GILGIT-Baltistan (GB) is that forgotten corner of Pakistan which only catches the media’s attention when there is a natural disaster or an incident of terrorism. There is general confusion about the region’s status. Some consider it part of KP, while others place it in Kashmir, although the people of GB have neither linguistic nor ethnic connections with Kashmir or Jammu. Even the Pakistan government appears unsure about the status. Although it is administered directly by the federation, the government’s stated position is that GB is not part of Pakistan but is, in fact, a disputed territory.
The demand of the people of GB for integration with Pakistan has been persistently ignored. Whenever elections are held for electing representatives to a local assembly — essentially a local government-level institution — the people tend to align themselves with the government of the day in the vain hope of being identified as Pakistanis.
This is an identity for which they not only opted voluntarily but also struggled successfully. Unanimously in favour of joining Pakistan, they engaged the Dogras in a two-year battle. After the formal accession, the people thought they had become Pakistanis. To their dismay, they discovered they had been relegated to an adjunct of the Frontier province. Their fate was sealed by the 1951 Karachi Pact between the Pakistan government and Sardar Ibrahim, a Muslim Conference Kashmiri leader who did not represent this area. Apparently he did not consider it as part of Kashmir, and handed over the administration of this vast region to the Pakistan government.
The demand for GB to be granted its constitutional rights cannot be postponed further.
Initially, it was administered by the Frontier province, whose provincial government posted a junior civil servant as the area’s political agent. Incapable of understanding the implications of administering such a vast area spread over a difficult terrain, this gentleman took a shortcut and recommended the introduction of the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) that could stifle and suppress dissent. This black law, a remnant of colonial rule, was thus tragically imposed by the provincial government on the people who had reposed trust in the state of Pakistan.
Later this area was handed over to the Kashmir affairs ministry where the new ‘viceroy’ was the joint secretary who lorded over the people of GB for many years. It was the PPP’s visionary leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who abolished the FCR as well as a few remaining princely states and introduced the regular civil administrative structure in GB, albeit still controlled by the centre.
In 1994, the PPP government introduced a Legal Framework Order giving GB limited authority over local affairs through an elected body. In 2009, the PPP promulgated an empowerment order that gave the region its distinct identity as Gilgit-Baltistan with a governor and chief minister, making it seem like Pakistan’s fifth province. Even though bureaucratic resistance towards devolving powers meant the PPP could not go far enough, it was a giant step towards mainstreaming GB.
During all these years, the Aga Khan Foundation, Marafie Foundation and other NGOs helped nurture a silent revolution in GB in education and poverty alleviation. Today, many villages in the area’s remotest corners have 100pc literacy. Along with it has come political awareness, and we now hear strong voices demanding constitutional rights. The people of GB sympathise with the populace of India-held Kashmir, accepting the flawed governance arrangements imposed upon themselves so as not to debunk the myth that devolving powers to GB will weaken the Kashmiri cause. However, when they see discrimination even in the empowerment of two ‘disputed’ territories, ie AJK and GB, they rightly question the wisdom of being denied their constitutional rights in the name of the Kashmiri cause.
The UN resolution regarding disputed territories as well as the decision of Pakistan’s Supreme Court enjoins the government to give GB complete autonomy. Every national political party that participated in the recent local assembly elections has made a firm commitment to conclusively settle this issue of constitutional rights and formal integration of the area into Pakistan. This is a crucial challenge. If the government again tries to postpone it, there will be strong reaction that can evolve into popular agitation. Yet another meaningless amendment in the governance structures is not an option.
Moreover, political governments neglected GB because it had no representation in federal institutions where resources were allocated. It was only during military regimes that GB received attention because of its strategic importance. Prior to the recent election, the prime minister announced a package that amounted to a mere political statement, as there are no allocations for it in the recent budget. The ambitious development programme in Pakistan is closely linked to this region as the economic corridor runs through the latter, and all mega hydropower projects and a dam are also envisaged to be located here. However, at a recent CPEC meeting, the government, did not deem it necessary to invite GB leaders.
The elected members of the Legislative Assembly must push the federation to settle the constitutional issue and urge for development that will be integrated with the corridor, benefiting the entire region. Against the backdrop of India’s hostile attitude, it is important to avoid any situation that can trigger large-scale agitation in this sensitive region. Thousands of Gilgiti and Balti soldiers have sacrificed their lives for Pakistan’s sovereignty. Even today on the icy heights of Siachen, these brave soldiers continue to confront the enemy, rightly proud of the fact that the GB-origin regiment, the Northern Light Infantry, is the most decorated regiment of the Pakistan Army.
PML-N has a majority. It should understand that if the impending storm is ignored further, a serious political movement may take birth that will not only disturb the peace in this highly sensitive area but will also compromise CPEC projects thereby putting at risk the dreams of a prosperous Pakistan. It will indeed be an epic tragedy, if the people of GB, having endured years of political shortchanging and disempowerment, finally lose their confidence in democratic solutions.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2015