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Gilgit-Baltistan: Unique history, complicated present

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Gilgit-Baltistan has a unique history, a complicated present and an ambiguous future. It has been known by several names due to its geographic location, strategic importance and natural beauty.

In ancient history the region was called Balawaristan or Boloristan. Some people see it as the ‘Roof of the World’, ‘Garden of Eden’ and as the ‘Last colony of the World’. Recently, the region is officially renamed Gilgit-Baltistan from Northern Areas, one of its several names!

Gilgit-Baltistan region has a total area of 72,496 sq km with around 1.5 million population and lies at extreme north of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan is sharing borders with China Republic at its north, Indian at east, and Afghanistan and Central Asian states at its west. Chitral district is at west and Kohistan, Swat and Mansehra districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province lie at south of Gilgit-Baltistan. It was at this point that the British realised the strategic importance of Gilgit and the adjoining region with reference to their imperial rival, Russia and a boundary commission was set up in 1846 under Algernon Durand to settle the boundaries of the princely state.

Moreover, Gilgit-Baltistan had enjoyed a distinct political identity for much of its history. History of GB can be traced back to fifth millennium BC, when small independent states existed, namely Balawristan, Brushal and Baltistan. In 1846, the East India Company sold these mountainous territories including parts of current Gilgit-Baltistan to maharaja of Kashmir under the Treaty of Amritsar. In 1877, the British retook control of Gilgit from the Maharaja to counter a perceived threat from Russia, and formally established their rule under Gilgit Agency, but the internal autonomy remained intact with local rulers. The 1947 upheaval in the subcontinent also engulfed Gilgit-Baltistan and a planned liberation movement initiated under Major William Alexander Brown to accede the region to Pakistan. As a result the region became part of newly formed Pakistan unconditionally.

Major Brown played an important role in the Gilgit rebellion, and ensured that Gilgit and Baltistan remain under control of Pakistan. He must have done something worthwhile that he was awarded Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) by the British government and Star of Pakistan medal by Pakistan.

Major Brown in his book The Gilgit Rebellion notes: “I, therefore, felt it was my duty, as the only Britisher left, to follow a course which would prevent this. And further, as a liberal member of the world’s paragon of democracy, I considered that the whole of Kashmir, including Gilgit Province, unquestionably go to Pakistan in view of the fact that the population was predominantly Muslim… and I would not rest content until I had done the utmost in my power to ensure that not only the Gilgit Province joined Pakistan, but the whole of Kashmir also.”

On 15th of November 1947, the newly founded Republic of Gilgit declared its unconditional accession with the state of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan did not sign a formal Instrument of accession with Pakistan. Instead a wireless message was sent to the government of Pakistan to send a civil administrator. Thereafter, a political agent from Pakistan, Sardar Muhammad Alam, assumed charge of the region. As per the infamous Karachi Agreement of April 28, 1949 between the president of ‘AJK’, Sardar Mohammed Ibrahim Khan, a minister without portfolio from Pakistan, Mushtaq Ahmed Gurmani and Choudhry Ghulam Abbas, a representative from the Muslim Conference. Intriguingly, the future of Gilgit-Baltistan was decided without any local representation. Since no signatory was a native of Gilgit-Baltistan, they had no locus standi, de jure or de facto, to determine the status of the region.

For 68 years Pakistan has kept Gilgit-Baltistan in a political and constitutional limbo on the ground that it was linked to the so-called greater Kashmir cause. It seems that Pakistan intentionally keep alive the Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir link, in the hope that in the eventuality of a referendum, Muslim-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan would vote in favour of Kashmir’s union with Pakistan.

The story of hope and despair of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan began from the time of the accession of region to Pakistan in 1949, when power to exercise authority over Gilgit-Baltistan transferred to hands of government of Pakistan from the AJK government under the 1949 Karachi agreement. The federal ministry of Kashmir affairs and northern areas (KANA) was set up to run Gilgit-Baltistan. No local leadership from Gilgit-Baltistan was included in this agreement, and a handover of power took place without the consent of the people of the region.

In 1972, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto created a representative body named Northern Areas Advisory Council to deal with the local affairs of Gilgit-Baltistan. In 1982, General Zia-ul-Haq made a failed attempt to effect some reforms by taking select members of the Northern Areas Council to the Majlis-e-Shura and three members as observers in the national assembly. Now and then, the idea of an observer is not only wastage of time and resources but also duplicity. When Benazir Bhutto came to power in the late 1980s, she resumed the process of reform, and although most of them were inconsequential, they led to the first-ever party-based elections in Gilgit-Baltistan in October 1994.

Likewise, Legal Framework Order (LFO) was introduced in 1994 to set up a Northern Areas Executive Council (NAEC) with 24 elected members, although without much authority. Later in 1999, the LFO was amended to vest certain powers in the Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC), which was given the right to legislate on 49 subjects. When President Pervez Musharraf was cornered, domestically and internationally, he offered a package to Gilgit-Baltistan in 2007. This constitutional package made nominal changes to the existing system, ostensibly making it more representative. The NALC was renamed the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly. Later, in 2009, a presidential order was introduced by the government of the Pakistan’s People’s Party, which was named the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Government Order.

The Human Rights Commission Pakistan in its observer report rejected the order in clear terms. The report in its comprehensive note stated: “The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009 generally fell short of the people’s expectations. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan had expected that the region would either be made the fifth province of Pakistan or get an autonomous status or an interim constitutional set-up on the pattern of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The Order has brought little meaningful change at any level as, through various devices, the final authority on all important matters is the federal government. Most of the political parties criticised the Order as mere eyewash.”

Since the inception of Pakistan, rights of people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been compromised between local incompetent political leadership and federal governments. Packages were designed time and again to create the impression of self-rule in Gilgit-Baltistan. Even as the order was named as empowerment, it failed to give the region a well-defined political status or any form of representation in the federal structure of Pakistan. All these so-called empowerment and self-government presidential orders are neither legally binding nor empowering local people. So, names and portfolios have been changed time and again due to international pressure or indigenous struggle of nationalists. Successive governments and political parties have been promising and claiming reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan, but no democratic participation exists at the grassroots level. The popular elected Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly cannot debate issues related to defence, finance, internal security and foreign affairs or question the conduct of the judges of the Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Appellate Court and the Chief Court. The budget is passed by the assembly but prepared by bureaucrats in Pakistan. The chief secretary in the ministry of Kashmir affairs is a non-local bureaucrat and the governor a political appointee.

Three generations of the region passed away without identity, disenfranchised. Realistically, Pakistan has two options: either to grant maximum autonomy to the region or make it an independent state. Indeed this is high time for Pakistan to clear the ambiguity over Gilgit-Baltistan and give maximum autonomy to the local legislative assembly with proper check and balance mechanism.

The article was first published in Daily Times of which the author is a correspondent from Gilgit-Baltistan

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