan, which is home to nationalism of varying intensity. While the Balochistan issue poses a serious threat to national integrity due to cries of secession, Gilgit-Baltistan is a region where nationalism is sporadic and unorganised so far.

Very little about the issues, grievances and history of GB is known to the people and political elite of Pakistan. This is one of the reasons why every ruler tries to govern this region through short-term methods.

Since the affiliation of GB with Pakistan in 1947, the political status of the area has been ambiguous. Successive governments have been unable to deal adequately with this problem. However, reforms initiated by different governments suggest they have made an effort, but the locals are still not satisfied.

It’s the educated youth, who have studied in other parts of Pakistan and have returned to GB, who are aware of their fundamental rights. This group has started questioning the constitutional status of the region. Their demand for fundamental rights needs attention by the state.

GB, despite having much potential in its natural and mineral resources, lacks modern infrastructure and facilities. No serious effort has been made to utilise the labour force and educated youth. The population mainly relies on agriculture and animal husbandry, and few attempts have been made by the government to improve these two sectors.

The size of landholdings, due to a mountainous terrain, is insufficient for families to earn profits from agricultural produce. The short season of cultivation is an additional obstacle. Furthermore, traditional agricultural practices inhibit yield.

Lack of job opportunities has resulted in poverty. The absence of road networks and communications in many areas has made them inaccessible. The region has the potential to meet the growing energy demands of the country due to its water reservoirs. However, no serious attempts have been made by any government to utilise this potential.

The only industry the local population relies on is tourism. Yet despite having five of the 14 highest mountain peaks of the world and great potential for trekking and mountaineering, the tourism industry has never been appropriately utilised.

In fact, the nationalism of ethnic groups living in Pakistan’s mountainous north, with their own distinguished cultures and languages, is driven more by economic and political frustration. Combined with the latter grievances, the voices of nationalist parties and their assertive nationalism are gaining strength. However, the nationalist parties of GB seem divided, with different nationalist objectives, ranging from autonomy to independence.

In the local elections for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly of 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance, an umbrella organisation which represents most nationalist groups, was unable to win a single seat. The Balawaristan National Front of Nawaz Naji contested elections outside this alliance and failed to win, though Naji managed to win a seat later in by-elections held in April 2011.

The political parties at the centre — the PPP, PML-N, PML-Q, JUI-F and the MQM — won the most seats defeating the nationalist parties. This proves that the political process tied to nationalism and nationalist parties is considerably underdeveloped in GB.

In Pakistan’s complex political context, movements to gain more rights and autonomy have been seen as suspicious by the state. It has always been considered that these demands for autonomy will lead to secession, hence they are brutally crushed from time to time, particularly in Balochistan.

The situation in GB is different. The nationalist leadership and parties have so far failed to gain mass support. Moreover, the local population is still in favour of remaining in Pakistan, but their views are now changing rapidly. One of the reasons for this, other than economic deprivation and lack of political rights, is the recent wave of anti-Shia violence in the Shia-majority region.

Pakistan cannot afford another nationalist movement. GB’s problems must be addressed earnestly. The first possible step can be granting more autonomy over political and financial matters to the local representatives. This demands sincerity on the part of the political and military leadership.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the University of Karachi.