THE appointment of the federal minister for Kashmir affairs as governor of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) throws up several complicated questions. The most important of these is whether the PML-N government in Islamabad is in the process of rolling back the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, given by the then PPP government. To seek an answer to this, we must delve into recent political developments related to the region.
In a sign of its dislike of the existing governance package, the government has kept issues related to the region off the agenda ever since it took power in Islamabad. The N-League’s attitude towards GB can be gauged from the prime minister’s inability to attend GB Council sessions — of which he is the chairperson — rendering the regional government technically dysfunctional to installing an oversized caretaker regional government.
Likewise, in the recent past, when a federal minister minced no words in saying that GB is not a constitutional part of Pakistan, the silence from all quarters of the ruling elite was deafening. Intriguingly, the so-called nationalists of GB, who have a similar stance, have in the past been dubbed ‘anti-Pakistan’ for saying the same thing.
The centre has kept GB issues off the agenda.
Let us look at some of the factors that are likely to be fuelling the PML-N’s desire to limit Gilgit-Baltistan’s autonomy.
First there is the Kashmir factor. Since the inception of the GB governance package, the Kashmiri leadership has, covertly and overtly, expressed its displeasure towards it. Their unhappiness with the package started manifesting itself in public gatherings and through official statements. For example, reacting to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly’s unanimous resolution to become the fifth province of Pakistan, there was across-the-board condemnation of the move in the Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) Assembly.
However, with the arrival of the PML-N in the centre and its leadership’s ideological leanings and personal relationships with the Kashmiri leadership, an opportunity emerged for the latter. It can be construed that by installing a pro-Kashmir caretaker government in GB and appointing a pro-Kashmir federal minister as governor — which seems to be an outcome of lobbying by the Kashmiri leadership — the PML-N is in the mood to roll back the semi-provincial status of GB.
Then we come to the demographics. Despite its modern outlook, it is no secret that the PML-N is a rightist political party and has been a close ally of extremist religious parties in the past. Hence, considering GB’s demographics — particularly its Shia majority population — the N-League may be reluctant to grant the region autonomy.
Rolling back GB’s semi-provincial status will appease many and anger few. Looking through the PML-N lens, rollback seems a rational political decision. On the other hand, the government seems to be ignorant of the devastating effects of such a decision.
Lastly, we come to micromanagement. Due to the parochial nature of its regional leadership, the PML-N in GB couldn’t transform itself into a complete, effective political party. Winning the upcoming legislative assembly elections in GB would therefore be quite an opportunity.
The regional PML-N would prefer rolling back the autonomy package. Also, a rollback would bring GB under the direct control of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, which no doubt would suit the PML-N’s micromanaging style and its penchant for a bureaucracy-driven political milieu.
There is also the possibility that the pro-Kashmir caretaker government continues for an unspecified period by not holding elections. Keeping GB’s status quo favours the troika of Kashmir Affairs, AJK government, and the GB PML-N.
The installation of a caretaker government and the appointment of a PML-N federal minister as governor will enable an environment suitable to roll back the semi-provincial status, perhaps even merge the region with AJK.
Besides these factors, there are other important paradoxes that Islamabad is reluctant to resolve.
First, despite the fact that both AJK and India-held Kashmir enjoy political and constitutional rights, GB is kept in constitutional limbo. Second, recently, the 21st Amendment was extended to GB, though the move was later reversed. However, when it comes to extending the 18th Amendment — which helped usher in devolution of powers to the provinces — to GB, there are many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ involved.
Finally, when it comes to freedoms, democracy and political rights, political history becomes irrelevant. The essence of democracy is that people get the freedoms and political rights they aspire for. Pakistan is the lifeline of the people of the region, and local citizens opted for it 67 years ago. They are steadfast in their commitment.
Hence, the ruling elite in Islamabad needs to rethink its policies towards GB. The perilous path it is following has insurmountable implications for Gilgit-Baltistan in particular, and Pakistan in general.
The writer studies and teaches economics and public policy in California.
Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2015