THE constitutional rights of the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) continue to be denied because Pakistan keeps linking the area to the Kashmir dispute. This dispute in itself is like the proverbial Gordian knot — impregnable to all attempts to resolve it, no surprise given the persistent historical deadlock with India over the holding of the UN-mandated plebiscite to decide the fate of Kashmir.
Despite the unconditional accession of GB’s residents to Pakistan following an uneven bloody struggle with the regular Kashmir state army, and acceptance of this accession by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, bureaucracy has chosen to define the region as disputed, although de facto control by the Pakistan government has triggered a series of ad hoc executive orders starting with the imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation.
Experiencing the full force of these discriminatory laws, the locals began to clamour for their rights; each time protests ensued, successive governments would furnish a governance package ceding limited, sometimes cosmetic, self-rule structures to GB.
The first limited empowerment reform, introduced by the PPP in 2009, conferred the symbolic status of province on GB by establishing the offices of governor and chief minister. This limited recognition catalysed a strong demand for provincial status as elected representatives experienced shoddy treatment by the Pakistan government’s functionaries. This also mobilised Pakistan’s political parties to highlight the issue in their public statements, which is significant as the parties have a strong political presence in GB.
It appears that the centre’s aim is to impose cosmetic changes on GB’s governance structure.
But despite the parties’ highlighting the issue at the national level, the local party chapters faced constraints in their demands as they had to follow the policy guidelines of the central leadership. A think tank formed for the rights of the people of Azad Kashmir, headed by former AJK chief justice Manzoor Gillani and others including three former Foreign Service officials, also worked on this issue and advanced the idea of conferring provisional provincial status on GB subject to its ratification after a UN-held plebiscite. This recommendation addressed the fundamental issue of empowered local government in line with UN resolutions without compromising the principled stance of Pakistan on the Kashmir dispute.
With mounting public awareness and political pressure on the leadership, the local legislative assembly had to adopt a unanimous resolution across the political divide for a full-fledged provisional provincial status for GB. However, to address the issue or at least appear to be doing something concrete, the PML-N government formed a committee for constitutional and administrative reforms in GB in 2015 under the then adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, with the only political representation from GB on this committee being the chief minister of GB.
This committee took 18 months to produce a report after a sustained cycle of agitation by GB residents for the conferral of constitutional rights. The Sartaj Aziz committee, according to the local press, also recommended the conferral of provisional special provincial status on GB, representation in parliament, constitutional bodies (eg the Indus River System Authority, the National Economic Council and the National Finance Commission), legislation on subjects presently delegated to other provinces and additional socioeconomic/administrative actions.
However, despite the creation of expectations that the findings of the committee would be approved and announced by the prime minister on his recent visit to GB, neither the approval nor the announcement has materialised, and the report has remained inaccessible to the local assembly and media.
Reportedly, on a recent visit to Azad Kashmir, the prime minister was persuaded by the local Kashmiri leadership to stall the meaningful empowerment of the people of GB in line with the recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz committee.
It appears that the aim of the government is to dilute the recommendations of this committee and impose cosmetic changes on the GB governance structure by abolishing the GB Council, a body serving as a link and constitutional bridge between the federation and the region, under the argument that it is purposeless since it is dominated by members who are not accountable to the people of GB.
It is also being stated that the GB Assembly and the government will get all the legislative, administrative and financial powers now being exercised by the GB Council, although ironically as 55 subjects are now with the council, many are unlikely to be devolved as they are the fundamental responsibility of the federal government. These will revert to the ministry and under the guise of coordination the stranglehold of the bureaucracy will be restored.
Reportedly, on the central issue of representation within federal constitutional institutions, only observer status is being proposed, which was even given in the Zia era, but to little avail. Patchy leaked information of the imminent changes and suppression of the Sartaj Aziz committee report have angered GB residents as seen at the last legislative assembly session when there was an uproar by the members; even ministers voiced their criticism of these so-called constitutional reforms.
The members have strongly demanded nothing less than regular provincial status, and the passage of a unanimous resolution for publication of the reforms committee report. In the latest development, the political parties are coming together on a common platform to press for full constitutional rights with provincial status for the region.
Given the strategic location of this region and awakening of the local population, particularly its educated youth, dithering will not be tolerated. If the evolving political platform makes it a rallying issue, currently avoidable but potentially serious complications can be anticipated. The Pakistani government has yet another honourable option of adopting the report of its own committee, as further delay will imperil the smooth operation of CPEC that starts from this region. The recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz committee seem to be the only viable solution; it should not be a case of yet another missed opportunity; the centre cannot hoodwink the people any further.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2018