Islamabad (Dawn): WITHIN a month of their oath-taking, the newly elected members of the Legislative Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) adopted a resolution demanding the granting of full constitutional rights to the people of their region. The assembly also passed a similar resolution on Sept 29, 2014.
In the earlier resolution, the demand for the integration of GB as a fully fledged fifth province of Pakistan was put forth. However, in order to accommodate the stance of the government of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue, which links the fate of GB with Kashmir, the assembly has gone on to modify the resolution and demanded the integration of GB as a province in Pakistan provisionally until the final resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir issue in line with the relevant UN resolution.
The provisional demand for its integration as a province is based on the precedent set in the 1963 Pakistan-China border agreement for demarcation of the boundary. It was specifically stated that this international treaty was provisional and subject to ratification after the final settlement of the status of this area. The disputed status of this area has been repeatedly reiterated by the Pakistani government before all forums, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The people of the region look at the arrangement through a different lens. To them, the area had acceded to Pakistan as an independent entity once locals had liberated GB, and Pakistan had accepted the accession in a two-way agreement. This should have settled their status. Unfortunately, instead of formalising this agreement, the government of Pakistan chose to enter into the infamous Karachi Agreement of 1949 with the leaders of the All Jammu & Kashmir Muslim Conference who did not represent GB, and subsequently the administration of this region was handed over to the Pakistani government without their consent.
The de facto administrative control of the area by the Pakistani government is based on the following two fundamentals:
I) Resolution adopted by the UN Commission for India and Pakistan on August 13, 1948. Part-II A(3) states that this territory will be “… administered by the local authorities under the surveillance of the Commission”.
II) The general will of the people for accession to the state of Pakistan that has been repeatedly expressed through unwavering loyalty, commitment and patriotism. The people of the region take pride in the fact that the Northern Light Infantry, an army regiment of this area, is the most decorated regiment of Pakistan with hundreds of martyrs who have laid down their lives defending the state of Pakistan in all conflicts with its enemies.
Despite the above, the federation has not allowed the local population to administer their affairs independently through their elected representatives as per the United Nations resolution. Under escalating demand for constitutional rights, various governments have incrementally and reluctantly given limited powers to the elected representatives of this area. This process was initiated by the first Pakistan Peoples Party government, but none of the subsequent governments has met the demands of the people for full constitutional rights.
All important decisions that have a direct impact on the daily lives of the people of the area are being taken in the name of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council that has a total membership of 15, of which only six are elected indirectly by the local legislative assembly. The remaining members are the nominees of the government of Pakistan. The council unilaterally has been extending federal laws to this region without any consultation of the directly elected assembly.
Similarly, the legal structure provided for the governance of this area has no sanctity and can be amended through a presidential decree. Even the judicial structure with temporary appointments of the judges by the Pakistan government raises questions about their independence in adjudicating key issues in which the federation is a party.
This de facto control of the area by the government is based solely on the general will of the populace as it does not conform to the benchmark of self-rule envisaged in the UN resolution. The withdrawal of this general will is likely to create a legal void severing any legal linkage with the federation. The government has failed to understand and appreciate the gravity of the emerging discontent, which has been catalysed by a very high level of education and awareness amongst the youth who question the continued disregard for the rights of the people of this area.
The obvious neglect of the area in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects in the Planning Commission’s list of schemes shown on its web page and imposition of custom duties and income tax without the involvement of the elected assembly are key issues which are a source for concern amongst GB residents. These are issues which have attracted recurring protests and increasing expression of resentment on social media.
Although the Pakistani government had set up a committee to look into the constitutional issue, there have been no concrete outcomes as a result of its deliberations, and the government has continued to ignore this matter of national importance. Purportedly, China has also expressed its concern about the legal status of the area as access for CPEC projects is from GB.
The provisional provincial status could place this region within a broad legal framework and ascertain legal linkage with Pakistan. As the present governance structure is not in line with the UN resolution, it is vital that in order to protect the legitimacy of the presence of the Pakistani government in this area, the people’s demands are taken seriously and specific legal arrangements formalised.
If GB cannot be accepted as a province even provisionally, another alternative is to deal with it as a disputed autonomous region and enter into a formal agreement with the local stakeholders representing diverse areas of GB. An undiluted democratic structure needs to be set up with sole authority to deal with all matters that have a direct impact on the lives of the locals, specifically taxation and usage of its natural resources.
Continued neglect is not an option. Disregard of the legitimate demands of the area will have serious implications for Pakistan and its highly important development projects in the form of CPEC.
Mr. Afzal Shigri, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.