Since 1950 Pakistan has made laws for Gilgit-Baltistan not to address the problems of the locals but to strengthen its grip over the territory and its people. The last two reforms were in 2009 and 2018. The first the Gilgit-Baltistan (empowerment and self governance) order 2009, was promulgated by the then Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The second, Gilgit-Baltistan order-2018, was promulgated by the Muslim League (N) government. Neither satisfied the people….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem
Until very recent years Pakistanis described Gilgit-Baltistan as a “disputed” region and its other part as “Azad” Kashmir (occupied Kashmir), an indisputably “free” state. Now the campaigners for the annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistan’s fifth province describe this region as undisputed and “Azad” Kashmir as disputed because its fate is yet to be decided through a United Nations ordered plebiscite. They claim the fate of Gilgit-Baltistan was decided 71 years ago when the Gilgit scouts revolted against Maharaj Hari Singh and handed over the administration of this region to Pakistan. Therefore, according to them, Pakistan should have no hesitation in declaring this “most important” region—the gateway to China- its fifth province.
Neglected for more than six decades the territory-not so much its people-has suddenly attracted attention of Pakistani rulers. Specially after the mega project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was inaugurated in 2015 by China’s President Xi Jinping. In the face of the brutal suppression of the freedom of speech, journalists, the press, local leaders and human and civil rights leaders, one cannot say for sure who is behind the current upsurge of demands for declaring Gilgit-Baltistan a province of Pakistan. Is it Pakistan itself? To gauge the genuineness or otherwise of these demands one has to keep certain facts in mind. First, in 1988, Pakistan’s then military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq had pushed thousands and thousands of armed Sunni Muslims to Gilgit-Baltistan to kill daily demonstrations, to demand civil rights and to off-set Shias’ majority. Shias, being in majority in Gilgit-Baltistan were leading the demonstrations. The Zia-sent hordes plundered, grabbed land and business and settled down there. They joined already existing demand for making Gilgit-Baltistan a province of Pakistan. Earlier in the 1970s the then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had flatly rejected this demand citing the Kashmir problem with India.
Second, the 1994 reforms for Gilgit-Baltistan announced by the then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto allowed party-based elections to the Gilgit-Baltistan council, then known as Northern Area Council. Now Pakistani political parties raced to open their branches in Gilgit-Baltistan driving out local parties and groups that fought for the problems of the people of their areas. The Pakistan-based parties are bound by their mother parties policies. If it is the mother party’s policy to annex Gilgit-Baltistan they will parrot it.
Sources, which should tell us what the locals have to say about their plight are almost non-existent. People who made bold to talk about the real problems of the population of the region are either in jail, on charges of terrorism, or in self-exile. They are maligned as anti-Pakistan agents of India and enemies of the CPEC project. The British had taken Gilgit-Baltistan on a 60 year lease from Maharaja Hari Singh in 1935, but it returned it to him in 1947 on the lapse of the British paramountry. During their control over Gilgit-Baltistan, the British treated the local people as animals without any civil rights and without any identity. They were subjected to inhuman laws called Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).
In 1947 when the Gilgit scouts revolted against Maharaja Hari Singh’s rule and handed over the administration of Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan the locals realised the change from the British control to Pakistan’s administration was like the proverbial “out of the frying pan into the fire” or worse. It is very doubtful, if given the freedom to choose, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will choose to become a province of Pakistan. Voices that question the legality of Pakistan control and its authority to device the future status of their region demand liberation from Pakistan’s yoke they have been very systematically suppressed and so have been the ones who want all Pakistanis to leave their region. The demand for the revival of Maharaja Hari Singh’s State subject order, to keep out non subjects out of Gilgit Baltistan, is ignored. They remind Pakistan strictly enforces this order in Kashmir.
