IT was only 24 years after Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) acceded unconditionally to Pakistan that the government in 1971-72, led by the PPP, deliberated on the issue of determining the area’s status. Unfortunately, despite there being no legal bar to integrating GB as a province in Pakistan, the status quo was maintained. However, a council was established, FCR withdrawn and the jagirdari system abolished.
In 1994, the PPP once again took up GB’s case and included elected members in the local council. The move towards a more democratic system of governance was a ray of hope for its people whose fate had appeared forever sealed due to the forcible linkage of GB with the resolution of the Kashmir issue.
In 1999, the Supreme Court, ruling on a petition by the local people, observed that they were “entitled to participate in the governance of the area and to have an independent judiciary to enforce, inter alia, the fundamental rights”. In 2009, the PPP government issued the GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order enabling 32 representatives to be elected to the GB Legislative Assembly along with a governor and chief minister and a distinct name for the region. Although this was major progress, the PPP government stopped short of declaring GB a province.
Meanwhile, a quiet revolution was underway through widening access to education in the region. Within a few decades, GB achieved the highest literacy rate in the country and its young generation transformed into aware and vocal youth with profound impact on the political landscape. Through social media, they successfully pressured the PML-N government to form a committee under Sartaj Aziz in 2015 to examine GB’s constitutional status.
GB voters can cut this Gordian knot.
Eighteen months later, the committee produced a comprehensive report, recommending that GB should be granted a provisional provincial status. However, misguided by vested interests, the PML-N issued the GB Order 2018 under the guise of reforms. This order violated the Supreme Court judgement and negated the recommendation of its own committee, diluting the powers handed over to the local government in 2009 and bizarrely concentrating powers in the person of the prime minister, an individual neither elected by nor accountable to this area. The Supreme Court set aside the order, and a new draft order of 2019 was submitted by the PTI government which it was directed to implement. However, as usual, the PTI reneged on its commitment and filed a review petition in the SC.
The forthcoming elections for the local Legislative Assembly present GB voters with a unique opportunity to assess the past role of the three major parties fielding their candidates. The discussion so far identifies their respective approaches to this important issue and their contributions to addressing it. Their manifestos (summarised below) offer further insights.
— The PML-N’s apathy is apparent from the fact that with regard to GB it has written one sentence, oddly claiming the contentious GB Order 2018 as an achievement.
— While the PPP was unable to fulfil the obligation to provide self-rule, it admittedly did consider the issue in all seriousness and took important decisions through phased empowerment but it still shies away from giving provincial status with representation in parliament.
— GB had great expectations from the PTI but the party fell short by a large measure during the court hearing of the GB case. In addition to an absence of interest in and total apathy towards GB residents, the PTI presented a confused response on behalf of the federation before the Supreme Court. Instead of implementing the judgement, it filed a revision petition to dilute regional empowerment enshrined in the ruling. Such misapprehension of and indifference towards the locals’ constitutional rights is reflected in the PTI’s manifesto that routinely talks of autonomy, economic development and share in CPEC while using budget cuts to repudiate even these promises.
Only the voters can cut this Gordian knot by using their votes to support only the party that unequivocally commits to merging GB provisionally as a province. Once GB is empowered with representation in parliament, the rest will follow. However, if the petty interests of constituency politics prevail, this opportunity will be lost with serious ramifications for the region against the backdrop of emerging geopolitical development in GB and a conscious, educated and agitated young population.
The federation should not take GB residents’ unwavering commitment for granted by testing the patience of the youth. They cannot be lulled into compliance through promises of development anymore. Only the formal acceptance of GB’s pending unconditional offer of accession as a federating unit of Pakistan with representation in parliament will assuage its youth.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, August 16th, 2020