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Gilgit Baltistan and People’s demands for autonomy & development

The Pakistan government appears inclined to make it a fifth province by conducting elections in the region. The aspirations of people for autonomy and growth, however, are still unheard of.

W

ith unequal sovereignty given to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit Baltistan (GB) in particular, the region is in a state of constitutional limbo.Gilgit Baltistan and People’s demands for autonomy & development

Pakistan’s constitution does not refer to either Gilgit Baltistan or Aazad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) as part of the territory of the state, but Gilgit Baltistan is depicted as Pakistani territory by the Survey of Pakistan.

Political leaders in GB, which is dominated by Shia, have demanded that either the region be integrated as the fifth province of Pakistan or be considered for actual autonomy. And a minority is calling for GB to be part of the AJK. But with nominal reforms, the Pakistani state has responded to these demands.

On November 15, 2020, elections were held in 23 of GB’s 24 constituencies. There is speculation that the government of Imran Khan plans to integrate occupied Gilgit Baltistan into Pakistan with the holding of elections, making it the fifth province. This stems from statements made by Ali Amin Gandapur, Pakistani Minister of Kashmir and GB Affairs, who was quoted as saying that the Khan government has decided to “elevate Gilgit-Baltistan with all constitutional rights, including its representation in the Senate and the National Assembly, to the status of a full-fledged province.” India has “rejected” the proposal by Pakistan to elevate the status of Gilgit Baltistan to a provisional province, slamming the polls as farcical and aiming to conceal the illegal occupation of its territory by Pakistan.

The current election round was the third in the region after reforms created a legislative assembly with very limited legislative powers in GB. The first elections held in 2009 were won by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), followed by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in 2015. When the PML-N government ended its five-year term earlier this year the government appointed former Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) Mir Afzal as Gilgit Baltistan’s chief caretaker minister.

There will be 33 representatives of the third Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). Gilgit, Hunza-Naga, Skardu, Astore, Diamir, Ghizer and Ghanche were the seven districts which held elections for 23 of the 24 constituencies. Skardu has the highest representation, with six constituencies. Six seats are reserved for women and three are reserved for technocrats and other members of the profession.

Unusual delays in the counting of votes caused large-scale protests across GB, with claims of vote-rigging and candidate charges that the results were delayed and manipulated by the local election commission. Imran Khan’s party is all set to enter the government with five of the six victorious independent candidates joining the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, alleges large-scale poll rigging, “We will tell people that in Gilgit Baltistan the slogan of Vote per daaka namanzoor is gaining momentum.” PML-N vice-president Maryam Nawaz said that by ‘rigging’ ‘bullying,’ and with the support of turncoats, PTI won the seats. For some constituencies, rigging accusations compelled vote recounts. There are reports that after protesters took to the streets in Gilgit, paramilitary reinforcements had to be called in.

On 9 September 2009, when then President Asif Ali Zardari signed the GB (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, the GBLA came into force for the first time. The order officially changed the name of the so-called ‘Northern Areas’ to Gilgit Baltistan and provided an elected chief minister for a 33-member legislative assembly. Any matters relating to foreign affairs, defence, internal security and fiscal plans of the Government of Pakistan and the actions of any judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal of Gilgit-Baltistan, with jurisdiction to make laws on 61 subjects, were prohibited from being addressed by the Assembly. The act also created the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan, to be the highest Court of Appeal in the country.

On November 1, after a mutiny in the Maharaja forces, Gilgit Baltistan celebrated its independence from Kashmir’s ruling Dogra family on an estimated 72,971 square km, and since 1948, Pakistan has had control over Gilgit Baltistan. Gilgit Baltistan, previously referred to as the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA), was divided from AJK in 1970 and never had any form of self-governance. While the region’s citizens aspired to have legislative powers in tune with Pakistan’s other provinces, their administration was always different.

The ‘Gilgit Baltistan (GB) Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009,’ which provided for a Legislative Assembly, was the first important step towards the political empowerment of the country. But on May 21, 2018, the subsequent Gilgit Baltistan order enforced by the government of Imran Khan withdrew whatever “negligible powers” were assigned to the region under the 2009 order. The order gave the prime minister more power, giving him final authority on legislation.

