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Gilgit-Baltistan: In two minds

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Every few years, the debate is repeated without any definitive conclusion: is Gilgit-Baltistan constitutionally part of Pakistan or not?

For the people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), there are two independence days every year: August 14, with the rest of Pakistan; and November 1, when they first found freedom.

There is permanent confusion in GB, brought about by keeping the territory and its populace in a constitutional limbo regarding their status in the federation: is GB part of Pakistan or is it just a disputed territory?

GB’s modern history can be traced back to the 19th century. In 1846, after many wars and much bloodshed, GB was incorporated into the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir by the Dogras. GB comprised several independent princely states, and all of them now started paying revenue and taxes to the Dogra Raj. The Dogras had an army for the region too, called the Gilgit Scouts.

The Dogra Raj continued for a century, but 1947 spelt upheaval in South Asia and GB was not spared either. With two sovereign states being carved out of united India, GB found itself neither part of India nor part of Pakistan. Even though the Dogras still maintained control over GB after August 1947, their influence was on the wane.

The Dogras were dealt a final blow when a local commander of the Gilgit Scouts, a man named Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan, led a successful rebellion against the Dogra Raj. A government was formed thereafter, for the new Republic of Gilgit, whose president was Shah Raees Khan. Colonel Khan meanwhile became the chief of the Gilgit Scouts.

The new republic could only maintain itself for 16 days. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of Pakistan, was then approached and requested permission for Gilgit to join the Pakistan federation. This was an unconditional offer, which was duly accepted by Jinnah. Pakistan sent a political agent to Gilgit Agency, a man named Sardar Alam Khan, while the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was imposed as the law of the land. Even though the princely states stayed intact, Pakistan had taken over administrative control of Gilgit.

But while the people of Gilgit expected this accession to mean they were now citizens of Pakistan, this wasn’t entirely the case.

Ever since its accession to Pakistan, Gilgit’s fortunes became intertwined with those of Kashmir, even though the matters differed qualitatively. Gilgit’s was a straightforward case, having joined the Pakistani federation of its accord and without any conditions. Kashmir, meanwhile, was at the centre of a controversy over which country it was actually a part of, and whether Azad Kashmir was a legitimate territorial entity.

As the matter of Kashmir went to the United Nations in 1948 for resolution, so did the matter of Gilgit.

It was claimed by Pakistani authorities at the time that Gilgit, like Kashmir, was a disputed territory. Since both India and Pakistan were asking for an UN-conducted plebiscite in disputed areas, their calculation was that Gilgit’s people would vote in support of Pakistan and thus, swell the vote in favour of Pakistan. In one move, therefore, Kashmir and Gilgit would officially be part of Pakistan.

The UN advised both India and Pakistan to remove their armies from all disputed territories so that an UN-supervised referendum could take place. Neither country was prepared to let go of territories under their control, and the matter went into cold storage.

On April 28, 1949, officials of the Pakistan government met with those of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) government to ink the Karachi Agreement. Under this accord, it was agreed that the affairs of Gilgit would now be run by the government of Pakistan rather than the AJK government. A separate ministry was created by the Pakistan government too; the federal ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas was to run Gilgit and adjoining areas. No leader from Gilgit was included in this agreement, and a handover of power took place without the consent of the people of Gilgit.

Matters continued in the same vein till 1970 when a single administrative unit was carved out of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan region, and the former princely states of Hunza and Nagar.

In 1972, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited the area and promptly announced the abolition of all princely states. A representative body was formed, named the Northern Areas Advisory Council. This was an 18-member body that was chosen through direct elections and was to be headed by a commissioner.

When General Ziaul Haq assumed power, he promised representation for the Northern Areas in his Majlis-i-Shoora. But all talk came to nought, as only two members could be sent to the Shoora from the Northern Areas, and that too as observers / ex-officio members.

In 1988, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto again made changes to the laws governing the Northern Areas. A new body, called the Northern Areas Council, was duly formed. In her second tenure, Benazir introduced the Legal Framework Order (LFO)-1994, which turned the Northern Areas Council into the Northern Areas Legislative Council. The leader of the house of this body was the deputy chief executive, while the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas served as chief executive.

