By Afzal Ali Shigri
During the first year of its tenure, the PTI government has had little time to attend to the issues related to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Interest in the region diminished to the extent that even the case in the Supreme Court challenging a hastily drafted governance order promulgated by the previous PML-N government was not followed earnestly, with the incumbent government choosing to ignore the court verdict for repeal of this flawed legislation. However, mindful of the forthcoming election in GB and a week-long tour of Baltistan by the PPP leadership, the PTI scrambled to hold a workers’ convention in Gilgit, with its central leadership promising to settle outstanding issues faced by the citizens including the conferral of their long sought constitutional rights.
Addressing the workers’ convention, PTI Central Secretary General and MNA Amir Kiani said that the apex court’s verdict regarding GB people’s rights would be implemented in letter and spirit as they were the most patriotic citizens of the country. PTI GB president Syed Jaffar Shah proposed that GB should be declared a provisional province of Pakistan till the settlement of the Kashmir issue. Mr Shah, who is a former judge of the GB Supreme Appellate Court, further clarified that there is no legal hurdle to making GB a provisional province.
In view of the changed geo-strategic situation, Pakistan must rethink its approach to this crucial issue.
The demand of the people of GB, that the territory integrate fully with Pakistan as a province, dates back to 1947 when the local residents rose up against Dogra rule and declared their accession to the country. However this accession was not accepted by Pakistan as GB was a disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus for six decades following its attempted accession, the area was directly administered by the Pakistan government, and the people of the territory were denied participation in any representative institutions.
The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009 established for the first time a representative government and legislature, and while this measure was welcomed by the local population as a step in the right direction, it still fell far short of their aspirations for complete integration with Pakistan and constitutionally guaranteed autonomy at par with its other provinces. In a reflection of this popular demand, the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly adopted resolutions demanding provincial status, but in view of the official stance of the government, the demand was modified to seek provisional status of a province till the settlement of the Kashmir dispute according to the UN resolutions.
Under the pretext of enhancing empowerment of the local assembly, the PML-N government promulgated a new Gilgit-Baltistan Order in 2018 effectively reducing the autonomy of this region by vesting powers in the prime minister to legislate on 68 subjects, although the premier is neither elected by the locals nor answerable to them. By way of this promulgation, the local council which was vested with legislative powers was reduced to an advisory body. In doing so, the PML-N even disregarded the recommendations of the committee it had set up on the GB issue under Sartaj Aziz.
The legitimacy of this order was challenged, and the SC ordered its replacement with the proposed Order 2019 by the PTI government. Oddly enough, although the timeline for implementation of the SC directive has already expired, in what constitutes obvious violation of the specific direction of the honourable court, the federal government has not repealed it, and GB continues to be governed by an invalid legal instrument. Against the backdrop of this uncertainty and legal void, great change has transpired in India-held Kashmir with far-reaching implications for GB.
India’s decision to revoke the special constitutional status accorded to IHK and bifurcate Ladakh into a separate union territory has set in motion its nefarious, oft-stated plan to transform the demography of this disputed region. It is an act in open defiance of the UN and practically makes its resolutions irrelevant. This unilateral change in Kashmir’s 70-year-old disputed status quo presents grave challenges for Pakistan’s national security and foreign relations.
If it is not countered strongly, an emboldened India in its madness will try to stake its claim on Azad Jammu Kashmir and GB. The region is a source of vast glaciers feeding the Indus River system upon which Pakistan’s prosperity depends. GB has the added strategic importance of being the gateway for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. In view of the changed geo-strategic situation and its national interests, Pakistan must rethink and reset its GB policy by announcing urgent measures to counter India’s recent moves in Kashmir. It is important to remove any irritants in the existing opaque governance arrangements without further delay and provide a transparent governance structure based on the consent of the local assembly and a sound legal instrument establishing a strong linkage with the federation.
Proactive action is imperative to thwart any attempts by the cornered Indian establishment to stir discontent in this sensitive area and to divert attention from the brewing agitation in Kashmir and in Kargil, which also borders Pakistan. It is time to address the issue of self-rule for this region in line with the aspirations of the people of the region and the UN resolutions. The SC has already provided clear guidelines in its detailed landmark judgement on Jan 7, 2019 for provisionally giving representation in parliament subject to the settlement of the Kashmir dispute. According to this judgement, the flawed law of 2018 promulgated by the PML-N government is to be repealed and replaced by the draft already submitted by the PTI government in the SC. Implementation of the court’s judgement will address the issue considerably. Decisive action on this sensitive matter is needed, and the ballast of the SC judgement provides a sound legal foundation for structuring a new, legitimate governance arrangement within the parameters of the UN resolutions. Before doing so, the proposed law should be endorsed by the present elected assembly to obtain democratic sanction on this crucial issue.
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