Gilgit-Baltistan occupies a strategic area of northern Pakistan. Image: iStock
Gilgit-Baltistan occupies a strategic area of northern Pakistan. Image: iStock

Last month, Pakistan introduced the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 as the latest set of laws designed to govern the region located at a strategical point sharing borders with China, Afghanistan and India.

Gilgit-Baltistan is treated as a separate geographical entity by Pakistan and is not included in the country’s general constitutional politics.

The Pakistani government of last month, which has since been replaced by a caretaker setup ahead of general elections in July, claimed that the latest order was only “an improvement” on Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009.

The Self-Governance Order nine years ago finally ratified the name Gilgit-Baltistan for what had hitherto been called the Northern Areas of Pakistan and gave the region its first legislative assembly. It gave Gilgit-Baltistan de facto province-like status without constitutionally making it a part of Pakistan or giving its inhabitants the rights an average Pakistani citizen enjoys.

Locals see the government’s latest refusal to bring Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) into the mainstream and put it under the jurisdiction of the constitution as continued denial of basic human rights.

“People were expecting constitutional rights with membership in [the] Pakistani parliament and access to the judicial system. They were expecting more autonomy in administrative matters and more legislative powers. They were expecting something similar to what the Indian Kashmiris enjoy,” Senge Hasnan Sering, director of the Gilgit-Baltistan National Congress, told Asia Times.

Sering says the continued denial of rights is uniting GB’s fragmented society.

“The one thing that is uniting everyone is its disputed status and role of [the military] establishment in dealing with it. Now a large majority is speaking up for state subject rule, which restricts outsiders from acquiring land, assets and citizenship in GB,” he said.

“This used to be a demand of the nationalists which has been adopted by the majority. Views of nationalists have more respect in society [now that] common people are more aware about their legal relationship with Pakistan.”

The fight for constitutional rights

Locals had been demanding recognition since the partition of the subcontinent when Pakistan annexed GB, then part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir, which is claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan. The Karachi Agreement of 1949, between the Government of Pakistan and the Government of Pakistan-administered Azad Kashmir (AJK), ascertained the latter’s control over GB without any local representation.

So while the 2009 Governance Order was accepted for introducing representation, last month’s GB Order was met with protests, with locals condemning the “authoritarian” move.

The GB opposition and Awami Action Committee (AAC), an alliance of political groups, orchestrated protests after the introduction of the GB Order. A massive protest was organized in front of the GB Assembly on May 26 this year, a day before then-prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s visit to the assembly to unveil the reforms package.

“The protest coinciding with the PM’s visit served two purposes. It underscores the local discontent with regards to the order, and reaffirms our dismissal of it as being subservient to the prime minister’s will,” AAC chairman Sultan Raees told Asia Times.

The GB Order 2018 says that “the executive authority of the government shall be subject to and limited by the executive authority expressly conferred by this order or by law made by the prime minister” and that “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.”

It is this “veto power” vested in the PM that pushed locals to the streets, the police stepping in with teargas and aerial firing to quell the protests.

The next day, members of the GB opposition tore copies of the order during Abbasi’s address to the GB Legislative Assembly.

International interests in Gilgit-Baltistan

Diplomatic sources say the disputed status of GB continues to irk Beijing, with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through the region. It was under Chinese pressure that a nine-member constitutional committee was formed in 2015 potentially to discuss GB’s merger as the fifth province of Pakistan.

The committee’s report, submitted to the federal government last year, recommended “de facto integration of GB with Pakistan but not a de jure change,” citing the fact that it would damage Pakistan’s position on Kashmir.

Nationalist leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir have also warned Pakistan against mainstreaming of GB. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani wrote in 2016 to the prime minister at the time, Nawaz Sharif, that giving GB constitutional status was akin to “betraying Kashmiris.”

However, the denial of de facto self-rule to the GB locals is giving rise to a brewing nationalist movement, drawing parallels with the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement.

Possible solution to the Gilgit-Baltistan issue

Representatives of the Gilgit-Baltistan Awareness Forum and the AAC have told Asia Times that the federal government has been given three possible solutions to the GB problem. First, declaring it as Pakistan’s fifth province; second, giving the region complete autonomy barring defense, foreign affairs and currency; and third, a status similar to the Indian- and Pakistani-administered sections of Kashmir.

Raees, who was injured in the protests, said the rally against the PM and the use of force to quell it signified that the locals won’t tolerate continued injustice.

“We have been demanding our rights for over 70 years now,” he said. “But our movement is no longer about rejecting [the] federal government’s orders. We will now fight for autonomy, and an alternative setup.”

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