The name of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan evokes aesthetic feelings about the land with serenity, gushing rivers, flora and fauna, lofty mountains, glaciers and azure lakes perched in the lap of one of the biggest massifs in the world. What is missing in this process of aesthetics is the human element. Psychologically, human beings try to evade disquieting feelings by indulging in beauty. However, like the Keatsian ideal, it is not necessary for the beauty to be truth. Sometimes the truth of human condition can be ugly.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, the collective truth about its political identity mars not just the beauty of landscape, but the social psychology, literature, politics, religion, education and culture.
This bleak picture is the result of apathetic governance structure, and colonisation of the life world by administrative approach. A study of colonial and post-colonial period clearly shows the gradual gnawing of the power and identity of people to cater to administrative necessities at the cost of popular aspirations.
Owing to monopoly of administrative and strategic dimensions in the thinking of policy and decision-makers, the political dimension is made to play second fiddle to dictates and necessities of power. That is why the state has been experimenting with different systems in Gilgit-Baltistan to avoid the core issue of granting constitutional rights to the region. As a result, the political and administrative apparatus has to readjust itself to ad hoc realities manufactured by the federal government for the local people.
Although the region of Gilgit-Baltistan remains invisible on the debates and issues in the rest of Pakistan, it has suddenly appeared on the limelight of media and political discourse after the announcement of the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order in May 2018.
Like previous systems of governance, the newly announced package is also thrust upon the local people through the order without any constitutional cover and consultative process. Such a system remains vulnerable to vagaries of power in the centre. Thus, it fails to provide durable solution to the lingering issue of political empowerment of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The incumbent government of Gilgit-Baltistan claims the package has conferred equal status to the people of region as enjoyed by the citizens of other provinces in Pakistan. This claim is far from the truth, as the new order does not provide any citizenship status to people in GB. Instead of granting citizenship under the constitution, the order intrudes into the region by extending Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951 (II of 1951), which allows a person with citizenship of Pakistan to become a resident of Gilgit-Baltistan.
It defies all reason as to why the government of Pakistan has decided to make the citizens with representation in the National Assembly and Senate residents of a region that is still seeking representation at national level. Such a clause in the order will open the floodgates for migration of people from other provinces to the region, which has barely a population of 1.5 million. In the long run, it has dire implications for the region’s sectarian, ethnic, linguistic and cultural composition.
It is reported in the print media that the Kashmiri lobby opposed full empowerment of Gilgit-Baltistan because it would harm the Kashmir cause. That is why the government of Pakistan has refrained from extending constitutional rights to GB. So it was deemed necessary to keep local people of the region under the thumb of federal government till the emancipation of Kashmir.
The Kashmir imbroglio has increasingly become a central plank in the policy of Pakistan towards GB. Generally, there is growing resentment among the local populace of GB towards Kashmiri leadership that support establishment’s policy of making the region an integral part of cartography of Pakistan and favour omitting demography of humans in Gilgit-Baltistan from its records and constitution. That may be the motive behind hiding the total population in Gilgit-Baltistan while the government has already shared numbers of 2017 census in other parts of Pakistan.
Over the long haul, it will change demography in the region, and enable some stakeholders in Kashmir dispute to avoid opposition from indigenous people of Gilgit-Baltistan towards Kashmiri cause in case of plebiscite.
Other articles in the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 also lend credence to the view that the package has disempowered more than empowering the region. The package was introduced on the heels of increasing agitation against the decision of government to impose taxes and confiscation of communal land in Gilgit-Baltistan. In most of the valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan, land-related issues are still managed through customary laws. These rules are the product of practices and customs evolved over centuries within particular cultural ethos, and political and social structure in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Traditionally, local rulers and tribal councils were guardians of customary laws. It is only in the modern period that the region witnessed introduction of statutory laws but their implementation remained confined to settled lands. Unlike modern statutory systems emanating from centralised planning, the traditional mechanism of enacting and promulgation of laws was participatory.
Owing to its participatory nature, the customary laws are still observed by the local people. Going against the grain of local practices, the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan for the last few years has been trying to usurp communal land in areas which are outside the purview of modern laws. This has pitted local communities in Gilgit-Baltistan against the government.
