There is a renewed debate on Gilgit-Baltistan; with varying opinions from political parties on the future of the territory – which at the time of a UN plebiscite on Kashmir would play a crucial role. It is however, important to understand the issue with a constitutional lens to appreciate the legal processes that have taken place over the years.
If one peruses the legislation vis-à-vis G-B over the years; with reference to the 1999 Supreme Court Order on Al Jehad Trust v The Federation of Pakistan, and the 2009 Governmental Order pertaining to “Empowerment & Self-Governance” of Gilgit-Baltistan, the latter’s diverging path from the Supreme Court’s Order from 1999, can clearly be seen. This deviation is further exhibited in noncompliance of the court’s order to provide full citizenship to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan or the Northern Areas as it was formerly known. Moreover, the constitutional status of G-B was also left in a limbo, which fostered other problems as a consequence which in effect led to the creation of the G-B Council to handle them.
Under the People’s Party Government in 2009, much ground was covered in terms of awarding G-B the status equivalent to that of a province, however the spirit of the court’s order was not followed. It was also in this Order that Gilgit-Baltistan Council was setup with the Prime Minister of Pakistan as its Chairman, the Governor of G-B as its Vice-Chairman and the Chief Minister as a member. The establishment of this Council essentially meant a parallel government in G-B – in effect, undermining the role of the Chief Minister as the administrative head and overriding his authority. At the same time, unbacked by the constitution, the authority of the newly instituted position of the Chief Minister was already limited such that the Offices of the Accountant General, Directorate General Audit and Inland Revenue were placed under the Federal Government of Pakistan. In comparison, in all other four provinces the revenue system is directly under the provincial government.
It is understood that bearing that the region’s territory is currently disputed and subject to UNSC Resolutions – issues that are inherently complicated, the promulgation of several laws is easier said than done. Moreover, in the absence of a constitutional amendment, the linkage between the Federation and G-B necessitated the establishment of the Council. However, the provision of basic rights such as the right to citizenship and other constitutional rights have been unnecessarily delayed for decades – which has benefitted none, but usurped the rights of the people for over seven decades. Moreover, it may be important to consider that it is not so much that the problems are being ignored altogether, rather the underlying issues that trigger resentment and discontent amongst the people are not being dealt with the urgency they warrant. The people of G-B, especially the educated and bright youth, await the Federal Government to empathize with them and deliver them their due rights expeditiously.
Nevertheless, it seems that G-B’s reforms are moving are in the right direction, albeit at a snail’s pace. For instance, in 2015, following a demand of the people of G-B for further empowerment, the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif constituted a committee to submit a report on the issue. The committee recommended that G-B may provisionally be given the de-facto status of a province by delegating further legislative, administrative and financial power. The matter was dealt with again in 2017, and in 2018 wherein an important development took place in the form of “2018 Gilgit-Baltistan Order” which replaced the 2009 Empowerment & Self Governance Order. This Order essentially transferred powers formerly with the G-B Council to G-B Assembly including the authority to pass legislation regarding mineral, hydropower and tourism sectors.
However, this Order was challenged in the G-B Appellate Court on the basis that it did not address the concerns of all the stakeholders. This decision was then suspended by the Supreme Court of Pakistan – following which, the National Security Council decided to hold consultations between stakeholders prior to the implementation of the Reforms Package 2019.
In any case, whilst the general direction is right, there is a need to accelerate the processes, in terms of provision of all the rights to the people of G-B that are enjoyed by other citizens of Pakistan. In the political realm, the de-facto province has been treated with negligence and highhandedness for decades, with little thought for the people of the region. With respect to the legal domain, their access to justice and citizenship has long been curtailed owing to lack of willpower of the federal government more than anything else. Whilst its link to the Kashmir issue has been of the impediments in its declaration as the fifth province of Pakistan; its status of an interim province through a constitutional amendment could have long resolved the issue altogether. On the economic side, the region requires attention from the federal government and with their non-inclusion, with respect to the mega projects such as Bhasha Dam and Pak-China Economic Corridor, further lends to their resentment.
It is evident that in light of the present regional issues and the current political impasse between the political parties, the status of Gilgit-Baltistan is likely to face further delays – nevertheless, it is up to the government of Pakistan to maneuver its way to provide basic rights to the people that they have been demanding for decades now. This will require not will-power, statesmanship and empathy on the current government’s part, but also the vision to appreciate the importance of the region in the long-term.