The Northern Areas Legislative Council only had limited legislative powers. Even though it was handed 49 subjects, all of these were local governance decisions: local taxes, irrigation, and out-of-court settlements, among others. More substantive powers arrived, ironically, with a dictator.

In 1999, as General Pervez Musharraf was settling in, the Northern Areas were seeing yet another legislative assembly complete its term. In fact, irrespective of political developments in mainland Pakistan, democratic processes remained intact in the Northern Areas. Another set of elections took place in 2004, after which Gen Musharraf visited the region in 2006.

As part of his changes, the General made sweeping changes to the LFO. Greater fiscal responsibility was handed to the Northern Areas government and a new post of principal accounting officer was created. The Northern Areas Legislative Council turned into the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly, with the number of subjects it exercised control over increasing to 61. The leader of the house was now the chief executive, while the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas became the chairman of the legislative assembly.

The most significant change made by Gen Musharraf was granting the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly the right to amend the LFO. In an irony of sorts, the new democratic government of Yousuf Raza Gilani withdrew these powers when they unveiled their package for the Northern Areas.

In fact, Gilani’s government — in an attempt to prop support for their party — sought to bring about wide-ranging political reforms. The rationale was that in order to win a mandate in the Northern Areas, these reforms needed to be instituted before the 2013 elections. This package was named the “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Government Order (GBESGO)-2009”. It came directly as a presidential order rather than an act of parliament.

Unveiling the reforms package on September 8, 2009, Prime Minister Gilani did away with the term “Northern Areas” and replaced it with “Gilgit-Baltistan.” This was a long-standing demand of the people since northern areas merely denote a direction rather than describe a people or their land. Moreover, the region’s tourist economy was being shrunk due to its location being confused with terror-infested Fata. A change of name thus served to rebuild the image of the region too.

Under the new law, the chief executive was now the chief minister, while there was also provision for a federally-appointed governor. Advisors in the legislative assembly were now ministers.

The GB Council has now comprised 15 members, six of whom were elected from the GB Legislative Assembly while the rest were elected members from Pakistani assemblies. The prime minister was the council chairman, while the minister of Kashmir Affairs was the deputy chairman. Meetings of this body were to be mostly held in Islamabad. The GB Council was to serve as the upper house of parliament; legislation pertaining to tourism, minerals, forests, as well as water and power all rested with the Council.

Despite these changes, reservations remained among the local GB populace over what they perceived to be a skewed balance of power. Not only was the right to amend the LFO taken away from them, for example, but the Council was handed greater powers than the GB Legislative Assembly and most important decisions were to be made by them. But this body was dominated by federal representatives rather than local ones, many of their agendas were not to benefit the local populace but to maintain their control over governance.

The central issue for the populace of Gilgit-Baltistan remained the same: is their area officially part of Pakistan and are they now legitimate Pakistani citizens?

In unveiling the new laws, PM Gilani had used the word “autonomy” for GB, but in truth, GB is still a disputed territory. Even as the Gilani government started discussions to frame the new law, the advice they sought was from the ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, rather than local GB representatives.

For the people of GB, it was clear that the ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas would not provide any advice that would compromise its hold over power in GB. The ministry has been used directly or indirectly to curtail people’s rights in GB; the status quo did not change despite Gilani’s new laws. GB still cannot claim a share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, for example.

Then there is the question of whether GB laws are applicable in Pakistani courts. Last year, an anti-terrorism court in GB sentenced a media mogul to 26 years in prison in a case pertaining to blasphemy. But the decision could not be implemented because GB law had no jurisdiction in Pakistan.

Amidst such confusion, peaks such as K-2 or heroes such as Lalik Jan Shaheed (Nishan-i-Haider) are claimed as Pakistani even though they are from GB. Local wisdom dictates that when it suits Pakistan, GB is a formal part of the country; and when it suits Pakistan to show GB as a disputed territory, it is shown as that.

This year too, the people of GB will once again celebrate two independence days — one for their homeland and the other for a country that refuses to fully accept them.

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