A constitutional black hole

Published December 21, 2018
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

EVERY year, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan observe liberation day on Nov 1 to celebrate their emancipation from the repressive rule of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. Involving great sacrifice, this was achieved through brutal running battles by a handful of mostly civilian fighters led by the Gilgit Scouts against the forces of Kashmir over the course of a year.

After liberation, the people of GB unilaterally and unconditionally acceded to Pakistan. Historically, the areas were independent and the only linkage with Kashmir was annexation by invading armies that was maintained over one year of repression. Denial of fundamental rights, heavy taxation and ruthless enforcement of the command of a despotic ruler characterised this brutal rule.

‘Almost’ Pakistan: Gilgit-Baltistan in a constitutional limbo

Post-Second World War, great changes were transpiring, and the state of Pakistan became a beacon of hope for every Muslim of the subcontinent. The people of GB also saw a bright future for themselves in Pakistan and joined it wholeheartedly.

Their hopes, however, were misplaced; instead of integrating the area within Pakistan, the government decided to arbitrarily link the fate of the people to the Kashmir issue without consulting its local leadership, silencing objections that arose in the name of religion and sympathy for Kashmiris suffering under Indian occupation.

However, treating this region as part of Kashmir was a flawed notion, as forcible occupation cannot overrule historical truths. The people of GB are not Kashmiris; they have a diverse and distinct race/culture with a long history of independent existence.

Despite this historical reality, the region was strangely treated as part of Kashmir on the shaky foundation of oft-quoted agreements between the British and Sikhs/maharaja of Kashmir. Perhaps it was political expediency that led to this illogical decision being foisted on these people, thus consigning their region to a constitutional black hole for seven decades.

The sordid tale of misrule in this region commenced with it being attached to the North-West Frontier Province on the same footing as the tribal areas that had a natural connection to the latter, which led to the imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation to administer the peaceful population of GB.

Notably, it was the PPP government that repealed the FCR and abolished the local rule in the rajas’ fiefdoms. Since then, to satisfy the growing demand for constitutional rights, successive governments typically adopted colonial methods of introducing reforms — with meaningless powers granted to the so-called elected members of various councils and assemblies.

It was again the PPP in 2009 that undertook to introduce reforms that greatly changed the area’s governance structure and gave limited powers to the locally elected assembly along with the designations of governor and chief minister.

It was hoped that the new government would seek to address the GB question.

With a highly educated populace, and an opening-up of the world due to the digital revolution, GB’s residents’ demand for undiluted, full constitutional rights in line with the UN resolution became vociferous. The PML-N government was forced to establish a committee under Sartaj Aziz with representation of all stakeholders.

The committee did a thorough job in examining the entire issue from all aspects, observing in its report that it had addressed the potential impact of GB’s provisional integration on the Kashmir issue, and concluded that it would not in any way compromise Pakistan’s official stance in the matter.

In its last weeks, it is intriguing that the PML-N government, instead of adopting the report’s recommendations, decided to reverse even the limited empowerment under the existing structure of 2009 through a presidential order.

To add insult to injury, the PML-N government projected this new presidential decree as an achievement that satisfied the people’s long-standing demand for constitutional rights. Suffice it to say that it was a cruel jest played with GB’s people, who have consistently proven their commitment and loyalty to Pakistan with the sacrifice of their blood in every conflict with its internal or external enemies.

It was hoped that the new PTI government would address the problems of GB. However, the new dispensation has its own priorities that warrant more focus on removing encroachments on a few hundred acres of land in Islamabad than addressing the constitutional conundrum affecting a region of 73,000 square kilometres and rights of a population of two million.

The reading of the PTI manifesto indicates a lack of clarity over the demands of the people of GB, ie their aspirations for constitutional rights. Mysteriously, there is no urgency to address the critical issues of governance of this extremely sensitive area, except for its discussion by the cabinet as an agenda item and the ministers’ blatant admission of the Kashmiri leadership’s pernicious influence.

It was the Supreme Court which took notice of this important matter for a just settlement. The federal government, during the hearings of this case, is again indecisive and oblivious to the importance of the issue, establishing a committee to examine the findings of the Sartaj Aziz committee, a typically bureaucratic and despicable ruse to delay any decision instead of presenting a just and transparent way forward before the court.

As feared, the new government has again avoided any bold decision by following the line projected by the Kashmiri leadership, which has continued to influence the federation in perpetuating an unjust governance arrangement that is in essence a violation of the UN resolution.

The case of GB is simple and straightforward. When it acceded to Pakistan, it gave its consent to integration without any conditions, and this has not been accepted by the federation. This legal vacuum technically renders the entire population stateless.

The elected assembly has adopted resolutions demanding even provisional integration with Pakistan. In the last session, its members vented their frustration over the status quo, questioning the legality of the governance structure.

A restless, informed new generation clamouring for full constitutional rights, in tandem with a legal void leaves the region exposed to exploitation by our enemies. The situation is perilous given that the region is vital to the success of CPEC and the Diamer-Bhasha dam project. It is high time to act.

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

Published in Dawn, December 21st, 2018

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