The long-standing and continuing political alienation of Gilgit-Baltistan has been the prime cause for growing discontent among the local populace in this Federally Administered region (formerly referred to as Northern Areas) of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In an apparent bid to resolve the politico-constitutional impasse of the region, Pakistan’s federal government unanimously approved and passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance in 2009.
This ad hoc ordinance promulgated by President Asif Ali Zardari paved way for alterations in terms of nomenclature, with Northern Areas being referred to as Gilgit-Baltistan in the future. The Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) was replaced by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA), the region’s elected legislature, with no tangible powers at hand. The Council, whose chairman is the Prime Minister of Pakistan and members are appointees of the government wield the real authority. While the “self-governance reforms package” announced the grant of “full internal political autonomy” to the region, it lacked parliamentary backing. Although provision for a local administration headed by a Chief Minister has been made, both the Chief Minister and the Legislative Assembly essentially essay the role of being rubber stamps. Besides, the executive authority continues to rest with the federal agencies — in form of the governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, appointed by the President of Pakistan, based on the advice of the Prime Minister.
More significantly, the ordinance has failed to resolve the politico-constitutional stalemate of the region. It needs to be recalled here that Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir and not a part of Pakistan. Later, in September 1994, the Supreme Court held that since the Gilgit-Baltistan region was not part of Pakistan, the judicial matters pertaining to it were considered to be outside the purview of the Pakistani courts. This resulted in people belonging to Gilgit-Baltistan being denied the right to appeal or for that matter, even access to Pakistan’s apex court. The new judicial structure has created chief courts; however, the decision of appointing judges continues to rest with the chairman of the Council, i.e., the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This has led to a palpable sense of cynicism among the native population vis-à-vis denial of their fundamental right to seek justice.
In fact, the constitutional deadlock of the region seems to be becoming interminable, with Pakistan’s Constitution too, not including the formerly known Northern Areas as part of Pakistan. The population of Gilgit-Baltistan does not possess voting rights during the national and provincial elections in Pakistan, and resultantly has no representation in Pakistan’s National Assembly or even the Council of Ministers.
It needs to be mentioned here that until 1994, Gilgit-Baltistan did not even have an elected assembly or municipal body. It was in the same year that former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto promulgated the Northern Areas Governance Order. This was rechristened as the Legal Framework Order in 2007 by former President Pervez Musharraf. The ordinances in question here essentially remain ad hoc in nature, not provided for with any constitutional cover.
Governance in Gilgit-Baltistan has failed to offer a sense of belonging to the local population, rather, it only mirrors political subjugation. There is a serious paucity in terms of employment opportunities, with more than half the region’s population living below the poverty line. The locals require an exit permit for moving out of the area, coupled with a ban on indigenous languages and scripts of Gilgit-Baltistan in the educational institutions, branding them as profane. Following construction of the Karakoram Highway in 1978, Pakistan had set up a customs post at Sost, south of the Khunjerab Pass leading from China. The local population sternly resented this move and adopted the slogan “no taxation without representation”.
The 2009 ordinance appears to be Islamabad’s latest administrative hammer to buttress its control over the strategic hotspot. During the process of drafting the ordinance, inputs from the local population were not invited. Rejection of basic and fundamental socio-political rights and modicum of actual political authority has accumulated over a period of time and has given rise to acute sectarian strife in the region.
Revamped “self-governance” submitted by Pakistan for Gilgit-Baltistan cannot serve as an alternative political panacea unless issues such as constitutional abandonment and political non-representation are addressed by Pakistan’s decision-making elite. Only by virtue of providing a protective layer to the ethnic and religious composition of the region, shall true self-governance achieve meaning.
This is the second part of a continuing series focusing on various politico-strategic facets of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Source: The Sunday Guardian