ON Jan 17, 2019, the Supreme Court issued a landmark judgement on the legal status and constitutional rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. For the past 70 years, GB has been administered via ad hoc presidential decrees, the latest being the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018, issued by the outgoing PML-N set-up that diluted the already limited constitutional rights conferred on GB in 2009. In response to a challenge against the order, the court directed the federation to prepare a fresh draft for GB’s governance keeping in view the Sartaj Aziz committee report. This committee involved all key stakeholders. In compliance, the sitting government submitted the draft GB governance reform order, 2019.
The court had ordered that: i) the “proposed order … shall be forthwith promulgated by the president on the advice of the federal government in any case within a fortnight hereof. ii) No amendment shall be made to the order … except in terms of the procedure provided in Article 124 of the same nor shall it be repealed or substituted without the instrument amending, repealing or substituting … the same being placed before this court by the federation through an application that will be treated as a petition…. Nothing in this shall be construed to limit the jurisdiction conferred on this court by the proposed order itself, and iii) If the order so promulgated is repealed or substituted by an act of parliament the validity thereof, if challenged, shall be examined on the touchstone of the Constitution”.
The judgement essentially approved a draft prepared with the consensus of all stakeholders who participated in the deliberations of a high-powered committee constituted by the federation. However, the government took a U-turn and filed a review against the judgement on untenable grounds, saying GB residents voiced a desire to be governed through an act of parliament and not presidential order. A meeting was held with stakeholders including the GB government, which also reportedly endorsed this demand. The process of consultation embodied in this petition was unprecedented and violated all norms of consultations in a democracy, consisting largely of an in-house meeting aimed at frustrating the implementation of the verdict on a sensitive national matter.
A brief examination of the proposed amendments in the already approved draft reveals it comprises an attempt to disempower the people of GB and to remove the safeguard contained in the judgement for protecting their constitutional rights. Instead, it is aimed at controlling the governance machinery through legal machinations, a tool typically used by colonial powers and learnt by our babus, one which has found currency with an inept political leadership. The following summary of proposed amendments in the court verdict reflects the mindset of the present political leadership:
The PTI must correct its cavalier approach to GB.
The federation requested the court to delete the following sections of the verdict: the preamble of the proposed law which explains the stance of the federation and undertakes to give the provisional status of province to the area subject to the settlement of the Kashmir dispute, in line with a plebiscite outcome contained in the UN resolution; the subsection of Article 81 of the proposed law; Article 94 (2) that provides protection against any government executive order to ensure that the people’s rights are not violated; Article 103 (2) which gives the right of appeal before the Supreme Court against any action not falling under local laws; Article 124 of the draft order that exercises checks on arbitrary governance orders, thus providing protection by ensuring these are subject to a hearing under Article 184 (3) of the Constitution.
Local assembly elections in GB are due in November and the party in power in the federation is also fielding its candidates. Against a backdrop of intense political activity, the government has declared it will grant provincial status to GB. Considering the government’s revision petition, one might question this unexpected change of heart. Similar promises have been made by various leaders before, but when it comes to implementation, the government after cashing in on the benefits of its declarations fails to deliver.
PTI must immediately: withdraw its revision petition; promulgate the 2019 approved draft law; move a bill in parliament for constitutional amendments for granting the status of province with all powers, rights and responsibilities to GB.
Following through will result in big political gains for the PTI, otherwise there will be serious setbacks. Other political parties must refrain from impeding immediate implementation of these decisions as delay will be costly in the election. The PTI still has an opportunity to translate decisive action into an electoral win, provided it removes the stumbling blocks in the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2020