India’s Prime Minister Modi and his government have started making pointed noises about Gilgit-Baltistan. They are not happy about the elections to be held there next week and have termed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through the region as unacceptable. Like previous Indian governments, Modi’s saffron brigade is distorting history to claim Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of India and this cynical posturing for hegemony is a fleeting nuisance that doesn’t deserve our attention. When it comes to Gilgit-Baltistan, the real challenge lies well within our home.

Since it went back on its commitment to a plebiscite under the UN, the Indian stance on Jammu & Kashmir is both illegal and indefensible. Besides, given the unending reign of repression and brutality in the Indian Occupied Kashmir, it’s a joke to hear Modi talk about the political rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. His love for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is clearly hypocritical and also inconsequential. What should concern us is the fact that our governments have done nothing to set the record straight on Gilgit-Baltistan, or even to give full citizenship rights to its people. It’s a task that must not be delayed any further.

There are facts regarding Gilgit-Baltistan that all of us should know. To begin with, it was not a part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir sold by the British to maharaja Gulab Singh. At the time of Independence, its principalities had been forcibly occupied by the maharaja’s descendents and this occupation had no legal status. The local population in different parts of the region fought the occupying forces, won and pledged their allegiance to the newly created state of Pakistan. If it was unwise for the then government of Pakistan to drag the region of Gilgit-Baltistan into its dispute with India over the state of Jammu & Kashmir, a continuation of that policy by every successive government is downright shameful.

In his book Masla Kashmir Aur Gilgit-Baltistan, Qasim Naseem exposes the opportunistic thinking of our government officials responsible for handling the Kashmir dispute. Given the loyalty of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan, the region was lumped together with the disputed territory by these officials for solid votes in the UN plebiscite that India had agreed to at that time. This was unfair to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan even then. Today, when after decades the plebiscite is nowhere in sight, this amounts to punishing them for their loyalty. The earlier this historical blunder is corrected the better.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are not just votes to be counted in a plebiscite that is unlikely to take place anytime soon. We cannot postpone the granting of full citizenship rights to them until that happens. If the restoration of the status of Gilgit-Baltistan as a region independent of the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir in international forums is problematic after so many years, this distinction should be clear in the muddled minds of our policy-makers at least. Ironically, though they are supposed to be on the same boat according to the official logic, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been denied even those rights given to the people in Azad Kashmir.

Actually, the federation of Pakistan needs a thorough overhaul. This could begin by integrating special status regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and FATA in the federation as provinces, giving the people living there the same political rights as those enjoyed by people living in the existing provinces. Though the provinces themselves, including the new ones proposed, need to be rationalized and cut down to a size that makes decentralization and democratic governance possible, that’s a separate discussion. The point here is that all citizens of Pakistan must have the same rights. Even if some of them are supposed to cast a vote in the elusive plebiscite, their rights should not be denied to them until it takes place.

This is not about justice alone, though that should be enough to move on this count. Not granting full citizenship rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is not only a travesty of justice; it is also breeding alienation among its people. They are still loyal to Pakistan after all these years of being denied their rights, but can we blame them if they feel that they are being discriminated against. With no voice in the parliament, a chief minister in Gilgit who works under a federal minister and all major decisions about their lives being taken in Islamabad, what options do they have to be heard?

Who will represent the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in the parliamentary committee that is to oversee the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? Will they have a say in how it is developed in their region? Will they get their fair share from the boons that the government hopes to reap from the project? While the parties from smaller provinces have forced the government to take their concerns regarding the CPEC into account, who will speak for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan? And from which forum?

The Gilgit-Baltistan assembly with its limited authority has been completely ineffective in articulating the interests of the people it represents and its elitist legislators are like their counterparts elsewhere in the country. They have found it opportune to dance to the tunes of their political bosses in Islamabad and convenient not to raise issues close to the heart of their constituents for the fear of upsetting those who patronize them. They are content with their petty pieces of the power pie. Even when they raise the issue, they do it without conviction.

The wondrous beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan is unmatched in the world and its unpolluted people are perhaps the most loyal citizens of Pakistan. It is a region rich in resources and it links us with China, our most important neighbor. It doesn’t make sense to mistreat it so. Some friends think that it should be given a provincial-plus status that goes beyond full citizenship rights and includes special privileges and I agree with them. It is the least we can do to atone for our discriminatory policies towards the region and its people.