EVEN after six decades, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan continue to suffer in constitutional limbo despite their unconditional accession to Pakistan.

In spite of efforts to integrate with Pakistan, the people of the region have been repeatedly ignored and deprived of their fundamental rights such as the right to vote, representation in the National Assembly and Senate etc.

Until the pronouncement of the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946, Dogra Raj prevailed in Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir. When the princely states were given the autonomy to accede to either Pakistan or India, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, after liberation from Dogra oppression, acceded to the nascent Pakistani state. In recognition of this, constitutional recognition by the Pakistani state was promised, which remains a pipedream.

The Foreign Office decisively linked the then Northern Areas with Kashmir to win the support of the people in case of a plebiscite on Kashmir. The people of the region have since been bearing the brunt of this flawed policy and resultantly, the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan has been in limbo.

In 1949, the Karachi Agreement was signed between the Government of Pakistan and representatives of Azad Kashmir and the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference to ratify administrative control of Pakistan over Gilgit-Baltistan without the consent of any representative body from the area. Such forces, in connivance with the establishment, have been actively touting Gilgit-Baltistan as a part of Kashmir, which is wrong.

The only thing common between the two is that both remained under Dogra Raj for a period. It, therefore, seems illogical to link the fate of the people of Gilgit-Balistan with the Kashmir issue. Veteran Indian politician Dr Karan Singh — son of the former maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir — publicly apologised to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for the forcible occupation of the region by his ancestors. He said that the governments of Pakistan, India and Kashmir must acknowledge that Gilgit-Baltistan is not part of Kashmir and their reunification is not possible.

The rajgeeri system remained in vogue in Gilgit-Baltistan until 1974, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto completely abolished the old order and brought the region under Pakistani administration; the local government system was also thus introduced in the region. Soon development projects, such as the Karakoram Highway, were initiated to facilitate the people of Gilgit-Baltistan’s travel and trade links with the rest of Pakistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari announced the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, which has considerably elevated the status of Gilgit-Baltistan. Previously, Gilgit-Baltistan was virtually administered by the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs. A section officer in the ministry exercised more power than the region’s elected representatives.

Until the announcement of the 2009 order, the woes of the region were barely heard at any forum. With the exception of a few human rights organisations and the local media, others turned a deaf ear to the worries of Gilgit-Baltistan. Yet despite being deprived of their constitutional, political and economic rights, the people of the region have been tirelessly struggling for a permanent status inside Pakistan.

Similarly, administrative problems have been accompanied by poor economic planning by the federation for decades, which has resulted in an underdeveloped economy. Gilgit-Baltistan has a lot of potential in minerals, forestry, gemstones, energy, tourism, agriculture, livestock, human resource development, small and medium enterprises, the social sector etc.

Steps should be taken to improve the economy of the region by ensuring availability of improved infrastructure, energy, skilled labour force and enhanced means of communication to attract private enterprises to invest in the region. Fruit-processing zones should be established in Gilgit-Baltistan which would contribute to exports. Policies should be formulated to industrialise the region. These will ultimately benefit not only local people but will earn revenue for the national exchequer.

The security situation in Gilgit-Baltistan also depicts a gloomy picture. Till the late 1970s the people of the region lived in peace and saw no bloodshed until Gen Ziaul Haq usurped power. Till then people from all sects lived in harmony and were closely integrated with each other. However, communal violence in 1988 laid the foundation of sectarianism in the region.

It is alleged that Shias draw influence from Iran while Sunnis enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia. The military establishment is also accused of covertly supporting radical elements aimed at disrupting peace in the region. It is high time both factions sat together to resolve their differences by engaging in peaceful dialogue. At the same time the democratic government should take concrete steps to bring any perpetrators involved in derailing the security situation in Gilgit-Baltistan to book.

The military establishment should restrict its influence to securing the territorial borders of the region. Political parties in Gilgit-Baltistan ought to engage the people in the political process to further democracy. History proves that whenever democracy is derailed, the resultant political vacuum is filled by religious zealots who leave no opportunity to throw the region into the chasm of sectarian hatred.

As for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, they should show more tolerance towards the faiths of their fellow citizens of other sects to avoid fostering sectarian extremism. Only then can one hope to revive peace in the region.

Finally, the current democratic dispensation should immediately take concrete steps for granting constitutional recognition and provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan to bring the region out of the political limbo in which it has been entangled since its unconditional accession.

The writer is a resident of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Syedansaar@gmail.com

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