AGAINST the backdrop of Partition, the people of GB fought heroically with the Dogra rulers to secure their accession to Pakistan. Little did they know that when representatives of the Pakistan government took charge of the administration, it would herald an era of broken promises and relegation of GB to the status of a disputed territory.
As time passed, a neocolonial governance structure came to be imposed in GB. The Pakistani administration entered into an agreement with the Kashmiri leadership for direct administrative control and handed the area over to the then province of NWFP. When NWFP decided to administer the region applying the black law of FCR applicable to tribal areas, it meant that the Dogras’ autocracy had simply been succeeded by state-sanctioned authoritarianism.
This misrule continued till 1974 when the PPP repealed the FCR and abolished minor princely states, ushering in a new era of political change. Permission to the Aga Khan Foundation to initiate its rural support programme catalysed developmental activities by foreign and local NGOs who invested in the education and health sectors. This resulted in an increase in GB’s literacy levels.
It was again the PPP that established the Northern Areas Council with constricted powers in 1994. Despite such limited empowerment, the change was welcomed by the local people. In 1999, a landmark Supreme Court judgement extended full constitutional rights to the people of GB in line with the UN resolution. However, direct federal rule continued to be forced upon the region under the infamous Karachi Agreement 1949. The 1994 order was superficially revised by Pervez Musharraf in 2006, with few implications for meaningful changes to the structure.
Attempts are afoot to reverse the march of history.
In 2009, the PPP in a major step established the GB Legislative Assembly with powers to legislate on a number of important subjects, although this order too did not entirely fulfil the benchmark set by the judgement.
The digital revolution and a very high literacy rate have created great awareness amongst GB residents about the state’s historical ingress upon their constitutional rights whereby GB autonomy has been forcibly yoked to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. There is now a strong demand for permanent and full integration of GB in Pakistan.
To deflect this extreme pressure, the current government established a committee under Sartaj Aziz with representation of various departments. In this committee, the interests of Baltistan were represented only by GB’s chief minister, a masterful ploy on the government’s part, given that his alignment to the PML-N bound him to the party decision on this issue.
Fortunately, the committee could not be influenced by the oft-repeated mantra that any change in the status of GB would adversely affect the Kashmir issue. Its recommendations include provisional special status of a province, representation in parliament, legislative powers for the local assembly at par with the other provinces and representation in all the constitutional bodies.
Following the report’s publication, some minor political parties and the Kashmiri leadership sought to scuttle these recommendations. Perniciously, an alternate proposal negating them was initiated, which sought to reverse even the limited empowerment assured by the existing arrangement of the 2009 Order and to abolish the Council without giving representation to the people of GB in parliament.
They failed to appreciate that the prime minister exercised his powers on GB as chairman of this institution thereby providing a semblance of participation to the people in governance of the region. Once this council is eliminated, governance of the area reverts to federal control, thereby transforming into occupation without any de jure authority.
The proposal gives GB representatives only the status of non-voting observers in the constitutional institutions wherein all major decisions affecting the populace are taken and the prime minister is entrusted with dictatorial powers of legislation without any legal basis sans accountability. Thus the whole charade is an effort to reverse the march of history to the dark era of FCR.
Curiously, while the proposal was being discussed with the GB chief minister, the Kashmiri leadership was also present. Although this legal framework of governance has for the time being been postponed, the government, to please some local political parties and the Kashmiri leadership, is once again trying to get it approved hastily.
The strong reaction and the statement of the political leaders across the political divide have stalled the process, but if the proposal is implemented, political upheaval and violent agitation with serious consequences not only for the region but also for CPEC projects are sure to ensue. There is still time to postpone any action and leave it to the new government to make any amendment in a meaningful consultation with all stakeholders.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2018