By Rekha Chowdhary
Sep 08, 2009
A significant development has taken place with regard to the status of Gilgit-Baltistan — a part of the erstwhile undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir under Pakistani control since 1947. Bordering Afghanistan, China and India, the area was perceived as strategically important for Pakistan and therefore was isolated from the rest of ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’. Treated as a separate administrative unit comprised of Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza and Nagar, it was designated as the ‘Northern Areas’ and was denied any kind of legal or political status.
While Pakistan-administered-Kashmir (though controlled by the federal ministry of Kashmir affairs) had some semblance of political governance, this area merely had administrative status. Under the direct control of Islamabad, it was governed by civil administrators. And because of the ambiguity about its legal status, the people belonging to this area were not represented in the Pakistan National Assembly. The right of democratic representation, therefore, was not extended to them in any form. Worse, they were also denied access to justice. The Judicial Commissioner had supreme power and people had no right to appeal. The Supreme Court of Pakistan had no jurisdiction; nor did the judiciary of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir have any role for the people in this part.
Due to this, the area has suffered unrest for quite some time. Local grievances forcefully articulated during the last few decades, have not only been in the context of lack of a modern democratic system but also the suppression of the political identity of the area and the people. By denying it its traditional name, Gilgit-Baltistan, its status was reduced merely to that of a geographical entity. Further, there were allegations of substantial demographic and territorial interventions by the Pakistani state. Apart from the transfer of around 5000 sq km of the area to China, which is aggressively pursuing its interests in the area, the Pakistani government has been accused of pushing demographic change in this Shia-dominated area. It is alleged that Pakistani rulers by allotting the land to outsiders, especially Punjabis, Pathans and other Sunnis, encouraged them to settle in this area. There is a general feeling that this demographic engineering has altered the area’s traditional culture of harmonious co-existence. There have been several incidences of sectarian violence in the last few years.
With the increasing discontent, nationalist sentiments have been sharpened and many groups have been involved in the political movement in this area. Demands have ranged from political autonomy to a separate nation of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is a consequence of the growing political unrest within the region that the ‘issue of Gilgit-Baltistan’ is being raised at par with ‘Kashmir issue’ in international forums. Though Pakistan refused to recognise the issue for a long time, it has lately been a part of the peace discourse, especially during Musharraf’s time. While offering a self-rule formula, Musharraf has referred to the ‘Northern Areas’ along with ‘Azad Kashmir’ as the two regions on the side of Pakistan where the formula needs to be applied.
Last week, the federal cabinet of Pakistan approved the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009. By virtue of this order, the official name of the area has been changed from ‘Northern Area’ to Gilgit-Baltistan, and it has been granted political autonomy. The people of Gilgit Baltistan are supposed to have now the right of representation, the freedom of party politics as well as access to justice. The area will have its own elected assembly, chief minister and a centrally appointed governor.
To what extent the order will satisfy the aspirations of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is difficult to predict at the moment. Nationalist sentiments may not be placated by the package of autonomy. What is clear however, is that the order might further complicate the thorny Kashmir issue. There are already voices expressing concern over the unilateral change in the status quo of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is being seen as a step towards the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan. It is not only India that has expressed its apprehensions in that direction, the political leaders of ‘Azad Kashmir’ and the Kashmiri separatists have also reacted in a similar manner.
The leadership of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, contesting the official position of Pakistan, has always asserted that Gilgit-Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of Jammu and Kashmir — a position established by the high court of ‘Azad Kashmir’ in a famous verdict given by Chief Justice Majid Malik.
Even Kashmiri separatists are not happy with the development, seeing it as a move to dilute the Kashmir cause. Autonomy to this area would amount to its separation from the rest of the state; further, it may become a precedent that could be applicable to other parts of the state too. According to Syed Salahuddin, since the political status of the state is still unresolved, any change in its territorial integrity would have a negative impact on the issue. JKLF leader Yasin Malik and other separatist leaders echo this stand.
While it is important to recognise the political rights of people of Gilgit-Baltistan, the step taken by Pakistan has serious implications for the peace process in Jammu and Kashmir. The logic of the ongoing peace process has been a ‘notional unity’ of the state through the concept of irrelevance of borders. The autonomy of Gilgit-Baltistan may start a trend in the reverse direction and may just justify the division of the state.
The writer teaches political science at Jammu University.