Political reforms and the constitutional status of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) are once again in the news as elections to the GB Legislative Assembly due next month draw nearer. In a ‘creeping coup’ move last week, the army chief held a most unusual meeting with leaders of political parties ostensibly to discuss security issues in GB. The prime minister was absent as the opposition parties expressed serious reservations. The meeting placed both the army and the civilian democratic structures in dim light. All parties, instead of buying the bait, demanded holding of free and fair elections in GB. They also sought an end to army’s involvement in elections.
Soon after this, the National Assembly speaker announced a meeting of parliamentary leaders to discuss elections in GB, even though he had no locus standi to do so. The speaker has already lost a great deal of credibility due to his highly partisan and abrasive manner of conducting assembly proceedings. No wonder the opposition parties served him with a stinging rebuff.
As it turned out later, this meeting between leaders of political parties with the army chief had little to do with issues of ‘security.’ It was about a purely political issue of provisionally giving provincial status to GB.
It was wrong for the army chief to convene a meeting with political parties on a political issue just on the eve of GB elections. If people saw it as a political move to benefit the ruling party, they were not to blame.
Political decisions have to be taken by the people of the area themselves through duly empowered and transparently elected Legislative Assembly, and not in the semi-lit corridors either in Islamabad or Rawalpindi behind their backs. Political parties also should learn their lessons. Making a beeline towards the GHQ or the Army House at the drop of the hat should not be made to look like something of great honour, or to be cherished. It is not dignified to say the least.
Facts speak for themselves. No more meetings either in Islamabad or Rawalpindi are needed to give people their rights. The facts are:
Bordering China, Afghanistan, India, Tajikistan and Pakistan, GB is the gateway of CPEC. Spread over an area of 72,000 square kilometres, it is more than five and half times the size of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The territory was not liberated from the maharaja rule by the army. The people liberated their territory and then voluntarily joined Pakistan. It is a singular honour of the people of GB unmatched by others.
Like all Pakistani nationals, its people pay all federal taxes, possess national identity cards and passports. They are recruited in the army and shed their blood in defence of the motherland. A brave son of soil Lalik Jan was awarded Nishan i Haider.
Political decisions have to be taken by the people of the area themselves through duly empowered and transparently elected Legislative Assembly, and not in the semi-lit corridors either in Islamabad or Rawalpindi
Yet, the state has played political football with its people. They have been denied meaningful self-governance and fundamental rights in the name of ‘disputed territory.’ While they pay all federal taxes, they have no representation in the national parliament and no right to vote in national elections, no representation in IRSA and no share in the NFC. The local Legislative Assembly has no powers which are exercised by the prime minister of Pakistan who may have never even visited the area.
The shamilaat lands of the people have been taken over forcibly by the state. There are genuine apprehensions that as CPEC progresses and the true potential of the area blossoms, these lands will be distributed like melons by those known for their obsession for land grab.
With a hydro potential of over 40,000 MW, its people live with 18 hours of load shedding. State resources are available for metros, for Nandipurs, for the golf courses, for doling out of scores of acres in retirement benefits to the powerful, but not for corridor projects in GB.
Denying the people of GB their basic rights and self-governance in the name of ‘disputed territory’ is the greatest fraud played on them.
When it comes to plundering their wealth and their lands, the territory is not disputed. When it comes to collecting federal taxes, customs duty, GST, central excise tax, income tax, and withholding tax, it is not disputed. But when it comes to giving rights, it becomes a ‘disputed territory’.
A cabinet decision in 1974 approving provincial status has been kept under wraps. When military dictator General Zia turned each province as a zone for appointing zonal martial law administrators, he gave GB provincial status and appointed MLA naming it as Zone E. Representatives of GB have participated in Majlis Shoora as “observers.”
The 21st Amendment which set up military courts was extended to GB. But the 18th Amendment is not extended. Why? Because of fears that mineral wealth will then have to be transferred to its people. Islamabad will then no longer be able to exploit it as its CNG station or as ATM card.
Under which declaration of the UN are the fundamental rights or empowered local self-governance denied to GB? The UNCIP Resolution of August 13, 1948 calls for Local Authority till plebiscite. Local government does not mean Islamabad usurping all powers. Indeed Pakistan is violating UNICP resolutions.
Fortunately, the youth of GB are finally seeing through the falsehood and they are rising. They are asking searing questions. The openly ask that if the territory is ‘disputed’ why the CPEC should pass through it to benefit Pakistan and why Bhasha Dam is built here.
If all coercive laws like the Anti-Terrorism Act and the 21st Amendment are extended to GB, why not human rights related laws, they also ask.
If citizens of Indian J &K have rights as equal citizens, why not the people of GB? People of Indian J&K are eligible to become members of parliament, president and prime minister and also appointed to the highest judiciary. Why the people of GB cannot have the same rights in Pakistan?
We call GB a strategic area and treat its people as cannon fodder. For too long the tribal areas were similarly treated. The tribal youth have now gathered under the flag of Pakhtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and called the bluff. The explosive narrative they adopted has since gained currency as both the Pakistan Bar Council and the combined opposition parties in their respective APCs also adopted it recently in Islamabad.
The state has forced Baloch youth to climb mountains in defiance and frustration. Let us not force GB youth to do the same. Remember the mountains of GB are higher than that of Balochistan. Remember also the warning of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that a time comes when mountains also weep.
The writer is a former senator