Gilgit-Baltistan is strategically important not only for Pakistan but also for China, India and the United States. The territory — bordering Afghanistan and China in the north, Khyber-Pakhtunkwa in the west and Indian-administered Kashmir in the east — is as important today as it was in 1880 during the strategic rivalry between British India and the Russian empire.
Before the British could leave the subcontinent, they betrayed the people of Gilgit-Baltistan by handing over the whole Gilgit agency to the Maharaja of Kashmir contrary to the popular will of the agency. The people of Gilgit never accepted the authority of Brigadier Ghansara Singh as governor. On the night of 31st October, 1947 Gilgit Scouts surrounded the governor’s house and arrested the governor within a few hours. A provisional government was declared and Pakistan’s flag was raised. As unique as it may sound, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan managed to liberate their area without any outside help before its accession to Pakistan.
For some decades, Gilgit-Baltistan remained under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) and in 1969, an eight-member Northern Areas Advisory Council (NAAC) was created but it was without any power and under the thumb of an administrator or resident. A year later, it was renamed the Northern Areas Council and consisted of 16 members. During General Ziaul Haq’s martial law, Gilgit-Baltistan was declared the ‘zone e’ of martial law. During the same regime it was decided that the territory’s inhabitants would get an observer-like status in parliament but this somehow did not happen. In 1994, through a legal framework order, initially the chairman and vice-chairman of the council were created and later redesignated as chief executive and deputy chief executive. The council then comprised 24 directly elected members. Five years later, the Northern Areas Council was renamed the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly with more powers. In 2009, the PPP government introduced the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 with fresh political, judicial and administrative reforms. Under this ordinance, a 16-member Gilgit Baltistan Council was created with the prime minister as its chairman and the Gilgit-Baltistan governor as vice-chairman. The chief minister and minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan were inducted as ex-officio members. Six members were elected by the G-B Legislative Assembly and six nominees were picked by the prime minister from parliament and the federal cabinet. In the council, the chairman (the PM) has near-absolute powers, including the authority to appoint the chief judge and judges of the courts. The Gilgit-Baltistan Council was set up along the lines of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council. In the council the federal government had the majority and wielded powers to influence legislation. The G-B council approved the budget of Gilgit-Baltistan and had the powers to legislate on 52 important subjects such as mining, tourism and water resources. In the past, all the meetings of G-B council were held in Islamabad and one meeting chaired by Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was recently held in Gilgit on 25 October, 2017 which approved the G-B budget.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are of the view that more powers are vested in the G-B council than the legislative assembly. There was also concern that the council was dominated by people from the federal government rather than people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Though all the powers are vested with chairman of the council (the PM) which are normally exercised by the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. Recently, the prime minister approved in principle the annullment of the G-B council and transfer all its powers to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. Following the draft’s approval by the law ministry it will be presented to the federal cabinet for final approval. In the past, the federal government constituted a committee on constitutional reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan under Sartaj Aziz. The committee has already submitted its recommendations to the federal government. But none of these have been made public.
The government of Gilgit-Baltistan also constituted a committee in 2015 on the status of Gilgit-Baltistan. This committee too has submitted its report to the G-B authorities. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are anxiously waiting for the outcome of these committees.
There has been a mixed response to the PM’s move to abolish the G-B council. One popular view is that it is a historic move as its powers are being transferred to the G-B legislative assembly in order to strengthen it. Rumours are swirling that the G-B council’s powers are going to be shifted to the ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. There is speculation also that G-B will be given representation in parliament, the Council of Common Interests, the National Finance Commission and the Indus River Systems Authority (Irsa) as an observer. Still there is confusion about the kind of system that will replace the G-B council. Members of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council have shown their concern over this decision and they are of the view that a vacuum will be created as they were acting as a bridge between the Gilgit-Baltistan Council and the Legislative Assembly.
Recently, Gilgit-Baltistan came to a standstill when protesters began the anti-tax movement, linking the issue of their non-representation in parliament to the rejection of taxes and raising the slogan of no taxes without representation. The ongoing tendencies of organising protest rallies/strikes may benefit sub-nationalists in the area. Though sub-nationalists do not enjoy any significant support, they are gradually gaining support among the youth.
Some of them are exploiting the issue of G-B’s status with the help of their ‘foreign masters’. The popular demand in G-B is representation in parliament and other federal institutions of the country. They want to be recognised as constitutional citizens of Pakistan and waiting for G-B to be made the country’s fifth province. The federal government has to find ways to do all this without compromising the crunch question of Kashmir.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2018.
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