The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s decision regarding the status of Gilgit-Baltistan territory has started peaceful but energetic effort for the rights of an area that has been declared disputed after 71 years of its affiliation with the State of Pakistan.
A seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) recently heard petitions challenging the powers of ‘GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009’. The Order in question was restored by the Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Appellate Courts on July 13, 2018 after setting aside the ‘Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018’ that was recommended by a nine-member constitutional committee led by Sartaj Aziz, the then advisor to prime minister on foreign affairs.
The GB Order 2018 was approved by the ex-president of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain on May 26, 2018 and notified by the then prime minister on June 1, 2018.
However, the order of the GB Appellate Court was suspended by a Supreme Court bench headed by ex-chief justice Mian Saqib Nisar, who while hearing his last case, extended the Supreme Court’s powers to GB on January 17, 2019 in a written order regarding the constitutional status of the territory.
The decision further said that the people of GB will be given fundamental human rights until a referendum decision determines the changes to the constitutional status of GB.
Social activist Dr Ghulam Abbas first filed an appeal in the Supreme Court in 1999 for GB’s constitutional status and has been actively on the forefront of campaigns ever since. “The Supreme Court’s judgment is an issue of life and death for the deprived people of GB who are demanding their basic rights since joining Pakistan in November 1947,” he said.
Dr Abbas said that people were left confused for decades as their voice was suppressed but finally they have at least been clearly told that GB is a disputed area. “Majority of the people were of the view that GB was a part of Pakistan and would one day become the fifth province,” he said.
Commenting on the SCP’s decision, former judge of the GB Supreme Appellate Court Justice Syed Jaffar Shah said the court has held that making GB a provisional province in the light of the Sartaj Aziz committee does not affect Pakistan’s stance on Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
“Since the people of GB are already citizens of Pakistan as per the SCP decision in the Al Jihad Trust case in 1999, they should be given equal rights as other citizens of Pakistan,” Justice Shah maintained, adding, “the SCP should have directed the federal government to give a strategy for giving GB provincial status within a given time.
“Instead, the court in para 19 of its operative part says that the GB Order 2018 shall be part and parcel of this judgment.”
Justice Shah claimed that there were many flaws in the GB Order 2018 which made it least acceptable to the people of GB. “Article 103 minimises the position of the GB Supreme Appellate Court as it says the SCP can hear any appeal against the decisions of the Appellate Court.”
Similarly, Article 124 gives the President of Pakistan authority to amend the GB Order 2018 whereas in other parts of the country, including Kashmir, amendments can only be made by the elected members of the parliament.
“A commission comprising Chief Secretary GB, Secretary Kashmir Affairs, Joint Secretary Kashmir Affairs and a retired judge of the SCP will be recommending the appointment of judges in GB Supreme Appellate Court and high court,” he said.
The appointment of judges in the GB Supreme Appellate Court should be made like in the rest of Pakistan according to Article 175 of the Constitution of Pakistan. “The commission should consist of chief justice, a senior judge and a retired judge of the GB Supreme Appellate Court, Law Minister, Attorney General and a senior advocate of the Supreme Appellate Court,” Justice Jaffar Shah opined.
Article 82 of the GB Order 2018 specifies that any high court judge can be appointed as the chief justice of GB Supreme Appellate Court. This is not the practice in the rest of the country.
Similarly, the order says that any retired judge from other provinces can serve as CJ till the age of 70 whereas a local judge older than 65 cannot serve in the same position.
Activists organising the movement against the Supreme Court’s decision believe that the Supreme Court’s decision was taken in haste, alleging that Justice Saqib Nissar wanted to improve Pakistan-India relations. “It is a contradictory judgment as nothing has been said about how the disputed area would be administratively controlled. A judge is not supposed to define foreign policy of a state,” Advocate Amjad Hussain, president Pakistan People’s Party GB said.
“I fear this judgment has empowered the weak nationalist and separatist elements in GB and these anti-state elements will try to exploit the judgment to create an insurgency like situation,” Hussain expressed, adding the federal government should immediately review the judgment and correct all mistakes.
He also mentioned the issue of allocation of too much quota for federal bureaucrats in GB as well as political interference from the federation, and demanded that more locals should be appointed instead of officials from other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, Hafiz Sultan Raees al Hussaini, head of the Awami Action Committee, said that all stakeholders are planning to draft a bill regarding the just rights of the people and present it in the GB legislative assembly. “After consultation, all opposition parties will pass this draft from the assembly before presenting it as a narrative to the federal government of Pakistan and request to make it an act of the parliament.”
Hafiz Sultan Raees added that the people of GB did not accept the judgment because it would give power to one person to control or amend the administrative system. “Our demand is to have autonomy in administrative and political decision making. The elected members of GB should be empowered to govern the region. As per the 18th amendment, all administrative powers; except foreign affairs, currency and defence should be given to the GB legislative assembly,” he said.
Hafiz Raees also lamented the federal control over GB’s sources of income and insisted that the resources should be in the control of the GB administration.
Nawaz Khan Naji, head of Balawaristan National Front, partly approved the judgment of the SC by saying that GB is a disputed territory between Pakistan and India. “However, the court has exceeded its jurisdiction as it cannot issue orders to GB. The Supreme Court can only issue orders to the government of Pakistan as GB does not come under its jurisdiction. The SCP cannot implement the judgment either,” he said.
Nawaz Khan Naji added that the people of GB want to be a part of Pakistan. “A win-win situation for both the federation and the people of GB will be to give autonomy to GB similar to the one practised in Azad Jammu and Kashmir.”
Ex-MPA GB legislative assembly Amna Ansari argues that the youth, especially females, have great awareness about their status and rights and that their desire is to be identified as Pakistanis. “Our girls are actively campaigning in different parts of Pakistan and abroad, and on social media. People from different political and religious backgrounds are all on the same page as everyone wants to be called a citizen of Pakistan,” she added.
The leaders giving life to the movement in GB against the Supreme Court’s judgment are determined to compel the government of Pakistan on implementing recommendations of the Sartaj Aziz committee favouring the wishes of the people of GB without further delay. They desire a provincial status for GB besides a proper representation under Article 51 and 57 of the Constitution of Pakistan, representation in all constitutional bodies, assigning all legislative subjects to the GB assembly and a robust local body system.