With de facto control over Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan would like to see the region being incorporated into Pakistan as a Province. This, of course, does not mean that India should let go of its de jure control over the territory….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
Gilgit Baltistan is important to Pakistan and India due to its strategic location. It is a part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. The state of Jammu & Kashmir acceded to India on 26 October 1947 and thus the entire state became a part of the Indian Union. Pakistan illegally occupied parts of the state including Gilgit Baltistan and has since 1949 incorporated the region into Pakistan, without formally of course saying so. In the last couple of years, Pakistan acting under Chinese pressure has been seeking to give Provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan, on account of both countries realising that this territory does not belong to Pakistan but legally to India. There have also been persistent demands from the people of the region that their undefined status be finalised once and for all.
Successive governments in Pakistan have in made and implemented orders creating so-called Legislative Councils and Government, to give the people of Gilgit Baltistan a semblance of self-governance and basic rights. These include the Northern Area Council 1970, Legal Framework order 1947, Northern Area Council Legal Framework order 1994, and Supreme Court order 1999 to bring the people of the area into the mainstream. Interestingly, in March 1993, on being petitioned about the status of the Northern Areas, the AJK High Court in its verdict took serious note of the unrepresentative and arbitrary administrative system and denial of fundamental rights in the ‘Northern Areas’. In its verdict dated 14 September 1994, the Court stated that: “the Northern Areas are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of “Azad Kashmir” as defined in the “Azad Kashmir” Interim Constitution Act, 1974”.
Most of these attempts at providing governance to the people of Gilgit Baltistan have been half-hearted and the primary objective has been to integrate the region into the rest of occupied Kashmir (known as AJK in Pakistan). The reason for Pakistan’s keeping Occupied Kashmir in limbo is because of the UN Resolutions. While Article 247 of Pakistan’s Constitution talks of settling the Kashmir issue through a plebiscite, the actual delivery of this promise remains a distant dream, at least for the people of Gilgit Baltistan, who have never tasted anything like real democracy.
In January 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court sanctioned the continuance of this limbo for Gilgit Baltistan after passing a ruling that “no change can be made” in status of the region, which remains subject to the pending plebiscite that would determine the future of Kashmir. While the apex court announced that the Supreme Court’s jurisdictions extended to the Gilgit Baltistan region, and maintained that the State should uphold fundamental rights of the people of GB “as enjoyed by the people of any other province,” the fact remains that the primary demand of the people of Gilgit Baltistan remained unaddressed.
On the day, the SC judgement was passed there were huge protests across GB. Protesters rejected the Supreme Court’s judgment and said if the region cannot be declared a part of Pakistan, then it be at least be given internal autonomy. They vowed to oppose any Executive Order to govern GB without determining its permanent status. A large number of activists from various organisations gathered at Yadgar-i-Shuhada in Skardu. The protesters were chanting slogans against the federal and GB governments for depriving the GB people of their constitutional rights.
Until the passage of the 2009 Ordinance on Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan hadn’t given the locals any representation. And despite having attained that, GB wasn’t given any control over its own resources in the Reforms Order, 2018 prompting protests amongst the locals. The Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order-2009 was introduced, by which the Northern Areas were renamed as Gilgit Baltistan, a long-standing demand of the people. A province-like status was created with Chief Minister and Governor in office.
In February 2018, the Prime Minister of Pakistan announced annulment of Gilgit Baltistan Council which was created through 2009 Empowerment Order. The Gilgit Baltistan Council comprised 15 members as the majority of members were from the Federal government and Prime Minister was Chairman of the council. All powers exercised by the Gilgit Baltistan Council were transferred to Legislative Assembly.
The delay in passage of the 2009 order resulted in the passing of an unanimous resolution by Gilgit Baltistan Assembly for sharing the recommendations of Sartaj Aziz Committee which had been formed on 29 October 2015, to recommend a new set of political and administrative reforms for Gilgit Baltistan. The Committee took three years for formulation and the new order was decided in 27 meetings. The draft was also debated in All Parties’ conference held in Gilgit on 20 November 2017.
The 2018 order annulled powerful Gilgit Baltistan Council and its powers were shifted to the Legislative Assembly. The Chief Court was renamed as High Court, comprising of seven Judges. Appointments of Judges were to be made at Gilgit Baltistan level. There will be Gilgit Baltistan Provincial Service Commission and a provincial Auditor General.
Till their appointments, the Jurisdiction of Federal Public Service Commission of Pakistan and Auditor General of Pakistan have been extended to the Gilgit Baltistan. Similarly, the jurisdiction of Council of Islamic Ideology has also been extended to the area. Gilgit Baltistan is being given the status of non-voting/co-opted membership in all constitutional bodies like National Finance Commission, The Economic Coordination Committee, Council of Common Interest, and Indus River System Authority, although, this is not part of the order.
However, the new order has been termed as being too Prime Minister centric. The Prime Minister will have the final authority on legislation and policies of the government. Prime Minister will levy taxes and no decree or order can be issued against him. Prime Minister enjoys powers in Gilgit Baltistan as he cannot enjoy the same in other provinces. Moreover, no one can challenge/question the validity of this order.
Article 41 of new order says that “the executive authority of the government shall extend to the matters with respect to which the assembly has the power to make laws, provided that in any matter with respect to which both Prime Minister and the assembly has the power to make laws, the executive authority of the government shall be subject to and limited by the executive authority expressly conferred and this order by law made and by the Prime Minister”. According to Article 60 (4) of order “any law which the Prime Minister is competent to enact then the law made by the Prime Minister, whether passed before or after the act of the assembly shall prevail and the act of the assembly shall to the extent of the repugnancy, be void”. The Prime Minister has the power to levy taxes in the area according to article 65.
On 12 May 2018 the joint opposition in Gilgit Baltistan rejected this order being Prime Minister centric. They claimed that earlier Gilgit Baltistan Council dealt 54 subjects per legislation according to schedule 3 and 61 subjects by Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly according to schedule 4 of 2009 ordinance. As per the new 2018 reforms schedule 3 and 4 has been mixed to make 62 subjects that too under Prime Minister. The popular demand of people of Gilgit Baltistan is its merger with Pakistan as its fifth province.
In August 2015, the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly had passed a unanimous resolution which demanded that Gilgit Baltistan be declared a constitutional province of Pakistan. Also, since the inauguration of the CPEC, China has been quietly using its influence in Pakistan to get the Pakistan government to make Gilgit Baltistan a separate province, to give the area legal status. This would then take attention away from India’s position that the CPEC does not respect India’s sovereignty as it passes through occupied territory. What the Pakistan Supreme Court’s order of January 2019 is to give effect to the government order of 2018 with the proviso that it cannot be amended in any manner without approval of the Supreme Court.
Ultimately, with de facto control over Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan would like to see the region being incorporated into Pakistan as a Province. This of course does not mean that India should let go of its de jure control over the territory. They will pursue the course to get justice for the people of Gilgit Baltistan at international forums.