THE status of Gilgit-Baltistan was recently re-examined at a high-level conference involving all concerned departments and institutions. The present government, with its customary cluelessness about this issue, predictably chose once again to postpone the discussion, shunting it over to yet another committee. It seems that the government, with its penchant for forming committees and commissions to postpone key decisions, has turned procrastination into an art.
It has been extremely frustrating for the people of GB to have the region and its legal status remain in limbo for so long after they fought to unconditionally join Pakistan at its birth as a new independent Muslim state. The region chose to accede to Pakistan. Sadly, Pakistan has yet to accept this accession.
Despite being denied provincial status by the state of Pakistan, the people of GB have set aside their disillusionment of being treated as second-class citizens and fought valiantly to defend Pakistan in all the battles it has faced. The shuhadas of these battles are the pride of the locals, but their sacrifices are overshadowed by the denial of their constitutional rights, and GB continues to be an alien land without defined status — which technically makes its residents stateless. Without parliamentary representation, this area has been governed through a series of presidential decrees relegating it to the status of a colony.
Ignoring the bureaucratic narrative which had for so long denied the rights of GB by artificially yoking its fate to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, in 2009, the PPP government boldly granted powers on some key local subjects, providing some semblance of province-hood to the region. This limited empowerment kindled hope for the ultimate integration of GB as a province, thus reviving the demand for integration, paving the way for political dialogue between the local leadership and the federation and forcing the succeeding PML-N government to listen to the demands of GB residents.
Yet another committee was established, protracting the sufferings of Gilgit-Baltistan’s people.
The PML-N government established a committee under former foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz to examine the issue. The body thoroughly and painstakingly examined the status of GB — with unprecedented empathy for these Pakistanis on periphery, including the purported impact of decoupling GB from the Kashmir issue. For the first time, this committee presented concrete proposals to resolve this issue and proposed provisional provincial status for GB, subject to a final settlement through a plebiscite for determination of the position of Kashmir. However, the PML-N government did not accept these recommendations and instead issued an order in 2018 that was then challenged in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court examined all the documents produced before it, according due weightage to the robust findings of the Sartaj Aziz committee. Having expressed its concerns about the status of the Kashmir and the official stance of the government, the apex court endorsed the findings of the committee and observed, “[A]t the same time we have also been comforted by the fact that the committee itself was acutely aware of the sensitivities of the issue before it and provided recommendations only after considering their implications if any on the status of Kashmir dispute.”
The Supreme Court gave a very clear verdict with timelines that the proposed order of the GB Governance Reforms, 2019, submitted by the federation in their response to the petition, was to be forthwith promulgated and in any case within a fortnight thereof. This draft order categorically states that the federal government intended to confer provisional provincial status to GB subject to the decision of the plebiscite to be conducted under the United Nations resolutions with all privileges provided by the Constitution.
With the clearly expressed intention of giving provisional status of a province to GB, the question of impact on Kashmir thus stands settled, although this specific aspect was deferred on the excuse of lack of a two-thirds majority in parliament for the required constitutional amendment. Apart from this, part of the 2019 draft order can be implemented as ordered by the Supreme Court. The government, ignoring the verdict, took the case before a high-level conference — and yet another committee was established to examine the resolved matter of purported impact on the Kashmir issue. This procrastination has given rise to discontent and anger among the GB youth, who are increasingly frustrated by these repeated U-turns for scuttling acceptable arrangements to serve a dubious agenda.
Before the formation of this committee, the delay was, in any case, fomenting serious unrest — with hostile elements using it as leverage to create chaos. It was due to the remarkable intervention and establishing of rapport with the locals by the present military leadership in GB that general agitation was averted. This was achieved by publicly acknowledging the patriotism and commitment of the local people for Pakistan, although the goodwill generated thus is likely to be lain to waste after the recent development of establishing another committee, which will be seen as a mendacious act by the government to thwart resolution of the issue.
Slowly, GB’s disillusioned residents have moved from the narrative of integration to that of disputed territory status to radically demanding self-rule in line with UN resolutions. This can precipitate a very dangerous trend contrary to the interests of Pakistan, also giving rise to negative consequences for CPEC, of which GB is an integral part.
It is time to address this fundamental issue before we end up with the unsavoury choice of dealing with a hostile and resentful population beguiled by enemies in the name of nationalism within this sensitive area. Such nefarious attempts have already been thwarted by our security agencies, but the myopic political leadership continues to remain heedless to the imminent threat, and its continuing procrastination is leading GB to a constitutional cul-de-sac that can push it towards a state of chaos.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, June 10th, 2019