HARDLY any government can ignore Gilgit-Baltistan’s loud demand for integration with Pakistan. GB is a case study of a region denied its political rights for decades. Since independence from Kashmir’s Dogra regime, GB has waged a peaceful political struggle for its rights. First it was the war of liberation from despotic Dogra rule, and later the efforts to end the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) that the government of Pakistan imposed on GB.
Opposition against the FCR first surfaced in the mid-1950s. Formed in 1956, the Gilgit League demanded reforms and the abolishment of the FCR, but was banned in 1958 under martial law. In the 1960s, GB’s youth, who moved to other cities for work and education, established many political organisations and platforms to demand an end to the FCR and repressive feudal rule. Two local parties of a nationalist bent became instrumental in creating awareness among the people: the Gilgit-Baltistan-Ladakh Jamhoori Mahazand the Tanzeem-i-Millat. Both were banned by the authorities.
An incident in January 1971 in which a school principal was fired by the district commissioner for not promoting a non-local officer’s child triggered large-scale protests in Gilgit for the first time, with the Tanzeem taking the lead. The demonstrations turned into riots. Subsequently, the Tanzeem leadership was arrested and jailed. The awakening of 1971 did not go unaddressed by the government. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto became prime minister, he initiated reforms in GB. The FCR, feudal rule and the status of political agency were abolished. Bhutto also released the Tanzeem leaders, incorporating some of their demands in the reform process.
The credit of initiating reforms in GB certainly goes to the PPP. After Z.A. Bhutto it was Benazir Bhutto who first introduced party-based elections in the region in 1994. In 2009, a reform package, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, was promulgated by the PPP. Though the package fell short of expectations, it gave an identity to the region by changing its nomenclature and significantly stirred debate among locals about their political rights.
The people are expecting a provisional provincial status.
Since 2009, GB’s youth and civil society have been discussing, debating and creating awareness about GB’s political problems, constitutional status, its linkage with the Kashmir issue and possible legal alternatives to removing the hurdles to its integration. Several forums have been established and a new enlightened generation has emerged. On many issues, such as the Pakistan government’s decision to end wheat subsidy or the imposition of tax, the population has come forward together in prolonged protests irrespective of their ethnic, linguistic or religious affiliations. In a carefully worded 2015 resolution, GB’s assembly demanded that Islamabad integrate GB with Pakistan as a provisional province until the final settlement of the Kashmir conflict in light of the UN resolutions. Political maturity, awareness, the emergence of the educated class and a united stand appear to be some of the reasons behind pushing authorities towards finding solutions.
When the PML-N formed the government in GB in 2015, it constituted a committee which was headed by the then adviser to the prime minister on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz, and included experts on the law. It was given the task of reviewing the constitutional status of GB and giving suggestions for constitutional and administrative reforms, keeping in view the implications of those recommendations vis-à-vis the UN resolutions on Kashmir.
This high-powered committee gave a nod to granting GB provisional provincial status until the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute; representation in the National Assembly and Senate through constitutional amendments in Articles 51 and 59; and representation of GB in all constitutional bodies like the NFC, NEC, Irsa and others. Though these recommendations were hailed by the people, instead of incorporating them, the government framed and promulgated another executive order in 2018.
After the PPP and PML-N, it is now the PTI government that has announced a way out. The political and religious leaderships of GB and civil society are largely united in their demand for a provisional provincial status. It appears that the PTI leadership is planning to integrate GB as a fifth province. Hopes across GB are high, along with election fever. Any future solution that falls short of the people’s aspirations might stir opposition. Memories of the efforts put in by previous GB generations are still alive. In fact, their demands are much louder now.
The writer teaches in the social sciences and liberal arts department of IBA.
Published in Dawn, October 21st, 2020