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Storm in Gilgit-Baltistan

May 17, 2018

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AS if it did not have enough crises on its hands in the final days of its tenure, the government has stirred up a hornet’s nest by preparing a highly controversial scheme of constitutional reforms for Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

The National Security Committee is reported to have discussed the draft of the measure titled ‘Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018’, on May 3 and advised the federal government to further consult the stakeholders. Any other observer might have said the same thing because, among other objections, a lack of consultation with the people concerned is writ large on the document.

Claiming to “provide for greater empowerment so as to bring Gilgit-Baltistan at par with other provinces”, the draft order proposes substantial changes in the political structure created vide the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order of 2009 but it does not raise GB to the status of a province of Pakistan. The most significant features of the new order are:

The draft of ‘Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018’ has been severely criticised.

• The government of Pakistan will oversee the management of Gilgit-Baltistan affairs through the federal prime minister instead of the GB Council as hitherto.

• The prime minister will perform in relation to GB the functions assigned to the president of Pakistan. He will have the power to make laws for GB and a law made by him will override a law made by the territory’s legislature, now called GB Assembly, after deletion of the word ‘legislative’ from its title.

• All Pakistanis recognised by the Pakistan Citizenship Act of 1951 as well as residents and those holding GB domicile will be citizens of the area (the only word used to describe GB, as the word ‘province’ is never used for it). This definition of citizenship will give Pakistanis from outside GB significant advantages over the natives.

• The order incorporates the fundamental rights (with additional constraints on the right to freedom of association and deletion of the reference to freedom of the press from the article on freedom of expression) and the Principles of Policy given in the Constitution of Pakistan.

• Also incorporated are the articles from the Constitution of Pakistan dealing with the definition of a voter and the election of members of the assembly (with some pruning of the parliamentarians’ disqualification clauses).

• The GB assembly shall not discuss “matters relating to foreign affairs, defence, and internal security” and the conduct of a judge.

• No citizen of GB is likely to become the chief judge of the Supreme Appellate Court because only retired judges of Pakistan’s Supreme Court and retired chief justices of high courts of Pakistan are eligible.

On the grounds mentioned here and for various other reasons. the draft order has been severely criticised by the alliance of opposition parties, the GB Bar Council and the High Court Bar Association.

One of the grounds for opposition is non-acceptance of the demand made by the GB Assembly, following an August 2014 resolution by the Pakistan Senate, calling upon the federal government to include the people of the area in the national mainstream by granting Gilgit-Baltistan the status of Pakistan’s fifth province and ensuring their representation in the National Assembly and the Senate of Pakistan.

Another complaint is that the constitutional reform committee did not heed the GB Assembly’s request of March 15 last for taking its members into confidence before finalising its recommendations.

Before the reform order came into the public debate, students from GB enrolled at universities in Lahore started voicing their political, cultural and educational concerns at public seminars. The first of these seminars, that the present writer was able to join, was a unique affair in the sense that it was attended by representatives of the opposition as well as members and spokesmen of the GB government, and the latter showed appreciation of the students’ point of view to an extent rarely displayed by the authorities anywhere else in Pakistan.

They were even apologetic about the conviction of Baba Jan, the Attabad lake hero who has been sentenced to 40 years in prison, and the case under the Anti-Terrorism Act against the widely respected advocate Ehsan Ali — two issues the students passionately raised. The large body of GB students studying outside their home area has many other complaints that can easily be sorted out.

The students too protested against the exclusion of GB citizens from consultations on reform measures. According to them, the Sartaj Aziz committee had only one member from GB, the chief minister, who is alleged to be under the influence of the Kashmiri lobby that opposes the area’s demand for provincial status.

The educational and administrative authorities across the country sometimes fret about the extracurricular activities of students belonging to what were once aptly described as oppressed nationalities of Pakistan. These students remind one of the young men and women from the subcontinent who went to study in Europe in the last century and were encouraged by the environment of relative freedom there to voice their people’s political aspirations. Instead of being shown the rod every now and then, these students deserve to be listened to with due consideration.

The issue about the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan framed by politicians and students both is that if GB is accepted as a part of Pakistan. it should be treated at par with its provinces in every respect, and if it is a disputed territory, in the context of the Kashmir issue, it may be given the status allowed to Azad Kashmir or India-held Kashmir.

This matter is not beyond resolution, especially in view of Article 125 in the Order 2018, which says: “The provisions of this Order shall not derogate from, or in any manner prejudice, the declared stand of the Government of Pakistan regarding the right of self-determination for the people of Jammu and Kashmir in accordance with the United National Resolutions.”

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2018