The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been demanding for recognition of their political and legal rights
By Dr Syed Farooq Hasnat and Shehzadi Zamurrad Awan
The new political set-up of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has been established with a promise that it possesses a fairly good potential to mature with time and ultimately become a viable socio-economic and politically stable entity. The first ever elections of the Legislative Assembly, held in November 2009, were enthusiastically participated, with a high voter turnout, in which 10 political parties participated.
Surprisingly, Karachi-based MQM was able to win a seat and did well in some other constituencies, bearing testimony to the fact that the GB region is all set to become part of the mainstream political process of the country. The region of 1.3 million people comprises of a multi-ethnic, sectarian and lingual diversity, and has covered a considerable time span-from being in a limbo since 1947, to advancing towards a potential full fledge fifty province of Pakistan.
Since long, the people of this area have been demanding for the recognition of their political and legal rights, which were not taken seriously enough, by the federal government, under one pretext or the other. In the past, this area had presented a unique situation where being a part of the country, it was neither inducted constitutionally, nor did have an autonomous status like Azad Kashmir. It was because of this that at one stage the frustrated people of the area blamed Islamabad for treating them as a colonial dependency.
The area is strategically located, bordering China to its North East, connected by the Karakoram Highway, which was opened for trade and tourism in 1984, has provided considerable opportunity for the area to develop its socio-economic structure. Recently, China promised to construct two highways of 165 kilometres, linking Skardu with Jaglot and another 135 kilometers will connect Thakot with Sazin. That would further make the region accessible to the Chinese markets and sources of business opportunities, and vice versa.
The region is equally important for Pakistan's links with the Central Asian countries, as it lies in the vicinity of Tajikistan, barely separated by a narrow Afghanistan Wakhan corridor. Therefore, whatever direction this area takes, in terms of political stability and economic progress, will affect the strategic concerns of Pakistan.
Since 1947, the Northern Areas, as it was then called, was governed through an administrator, who was responsible directly to the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Affairs in Islamabad. Latter on, at the consistent and vigorous demands of the people of this area, some nominal authority was transferred to the local set up. However, the ministry introduced few marginal reforms in 1967. The introduction of political structures, though insignificant, began in 1970, with the first ever elections in the area.
After Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assumed office in 1974, he announced a reform package for the Northern Areas and as a part of new executive set-up, two new districts of Ghizer and Ganche were created. However, these reforms were not adequate enough to provide autonomy to the region, as the ministry in Islamabad continued to exercise exclusive control over control over the area.
Even the meetings of the elected council were held at ministerial Secretariat in Islamabad. Moreover, this area did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. As the court in its decision on May 28, 1999, clearly declared, it is up to the parliament to decide the political structure of the region, and went on to say "This court cannot decide what type of government should be provided to ensure the compliance of …mandate of the constitution."
Finally, after a considerable delay, the newly elected government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani realised the need for the much-needed political reforms and autonomy for the area in the shape of Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009.
The ordinance explains that on continuous demand of the local people, the democratic government has decided to take the GB further towards full internal autonomy and bring it at par with the other provinces of Pakistan. This ordinance incorporates the reform packages of 1970, 1975, 1990 and 2007.
The reforms of 2007 covered a lot of ground to provide autonomy for the area, by curtailing the powers of the federal Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, and giving more powers to the elected set-up. In spite of the fact that the local legislative council was upgraded to the status of an assembly, with budgetary powers but it ignored the much needed reforms in the legal system.
The ordinance falls short of declaring the area, a province of Pakistan. Article 1 of the 1973 constitution clearly defines the territorial area of the country, naming the four provinces. Therefore, in order to grant the G-B a status of a province, the constitution needs to be amended by both houses of the parliament.
This ordinance established Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly with 33 members (24 directly elected seats, 6 reserved seats for women and 3 for the technocrats) to be headed by the Chief Minister and the Governor to be nominated by the Federal government. The people of GB enthusiastically took part in elections, in which 264 belonging to different 10 political parties took part in elections.
Pakistan Peoples party got the maximum number of seats and able to from the new government. The new assembly will have the powers to legislate on nearly all matters be civil put unlike other provinces can not ask for the use of armed services to assist the civil powers when in need. There are various reflections regarding the new political set-up in GB. Most of the local people including civil society organizations have welcomed the elections and the establishment of the new political set-up, hoping that eventually the area will get the status of full-fledge province.
Secondly, there is optimism, that with the introduction of political structures in place and enthusiastic participation of political parties in the elections and in the formation of the government, the area has laid solid foundations for the future institution building process.
One of the reasons the Northern Areas could not develop its democratic culture is related to whatever was happening in Pakistan, where the democratic institutions had failed to grow because of long spells of martial law. Thus a vacuum was created where the system was dominated by a traditional complex setup, at times with sectarian connotations. However, what provided hope for the role of the civil society and development of political leadership is that the educated youth, in search for jobs moved to Pakistan's big cities, mostly Karachi. As a result, these youngsters learnt the art of dealing with a bigger picture and had a much broader vision about the matters of state and administration, than their forefathers. However, because of the lack of any political structures in the Northern Areas, this faculty could not be utilized, in the past, for the benefit of the region.
The present rudimentary political structures will mature with the passage of time and with every subsequent election, these structures would solidify. In this way, a learning process will start, where the people as well as their representatives are likely to respond to the new realities and demands of this area, dealing with it in a more effective manner.
Another positive aspect of this new development is that there is a good possibility of harmony between various sectarian and ethnic groups. It would be prudent to say here that when compared with some other provinces of Pakistan, because of the high literacy rate and awareness, there is a better chance that there would be more maturity exhibited, in the participation of the political process and consequently in the developmental agendas of the area. With these qualities, and gentle outlook of the people, G-B has all qualities to make itself a progressive province and a smooth political process will further help to make this a reality.
What is lacking is that the region does not have a representation in the national assembly or senate of Pakistan. It can be argued that FATA, where even the Pakistan Penal Code does not apply, can have its presence in the National Assembly and the Senate, then why should Gilgit-Baltistan be an exception. One national daily newspaper rightly pointed out about the region that "the sins of the past …ought not to be repeated".