DUE to the vigorous demand of Gilgit-Baltistan’s residents for a formal merger with Pakistan, the PML-N government was compelled on Oct 29, 2015, to establish a committee to review the existing constitutional arrangements in the region. This committee was headed by Sartaj Aziz, its remit being to generate recommendations for a way forward in light of all relevant aspects, historical included, while taking into consideration the implications of the UN resolution on Kashmir.

It took almost 18 months for the committee to give its recommendations, which finally emerged on March 10, 2017. During this period, the standard response to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan’s demand for the conferral of their rights was to refer them to the committee. Yet interestingly, the findings of this committee were kept secret despite the non-classified nature of the document.

The Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, retracted even the limited empowerment granted in 2009.

According to the speaker of the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, all the members of the forum called on Mr Aziz and reiterated their demand that the area be merged with mainstream Pakistan.

Mindful of the implications of the UN resolution, the committee recommended that Gilgit-Baltistan be awarded the provisional “status of a special province” with parliamentary representation and membership in all constitutional bodies such as the National Executive Committee, the National Finance Award and the Indus River System Authority.

However, the PML-N was averse to such an arrangement, no doubt fearing that it might displease India, and the report was consigned to cold storage. This also suited the Azad Kashmir government, which is against autonomy for Gilgit-Baltistan as it considers the latter to be its regional backyard. The said government was even critical of the limited autonomy given to Gilgit-Baltistan by the then PPP government through a presidential decree in 2009.

Curiously, during the last fortnight of its tenure, the PML-N government promulgated the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, which in contravention of the official statement of the government retracted even the limited empowerment granted in 2009. In anticipation of a backlash, presidential approval for the draft was obtained through a dubious and rushed process shrouded in secrecy. The order relegated the status of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council to nothing more than a toothless advisory body, whereas formerly it had been the only legal linkage and a lawful process for the exercise of authority by the federation on certain important subjects related to the region.

Without a council, Gilgit-Baltistan is completely subject to one-man rule by the prime minister. The distortion in this arrangement is that the governance of the area is entrusted to one person by designation, practically violating the institutional structure of governance delineated in the Constitution and subjugating more than two million people to the whims of one person.

There are glaring distortions that disempower the local assembly, foremost being Article 47, that the “prime minister shall perform his functions and exercise his powers in such manner as may be prescribed by rules made by the president”. In effect, the prime minister shall be determining his own rules, as constitutionally, the president is bound by his advice.

Then there is Article 57, which prohibits the local assembly from discussing even internal security. This caveat effectively places the local population under the perpetual control of the federation. Further, Article 60 of the order says that the prime minister has been empowered to make laws for Gilgit-Baltistan and under the Third Schedule, has exclusive powers. Under Article 60(a) the council has been made irrelevant by relegating its status to an advisory role — this institution, with partial indirectly elected representation, provided the legal platform for legislation by the federation for Gilgit-Baltistan. These powers have now been taken away and given to the prime minister, negating even a vestige of democratic rule. In Part-II for the judicature, too, the dominance of the executive has been maintained.

The fact that the controversial provision of tenure appointment to the Supreme Appellate Court under Article 75(8) has been retained is deeply problematic. Further, under Article 116, the contentious power to amend this order by the president without any reference to the local elected representative creates a dictatorial rule masked by the charade of an elected government.

Article 118 provides that in case of conflict between the laws of Pakistan and those framed under this order, the former shall prevail. This means that the laws enacted by an assembly where the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are not represented shall overrule any laws enacted by the region’s elected assembly.

The Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, was issued despite a stay order granted by the Supreme Appellate Court upon the petition of a Gilgit-Baltistan council member; the government of Pakistan chose not only to deny the constitutional rights of Gilgit-Baltistan’s residents but also violate the judicial verdict of the highest local court. Such disdain reflects the thinking of those positioned to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Later, in contempt proceedings, the court suspended the 2018 order, but the Gilgit-Baltistan and the government of Pakistan again ignored these judicial orders. The most catastrophic part of the whole affair is the subservient behaviour of the members of the local assembly who were purportedly forced to support this order although the actual text was never shared with them. The formal gazette notification was issued on June 6 by the interim government headed by a former judge.

The party manifesto of the newly elected PTI government includes a few lines on Gilgit-Baltistan. As such, little hope for a change of direction may be entertained for the foreseeable future. The people who drafted these lines have pushed the rhetoric of enhanced political and economic empowerment while overlooking the demands of Gilgit-Baltistan’s residents for a formal merger. The continued denial of these demands may compel the people to resort to destabilising alternatives, potentially causing concern for projects like CPEC. The time is ripe for the new government to reflect on this highly serious issue and act with an eye to long-term consequences.

The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2018

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