It is a fast of history that the Gilgit scouts revolt against the rule of Maharaja Hari Singh was engineered by the British head of the scouts Major Brown. The Pakistani Army, reportedly supported the revolt. But it was not correct that it was a people’s uprising against the Maharaja’s rule for the love of Islam. The rajas in the region were happy when the British returned Gilgit-Baltistan to the Maharaja. Gilgit-Baltistan was said to be Maj. Brown’s gift to Pakistan, making the locals as serfs of Pakistan without civil rights, without any identity and without the right to protest and demand justice. Pakistan ruled this territory by force but told its Supreme Court and the High Court of occupied Kashmir that this territory did not belong to it, therefore it could not give rights to its population. But the Supreme Court ordered Pakistan to give the people of Gilgit Baltistan all the rights that the people of Pakistan enjoyed. This order never followed, had come a couple of years after the High and the Supreme Courts of occupied Kashmir confirmed that Gilgit-Baltistan was a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. The High Court ordered that the administration of Gilgit-Baltistan be taken over by the government of “Azad” Kashmir from Pakistan and give its (Gilgit-Baltistan) people representation in the government, in the Assembly in the council, in Civil services and other national institutions.
In its order of October 1990 the High Court said Pakistan controls Gilgit-Baltistan but accepted this territory did not belong to it. Pakistan, the Court further said, failed to explain why people in the area were denied fundamental rights, civil liberties and right of their representation in the government and other national institution.
The courts verdict came in a joint petition of three lawyers – two from Gilgit-Baltistan and one from occupied Kashmir. The petition pleaded the court to clarify the status of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Since 1950 Pakistan has made laws for Gilgit-Baltistan not to address the problems of the locals but to strengthen its grip over the territory and its people. The last two reforms were in 2009 and 2018. The first the Gilgit-Baltistan (empowerment and self governance) order 2009, was promulgated by the then Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). The second, Gilgit-Baltistan order-2018, was promulgated by the Muslim League (N) government. Neither satisfied the people. As the opposition to 2009 order became a movement, then Muslim League (N) issued the 2018 order. More protests followed. The Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Appellate Court struck it down. A three-member Supreme Court bench restored it. The 2009 and 2018 orders were challenged in the Supreme Court. A seven-member bench headed by Chief Justice Saquib Nisar, heard the petition and has reserved its verdict. Till the writing of this article the verdict was not out.
The pro-province Clements were greatly inspired by Justice Saqib Nisar’s full-throated support to their complaints when he visited Gilgit-Baltistan. He must have later realised his sympathetic could have conveyed a wrong message. He, therefore, corrected himself by saying a blanket order can’t be issued to declare Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan. He also made it clear that the Sartaj Aziz committee’s report which reportedly favour an interim province status could not be followed. This committee was appointed by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif before the last elections in Gilgit Baltistan under his adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz apparently to pacify the pro-province campaigners. It was not generally known when the committee’s report came out. When it did come out the general public was unaware of its contents. It is now amid the pro-province upsurge after the change of the Government in Pakistan, that the Sartaj committee is being quoted as having recommended an interim province status for Gilgit-Baltistan. In the light of this, Prime Minister Imran Khan, in November last year approved in principle a legal plan to give Gilgit-Baltistan a provisional province status.
Zulfikar Ali’s Bhutto’s statement that Gilgit-Baltistan could not be made a province of Pakistan because of the Kashmir issue, stands today, Pakistan’s Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan clearly told the Supreme court last month that Gilgit-Baltistan could not be made a province of Pakistan. As if to put off this question, the Supreme Court has set up a legal experts committee to examine the government bill and find a solution somewhere above the 2018 order and below the constitution.
Because of CPEC, Pakistan has come under tremendous pressures to give some semblance of legality to its illegal occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan. It can only think of “provinsional” status to hoodwink the world. But will it goodwink the rest of Kahsmir? “Azad” Kahsmir will not accept any such fraud. Their High and Supreme Court ordered in the 1990s that Gilgit-Baltistan belong to Kahsmir. Will Pakistan defy this order with whatever fraud? Will India not react against this fraud?