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GB’s Aspirations


GILGIT-BALTISTAN has spoken loud and clear. It has given an unambiguous mandate to the party ruling at the centre. This is no surprise as in the previous elections too the then-ruling PPP had mustered similar numbers.

The PPP had taken all three major legal initiatives (in 1974, 1994 and 2009) to improve governance in this area. Being the sole champion of popular causes, it had deep roots in local politics.

In this context, the PML-N can happily interpret the recent mandate as the democratic approval of its policy of infrastructure development, the cornerstone of which is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The party has secured, politically, the starting point of this ambitious road network.

On the flip side, this enthusiastic yes to the Nawaz League must have raised expectations of GB’s people for reciprocity from Islamabad. And that’s exactly where Islamabad has always failed them.

GB was given the local legislature in its present form in 2009. The area, however, remains unrepresented in the Pakistani parliament and as a consequence in other constitutional bodies like the Council of Common Interests. This is happening in an era when provinces, and even regions within them, contest every claim on their resources and a lot of local politics is constructed around these issues. If the GB Legislative Assembly cannot have a say in its own matters, the facade of an elected house cannot hold.

GB’s continuous support for national political parties is a clear expression of its desire to be acknowledged as part of the country. Our establishment, however, refuses to revisit its stance on the status of the area that was formulated 67 years ago. It has mortgaged the fate of GB to that of the wider dispute of Kashmir and refuses to constitutionally integrate it into the federation.

This stance hinges on the assumption that when a plebiscite will be held in Kashmir, GB votes will be overwhelmingly in favour of accession to Pakistan and given the religious composition of various parts of the disputed region, GB’s might turn out to be ‘the casting vote’.

The policy probably made sense when it was originally formulated. But 67 years is a long period and Pakistan does not at present have a defined road map for achieving Kashmir’s accession except for ritualistically repeating its old stance. One can be fine with that too, but keeping in limbo the fate of two million people of an area of increasing strategic importance is a heavy cost to pay.

Our rulers refuse to revisit their stance on GB.

Pakistan’s Citizenship Act extends to GB and after the abolition of the State Subject Rule in 1974, Pakistanis can buy land there. There is no bar on movement to or from the area or on conducting business there, which makes it a part of Pakistan for all practical purposes. Yet our Constitution does not accept this reality.

The ambiguity is further compounded by GB’s dubious relationship with Azad Jammu and Kashmir which, in contrast, has a constitution of its own. Pakistan wrested control of GB under the Karachi Agreement of 1948 with representatives of AJK. GB nationalists object to this as they were not represented in those talks.

In 1993, AJK High Court had declared GB a part of AJK. The decision was later overturned by its Supreme Court. In 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared GB a part of Pakistan and directed the government to take steps in this regard. But the steps taken by the government essentially gave the previous arrangement the garb of new, more democratic-looking jargon and again opted to leave the status of the area ambiguous.

This policy of maintaining ‘considered ambiguity’ now runs the risk of turning GB into Pakistan’s soft underbelly on the Kashmir dispute. There are voices in Indian policy circles that advocate for international lobbying to shift the onus of the Kashmir dispute from India-held Kashmir to GB.

The people of GB are bitter about Pakistan’s continued policy of taking themselves as mere collateral to its Kashmir policy. There are nationalist voices that have translated this frustration into the demand for an independent GB. The most prominent among them, the Balawaristan National Front, had won a GBLA seat in a by-election in 2011 and has again won one seat in the recent elections. Furthermore, with both Shia and Sunni parties winning seats, these elections have also exposed GB’s sectarian fault lines.

Then there are active advocates of independence in the GB diaspora. A Washington-based institute has been regularly holding awareness workshops and lobbying with the US Congress, the EU and the UK on the plight of people of GB over the past few years.

Considering these facts, Pakistan can ill-afford to ignore these otherwise ‘minor irritants to its well-thought-out policy’ as GB is occupying centre stage in the new economic great game.

Tahir Mehdi works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy. The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.

Published in Dawn, June 16th, 2015


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