MANY people in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), particularly politicians belonging to its opposition parties, have voiced objections to the recently promulgated GB Order 2018, which has replaced the GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009. Matters came to a head when Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi attended a joint session of the GB Legislative Assembly and GB Council, and members from the opposition parties began shouting slogans against the order. The prime minister only made a speech after these members had walked out of the session.

In order to better understand the situation in GB, Dawn put some questions to Afzal Ali Shigri, a former inspector general of police who has written extensively on issues concerning the region. Here is what he had to say:

Question: Is the new order an improvement on the one introduced by PPP in 2009?

Answer: It is not an improvement because under the 2009 order the legislation on the federal laws was adopted on the recommendations of a council that had the representation of six members elected by the GB Legislative Assembly along with an equal number of members nominated by the prime minister. The GB’s chief minister and governor were also members of this council. In 2018 all these powers have been entrusted to the federal government, thus eliminating even a semblance of an elected body. This will restore the old bureaucratic structure, with the prime minister and bureaucrats, who are not accountable to the people, controlling the affairs of GB.

Q: Why are there such violent protests?

A: The people of GB acceded to Pakistan unconditionally. Pakistan defined the area as a disputed one and started administering it through a black law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR)… There was no justification for a draconian law like the FCR. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto repealed the FCR and also abolished the princely states. In 1994 came limited empowerment. In 1999 the Supreme Court ordered grant of full constitutional rights without disturbing the status of a disputed area. Again the PPP moved forward with the 2009 order.

Now there is a strong realisation that the government is denying constitutional rights to the region on the pretext that it’s a disputed territory connected to the Kashmir issue. The demand for status of a province has grown and the assembly has passed a resolution (on the issue). The government set up a committee under Sartaj Aziz, which recommended that most of the demands should be accepted. However, under the influence of the Kashmiri leadership its recommendations were ignored. The educated youths understand the implications of these policies and have joined the protest. Use of social media has further aggravated the situation.

Q: Do the people of GB see their fate tied with Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK)?

A: The people of GB due to their loyalty and devotion to Pakistan have accepted the linkage of their area with the Kashmir dispute. They however do not consider themselves as part of Kashmir. They speak languages totally different from the Kashmiris. Similarly they have a distinct culture… Their commitment to Kashmir is limited to casting their vote in favour of Pakistan as and when plebiscite is held under the UN.

Q: Is there any legal impediment to GB’s integration with Pakistan?

A: The GB Legislative Assembly has passed a unanimous resolution for their merger with Pakistan as a province provisionally till the settlement of the Kashmir issue. Their demand is based on a historical legal document on a provisional international border agreement with China.

Q: Will granting status of a province to GB have any legal implications internationally that will compromise the stance of Pakistan government?

A: Way back in 1974 Agha Shahi said that legally merger was permissible but India could exploit it. Foreign Minister Inamul Haq observed that international dimension of the Kashmir issue will not be impacted by the grant of political and constitutional rights to the people of AJK and GB. A number of Foreign Service officers have expressed similar views.

Q: Some people say that for too long the GB’s status has remained in limbo. Has it not changed with the new law/ordinance?

A: Change came with the 2009 order. The 2018 order has reversed the structure and reintroduced direct administrative control of federation without any accountability.

Q: What exactly are the opposition parties asking for?

A: The opposition and the civil society want status of a province. In order to address the issue of Kashmir they are ready to accept a provisional status. As a matter of fact the assembly has passed such a resolution. They were forced to vote for the 2018 order.

Q: Until a few years ago people of GB did not even have half the rights they have today. Although progress is slow, isn’t Islamabad moving in the right direction?

A: The federation has ignored a Supreme Court judgement and even the recommendations of the committee set up under Sartaj Aziz. This committee’s recommendations have not even been shared with members of the local assembly. People have waited too long and are not ready to accept the status quo. Even in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor the region has not been given its due share.

Q: Is there a viable solution to the GB issue where Islamabad can give the people more rights without compromising its position on the Kashmir dispute?

A: Briefly, the Sartaj Aziz Committee report. Yes, the provisional status of a province. Already examined in detail by a think tank under former chief justice of the AJK Supreme Court Manzoor Ahmad Gilani. Proposal in their report was the basis for the recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz Committee.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2018