Empowering Gilgit-Baltistan

Published June 17, 2024
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

THE Gilgit-Baltistan region, the neglected mountainous expanse within the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, has recently risen to prominence.

Previously perceived as a remote liability and officially referred to as the Northern Areas, it was a nameless region of Pakistan. Local Kashmiri leaders, deeming it a barren land and a financial burden, forsook its ownership. Thus, in the Karachi Agreement between Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and the government of Pakistan, the region was handed over to Pakistan unconditionally.

This set in motion an ad hoc governance arrangement under the control of a joint secretary of government of Pakistan. For the simple folk of the region, the presence of Pakistani officials and the fluttering Pakistani flag symbolised their merger with Pakistan; they were, oblivious to the reality that they possessed no constitutional rights, as a disputed territory governed through decrees by the government of Pakistan.

The people had merely exchanged one harsh ruler for a cadre of benign and slightly sympathetic overseers, who continued to operate under the legal and governance framework of the Dogra government. In a merciful turn of events, the 1973 PPP leader abolished the old legal structure, replacing it with Pakistani laws but preferred to govern through administrative decrees, instead of addressing the key issue of the settlement of the constitutional status that the Pakistan government controlled without the consent of the people in the “greater national interest”.

This charade persisted until a significant breakthrough in 2009, when the PPP again took a major step by recognising the region’s identity, naming it Gilgit-Baltistan, and establishing a legislative assembly with powers to legislate on a few subjects. The titles of chief minister and governor, modelled after other provinces and conferred upon the top political offices by decree, gave the region the semblance of a federating unit.

Successive governments have failed to consider the status of this region from a historical and legal perspective.

Meanwhile, the construction of the Karakoram Highway and the efforts of international NGOs exposed the people to the outside world. The youth received education, and the area now boasts the highest literacy rate of any region in Pakistan. This enlightenment sparked protests demanding the region’s merger with Pakistan and full constitutional rights. The persistent demands forced the hand of the succeeding PML-N government, which formed a committee under the late Sartaj Aziz. After thorough examination and consultations, he produced a report endorsing the people’s demands for an empowered and reformed legislature, executive, and judiciary.

An old petition for constitutional rights came before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The court accepted the Sartaj Aziz Report’s recommendations and directed the PML-N government to comply. Instead of implementing the order meaningfully, the PML-N introduced a new presidential decree in 2018, rolling back even the limited emp­owerment granted in the 2009 governance order.

This manoeuvre was not accepted, and the Supreme Court directed the incoming PTI government to establish a new legal framework in line with the court judgement, ensuring the protection of the people’s constitutional rights. The new government drafted the 2019 order. The court’s full bench set aside the 2018 governance order and directed the government to implement the new order.

However, the government, realising belatedly that the new law would curtail their unbridled power, filed a revision petition against this judgement and frustrated a historic moment for true liberation of the region.

In the meantime, considering a petition regarding appointments to the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Supreme Court issued an order stating that “no further appointments in the Chief Court or the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan shall be made until further orders” (March 1, 2023). This order has rendered the judicial system of the region dysfunctional, creating a legal void. Important cases cannot be heard by any judicial forum.

Unfortunately, the superior judiciary of Pakistan, which had previously issued landmark judgements for granting constitutional rights, has not ensured the implementation of these historic rulings, resulting in devastating consequences for the region. What is needed is a fraction of the attention given to demolishing the Nasla Tower.

When we analyse the governance issues of this region objectively, it becomes clear that the key players are all complicit in the ongoing tragic drama that unfolds in real life. Successive governments have failed to consider the status of this region from a historical and legal perspective. Instead, they have entertained proposals like the Chenab formula, based on treaties between the British and the Sikh/Dogra rulers, which were already rescinded under the Indian Independence Act of 1947.

Despite the locals’ clear and unequivocal desire to join Pakistan, the state continues to reject their demand for merger, even conditionally. Mean­while, our adversary consistently and blatantly clai­­ms this region as an integral part of their territory.

National mainstream parties prioritise their national political agendas over local interests, leading to mismanagement and an unsustainable administrative structure. The creation of 10 small districts for a population of less than two million has hindered the growth of local government institutions and drained resources that should be allocated to education, health, and social services. As if this were not enough, the current federal government is considering the creation of additional revenue districts, perpetuating this reckless administrative engineering. To sustain this administrative anomaly, they may then resort to “taxation without representation”.

Local political leaders continue to be subservient to the national party leadership or seek patronage from agencies. They make decisions blindly under external direction, bypassing due process. This strategically sensitive region now faces a series of crises, pushing it to the brink. To address these recurring crises and resultant protests, the government is forced to take flawed decisions aimed only at placating the protesters and buying time, which is fast running out. The region risks descending into uncontrollable chaos with potentially tragic outcomes for its people.

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

Published in Dawn, June 17th, 2024

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