By Nirupama Subramanian
A package of reforms recently announced by the Pakistan government for Gilgit-Baltistan appears to have satisfied few among those it is meant to benefit.
Disappointed at what they say is a “package of gimmicks,” the people of the remote region have voiced protests against the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order 2009.
But they are also leery of New Delhi’s diplomatic protest against it, saying they are as much victims of India as of Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan is the northern-most territory governed by Islamabad and an important element in the India-Pakistan wrangle over Kashmir. It is also in the middle of a geo-strategic hot-spot.
To its north, it shares boundaries with Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region; to the west is Pakistan’s troubled North-West Frontier Province; to its south is Pakistan Occupied Kashmir; and to the east, India’s Jammu & Kashmir state.
New Delhi claims it as part of J&K, and therefore as an integral part of India. Pakistan also links the region to the Kashmir issue, but in contrast to “Azad Kashmir” or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, has kept the territory in a constitutional limbo, referring to it until now only by the geographical appellation of Northern Areas.
About the only thing that has been welcomed in the autonomy package is the renaming of the area as Gilgit-Baltistan, which better conveys that people with a distinct identity live in that region.
Identity is key to the grievances of Gilgit-Baltistan people, estimated at 1.5 million since the last count in 1998. They do not consider themselves Kashmiri and have little in common with them. The majority are Shia, and a significant number are Ismaili. They belong to several non-Kashmiri ethnicities, and speak a host of languages, none of which are Kashmiri.
Their first link to Kashmir came with the British sale of the region to the Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir in the 19th century. After many twists and turns over 100 years, the people of the territory successfully rebelled against the maharaja on November 1, 1947. They put their future in the hands of Pakistan but found the clock turned back on them when Pakistan linked their fate to that of the Kashmiris.
Accepting Gilgit-Baltistan’s accession would have undermined Pakistan’s international case for Kashmir. In later years, Pakistan did not want to forego the votes from Gilgit-Baltistan in the event of a plebiscite on Kashmir.
But unlike PoK, which got some make-believe autonomy, the Northern Areas remained an undefined entity.
Analysts believe the remoteness of the region, its scattered population, the absence of links between local leaders and the Pakistani leadership, all combined to deny Gilgit-Baltistan the comparative political largesse bestowed on PoK.
The territory came under direct rule of the federal government through the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas (KANA). The military had a big role in administering the region. In 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto ushered in a directly elected “council” but left the administrative system untouched. More reforms packages followed in 1990s, and by the Musharraf regime in 2007, when it was on its last legs. Each promised “maximum autonomy” but contributed only cosmetic changes. To date, the people of the region are only de facto citizens of Pakistan.
The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order 2009 of August 29, signed by President Asif Ali Zardari on September 7, yet again promises maximum autonomy to the people of the region.
Under the package, Gilgit-Baltistan will have a Governor as in the other four provinces of Pakistan, without constitutionally being made a province. The leader of the Legislative Assembly will be known as chief minister; the Assembly will have 33 members, of whom 24 are to be directly elected; it will have powers to legislate on 61 subjects.
In addition, the Governor will head a 12-member Council, with half the members from the Assembly and half appointed by the Governor. A fresh election for the Legislative Assembly is to be held by November. The territory will also have its own chief election commissioner, a public service commission.
The government has described it as a “province-like” status for Gilgit-Baltistan. But the new measures have failed to satisfy any segment of the Gilgit-Baltistan population.
Those demanding self-governance see it falling well short of empowerment of the local people. Instead, they see the package tightening the federal government’s hold by the appointment of a Governor. The Council is seen as a move to dilute the Assembly’s powers. While the Assembly has been given powers to pass the budget, it does not spell out how much say the Chief Minister will have in framing it. The Assembly does not have the right to legislate on its natural resources, including water and minerals.
Nationalists, whose demand for independence has gained ground over the years thanks to the denial of basic rights to the region, have also rejected the package.
“Pakistan did not consult anyone in Gilgit-Baltistan for this package. The provision for chief minister and Governor is illegal because this is not a province of Pakistan,” said Shafqat Inquilabi, a former spokesman of the nationalist Balawaristan National Front.
“We are a separate state,” the young activist said, and the least Pakistan could do, according to him, was to treat it on par with Azad Kashmir until the resolution of the Kashmir issue.
“We are the fourth party to the Kashmir dispute and we must be included in the talks as such,” he said.
Human rights activists have rejected it saying Pakistan has yet again failed to make any constitutional arrangements for the people of the territory, while those demanding complete integration with Pakistan say it has fallen short of their demand that the territory should have been incorporated as the fifth province of the country.
Bar the PPP, national mainstream political parties active in the region view the package as “pre-poll rigging” for the fresh Legislative Assembly election.
Opposition has also come from Kashmiris, who have seen in it an insidious move by the PPP government to dilute their cause by giving a region internationally considered a part of the Kashmir issue a province-like status within Pakistan.
But it has rankled the people of Gilgit-Baltistan even more that while moving to assuage the fear of the Kashmiris —Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi held a special briefing for PoK leaders on September 4 — the government did not take them into confidence even after announcing the package.
Instead of winning hearts and minds, the package has spurred a major debate on the motives behind it. The Kashmiris see pressure from the U.S. or Indians as the reason for the package as according to them, it is a move by the PPP government towards a tacit acceptance of the status quo on Kashmir.
According to one theory being circulated in the blogosphere, the government had hoped the package would act as a sop to clam down opposition in Gilgit-Batlistan to the government plans for construction of dams in the region.
During a recent visit to China, President Zardari signed an MoU for the Bunji Hydroelectric Project in Astore, to be constructed by the Chinese on a “Build, operate, transfer” basis. The dam, estimated to cost up to $7 billion, all of it to be invested by the Chinese under the BOT agreement, will have a capacity to generate 7,000 megawatts of electricity.
Some think China, with its high profile investment in several projects including telecommunications, the expansion of the Karakoram Highway, and the construction of a dry port on the Xinjiang border, is behind the government’s latest move keen that there should be no unrest in the region.
“Without a legitimate government in the area, no outside power in the region has a right to start any infrastructure project. We will consider it illegal and illegitimate unless there is a representative government in Gilgit-Baltistan,” said Ali Ahmed Jan, a founder member of the Karakoram Students Movement, now an Islamabad-based human rights activist.
Some also see it as a move to pacify Western donors concerned about the denial of rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Last week’s protest by India to Pakistan against the Gilgit-Baltistan Order and the proposed construction of the Bunji dam, has also drawn criticism.
Describing the people of Gilgit-Baltistan as the “worst victims of the India-Pakistan dispute”, Mr. Jan pointed out that they were left out of the numerous confidence-building measures of the peace process. A Skardu-Kargil bus route was proposed but never implemented.
“India’s opposition to the package is unjustified unless it can come up with a plan that will give relief to the victims of the Kashmir dispute,” said Mr. Jan. Pakistan had attempted to do this, he said, even though “it is another matter that what they have given is simply not enough”.