This act, which was designed to deprive the people of Gilgit Baltistan of their basic constitutional and political rights, was severely criticised by rights groups, and was called the ‘Gilgit Baltistan Emperor Order’ on social media. The order states, “The Prime Minister shall have the power to adopt an amendment to the existing legislation or to adopt any new legislation in force.” The prime minister, as Pakistan’s administrative head, does not have the power to legislate, nor does he have any such authority in the other four provinces. This extension of his position is fundamentally ultra-constitutional, provided that the people of Gilgit Baltistan do not have any representation in Pakistan’s federal legislature or any say in choosing the prime minister.

Gilgit Baltistan is recognised as part of the disputed territories by a UN Security Council Resolution. Yet Pakistan has followed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and promises great economic returns to the people of Gilgit Baltistan from the corridor that covers nearly 600 square kilometres of that territory. The orders of Gilgit Baltistan are intended to side-step any appeal of the citizens of the region for self-determination; with hardly any authority to legislate on key issues. The 2018 Gilgit Baltistan order is not a true compromise in any way. The Gilgit Baltistan Council in Islamabad, led by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was given all the real powers over all legislative affairs. The 2018 order, by which the powers of the Gilgit Baltistan Council were also taken away and it was given merely an advisory role, further limited this too.

While two decades have passed after the locals of Gilgit Baltistan submitted a petition to the Supreme Court of Pakistan, drawing attention to the political marginalisation of the area, it was only in 2015, when India raised objections to the CPEC passing through PoK, that the then PML-N government formed a committee in 2015 headed by the then National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz to look at Gilgit Baltistan’s constitutional future.The “disputed” categorisation of the region has acted as a trigger for the current regime to enforce the January 2019 Supreme Court judgement expressly restoring the 2018 Gilgit Baltistan order, suspended by the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan. By raising the quota of Pakistani civil servants to be posted there the judgement has paved the way for Islamabad to expand power over the Gilgit Baltistan administration, and even the judges of the apex court of Gilgit Baltistan must be drawn from among the retired judges in Pakistan.

Pakistan is trying to strengthen its claim to the territory by holding elections in GB, without answering the region’s demand for self-determination. Would Pakistan be handled at par with the other provinces if it is to be the fifth province of Pakistan, and would Pakistan accept that it remains a “disputed province” if not? The jurisdiction of the courts of GB remains limited to the region, limiting their authority. It leaves cases involving violations of the fundamental rights of the people of GB unchecked. By arresting citizens and censoring them if they share their political opinions, Schedule IV and the Anti-Terrorism Act are used to crush civil dissent.

This year in his November 1 address to the nation, Imran Khan spoke about the beauty of the majestic mountains of GB and its awe-inspiring scenery, in the midst of criticism from the opposition and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In his storey, Khan intentionally avoided discussing real problems and the lack of political freedoms plaguing the Gilgit Baltistan people.The narrative of his government attempts to provide the CPEC as the remedy for all that troubles Gilgit Baltistan, without any corresponding political progress.

The timing of this statement regarding Gilgit Baltistan and the interest in making it a fifth province is in line with the Chinese CPEC, the region’s starting point. The disputed legal status of the region is a bane for both Pakistan and China in effecting the CPEC.

As a stakeholder in the Kashmir conflict, Kashmir’s Pakistan-administered Prime Minister, Raja Farooq Haider, feels that merger of Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan as its province will frustrate the Kashmiri self-determination struggle. Former Pakistani ambassador Abdul Basit recently tweeted “My advice to Islamabad-think hard on Gilgit Baltistan,” a cautionary advice to Khan’s government. In reaction to what India did to IOK, a move taken would create avoidable controversies. Do not stir up the nest of the hornet and weaken the principled position of Pakistan in the dispute.

The text of the UN Security Council Resolutions on Kashmir, repeatedly endorsed by the Council and successive UN members, was accepted by both the Indian and Pakistani governments. For India, the Pakistani demilitarisation of the occupied territory is a requirement for the UN resolution to be implemented.

Although the decision to integrate Gilgit Baltistan as the fifth province of Pakistan has been announced, there is still a great deal of ambiguity about its future.Is it subject to any future plebiscites if it is ”disputed”, and if it is a fifth province, is its constitutional status on par with the rest of Pakistan?

From some news agency

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