Last month’s Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018, presented by the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to the GB legislative assembly, was anything but “an improvement” on the Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 that it was touted as.
Little wonder then that it was met with opposition tearing it down and a protest outside the assembly that had be quelled with the use of force.
The 2009 ordinance was historic in that it finally recognised the region by its name ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ and not the criminally lazy and detached ‘Northern Areas’ that it had been known before then. The legislative assembly was set up then as well, which again was a significant step forward.
This is why locals largely bought the ordinance, despite its many limitations, because it was indeed a step forward following decades of disregard. However, what the government presented nine years later to the locals was not only unacceptable it demonstrated shambolic lack of awareness vis-à-vis the ground realities in the region.
The GB Order originates in Beijing sharing its concerns about the disputed status of GB as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes though it. This prompted a discussion in 2015 to mainstream GB as Pakistan’s fifth province, with a nine-member constitutional committee dedicated to working on it.
The only issue with GB’s mainstreaming – from the Karachi Agreement of 1949 to this year’s ordinance – is the fact that it is a part of the Kashmir dispute with both Pakistan and India claiming the state of Jammu & Kashmir in its entirety, which at the time included Gilgit-Baltistan as well.
The constitutional committee too has advised against formally recognising GB as the fifth province, or under the constitutional jurisdiction of Pakistan, for it would be “damaging for the Kashmir cause”. This sentiment is echoed by the separatists in the Indian-administered Kashmir as well.
And yet, despite countless legal specialists confirming otherwise, no one in Islamabad sought to grant basic human rights to the citizens of GB by making their merger with the Pakistani constitution conditional to the future solution of the Kashmir dispute.
The greatest irony here is that this is precisely what both Pakistan and India have ensured in their respective administered sections of Kashmir.
Why couldn’t Pakistan grant similar rights to the people of Gilgit Baltistan that have been given to Azad Kashmir? That is one of the questions that the locals in GB are asking amidst region-wide protests.
The people of GB feel hard done by since the Karachi Agreement, where their future was decided by a group which did not have any representation from Gilgit-Baltistan.
Now after decades of failure to recognise the locals of the region, and their basic human rights, the government forwarded a set of laws that would keep GB subservient to the Prime Minister’s will – as a parting gift of the previous government.
With the GB legislative assembly being subjected to him, and any and every law passed for the region needing the premier’s sanction, the GB Order clearly gives veto power to the PM, ensuring that the people of the region do not have any control over their own resources.
That, at the end of the day, is all the people of GB are looking for. If not complete mainstreaming like the four provinces of Pakistan, or autonomy like Azad Kashmir, the locals want a legislative assembly that actually has the power to decide the fate of the citizens that elect it.
For, if token representation is all that is being put on offer, the ‘Northern Areas’ was a better name for Gilgit-Baltistan, because it at least did not come with a façade of self-rule.
The writer is a Lahore-based journalist.