GILGIT-BALTISTAN is a simmering cauldron of discontent. The continued deprivation of political, economic and human rights is driving the people of this strategic northern end of Pakistan to desperation. They have been fighting for their rights not just since 1947, when they won liberation from Dogra rule, but since Dogra occupation of 1848.

A brief review of history will be in order to understand the current hostile attitude of the people towards the current political set-up in Gilgit-Baltistan. The British left the Gilgit Agency on July 31, 1947, two weeks before the independence of the subcontinent. On October 27, 1947 the people of Gilgit-Baltistan defeated the forces of Gansara Singh (Dogra Raj) and achieved independence to celebrate their own 'Yaum-e-Azadi' on November 1 and founded a new country 'Islamic Republic of Gilgit'.

However, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan wanted to be part of the newly-born Pakistan. During the transitional period the 'Islamic Republic of Gilgit' approached the founder of Pakistan, Quid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah with a plea to join Pakistan. As a corollary, on November 16, 1947 Pakistan established its administration in the area. But until today the region has not become the legal and political part of Pakistan. Many people in the region think that their efforts and sacrifices of their ancestors have gone waste.

The result is that during recent years opposition groups in the region have boycotted the 'youm-i-Azadi' celebrations since they think that they are now under the colonial rule of Pakistani Administration. Nothing has changed during the British, Kashmiri and Pakistani rule. The Pakistani administration first ruled through the local Mirs and Rajas but when people turned against them the process of reforms began under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime, which did away with oppressive systems of Begar, Hukumi Kharid, Rajigi, ending Miri systems and restoring people's human rights. The most revered change was considered to be the abolition of Miri system (A kind of feudal system). After the reforms of 1974 Gilgit-Baltistan was at the verge of becoming a fifth province of Pakistan. However, the coup by General Zial-ul-Haq stopped the process of reforms in the region. But since 1980s with the end of Zia's martial law, the political movement has started again and its momentum is getting stronger every day.

From the beginning, none of the Pakistani governments has taken any significant step to restore the true democratic and basic human rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. In its report of 1995, American State Department states that, “the political status of the Northern Areas — Hunza, Gilgit, and Baltistan — is not resolved... The area is administered by an appointed civil servant. While there is an elected Northern Areas Council, this body serves in an advisory capacity to the Federal Government and has no authority to change laws or raise and spend revenue”.

The International Crisis Group stated in its report that “Almost six decades after Pakistan's independence, the constitutional status of the Federally Administered Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan), once part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and now under Pakistani control, remains undetermined, with political autonomy a distant dream. The region's inhabitants are embittered by Islamabad's unwillingness to devolve powers in real terms to its elected representatives, and a nationalist movement, which seeks independence, is gaining ground. The rise of sectarian extremism is an alarming consequence of this denial of basic political rights”.

A provocative sense of nationalism is getting stronger in Gilgit-Baltistan. The very same people who had an unflinching loyalty towards the state of Pakistan and were considering themselves as Pakistanis are now talking about separation, freedom and a separate nation of Gilgit-Baltistan. The rhetoric of Muslim unity is no longer in vogue.

This should be a highly alarming situation for the government of Pakistan which must take immediate steps to address the genuine grievances of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in its own interests.

The idea of self-governance, which motivated the people of this region for independence from Dogra Raj, now has turned against Pakistan. Many people say that they have sacrificed their lives for the protection and security of Pakistan in all the three wars with India, at Siachin, Kargil and other fronts and their Jawans are continuously sacrificing their lives, and in the recent war of Kargil, thousands of people have died but in return they got nothing other than repression and deprivation of fundamental human rights.

In recent months, again there has been talk about a constitutional package for Gilgit-Baltistan by the present government. People have this time high expectation of a genuine package under which the true political, legislative and administrative power should be transferred to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, rather than playing another tactic to keep the powers with Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs (KANA) in Islamabad.

It is in the interest of both Pakistan and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to immediately give the rights of self-rule to the people of this area, establish an assembly, reform the administration and justice departments where the elected Assembly of the Gilgit-Baltistan should be the supreme authority. This assembly should be responsible for all legislative and executive matters of the area, except currency, foreign affairs and defence could be handled by Pakistan.

Finally, a policy approach towards the political, economic, human rights based on liberty, justice, with minimum interference of the government of Pakistan can secure loyalty and trust of the people.

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