The article 64 of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 clearly grants rights for acquisition of land to the government. It states “The Government of Pakistan may, if it deems necessary to acquire any land situate in Gilgit-Baltistan for any purpose, require the Government to acquire the land on behalf, and at the expense, of the Government of Pakistan or, if the land belongs to the Government, to transfer it to the Government of Pakistan on such terms as may be agreed mutually.”
With the introduction of new package, local people fear the administration will grab community and barren lands. The underlying motive in the 2018 package is investing more power in the federal government and divesting people of whatever rights they have had under traditional and modern systems.
The issue of empowerment of Gilgit-Baltistan is basically an issue of human rights. Instead of ameliorating the human rights situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, the new order provides more space for violating human rights. Ideally, the state should make institutional and legal arrangements to ensure safety and security of its citizens. Instead, the state cramps space of citizenry and civil society by empowering administration in Gilgit-Baltistan to take a person in custody for 3 months by declaring him, “prejudicial to the integrity, security or defence Pakistan.”
The manifestations of such powers have become visible since the announcement of the order whereby administrative authorities have started to act like viceroy in matters related to public amenities and land issues.
Interestingly, the new order makes those in rule immune from accountability before any court. Article 108 states, “The Prime Minister, the Governor, the Chief Minister, and Ministers shall not be answerable to any court for the exercise of powers and performance of functions of their respective offices or for any act done or purported to be done in the exercise of those powers and performance of those functions”.
In other words, the kangaroo courts will only be used to prosecute common people who are not in power.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan had more expectations from the new package. This perception got a boost with the decision of the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to abolish Gilgit-Baltistan Council in February 2018. After this a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz was formed to work on a reform package for Gilgit-Baltistan.
To people’s dismay, Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 entrusted the office of Prime Minister with more power. Now the prime minister enjoys enormous power to enact laws than the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly. Article 64 (4) states, “If any provision of an Act of Assembly is repugnant to any provision of any law which the Prime Minister is competent to enact, then the law made by the Prime Minister, whether passed before or after the Act of the Assembly, shall prevail and the Act of the Assembly shall, to the extent of the repugnancy, be void.”
This clause clearly indicates reversal of whatever powers Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) enjoyed before.
The order to reverse the order of things in Gilgit-Baltistan begs the questions: Why the federal government has applied a reverse gear in Gilgit-Baltistan and not in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and FATA? Is it the government of Gilgit-Baltistan or the federal government that is responsible for introducing a disempowering order? In case of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974 was promulgated on June 2018. Ershad Mehmud in his article “Devolution of power in AJK” in The News on Sunday (June 10, 2018) provided insights into the processes and efforts made by the Kashmiri leaders to get rid of omnipotent bureaucracy and unaccountable Kashmir Council. It provides us conceptual base to juxtapose mechanisms followed by both the governments in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Unlike Gilgit-Baltistan, the amendment in Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s constitution for more power was result of the consultative process in which all political parties and civil society played an active role. Finally, AJK assembly approved the document with consensus in 2015. In the intervening period, the political leadership of Azad Jammu and Kashmir worked to negotiate terms of power.
On the other hand, the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan followed none of these steps. Israr Uddin Israr, Coordinator Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) Gilgit-Baltistan Chapter, is of the view that the order of 2018 would have been an improvement upon Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, if the government had consulted all stakeholders.
To add more confusion, the activities and content related to the new order were kept in secrecy let alone being approved by the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). Before the announcement of the Order, four different drafts were in circulation. Even after the announcement of order, the government of Gilgit-Baltistan has not shared the final draft. Instead of making the draft public, the government of Hafeez-ur-Rehman geared its media machinery that obfuscated the issue and mismanaged the affair. The unfounded claims of some members of ruling party in GBLA gives credence to the impression that the regional government was not consulted by the committee on reforms.
The lawyers’ fraternity and opposition parties are criticising the timing of the Order. The federal government announced the new package on the eve of its departure from power. It has pushed the government of Gilgit-Baltistan in a difficult position because it has to unpack the package in the absence of writers of the order. It can be argued that the Order was introduced at an opportune time, but the opportunity was squandered by the laidback attitude of the government of Gilgit-Baltistan.
It is wrong to attribute all the faults to the federal government. The present government in GB did not proactively pursue the contents of package and failed to negotiate through different actors including opposition and bureaucracy. In Gilgit-Baltistan, the latter has remained a major linchpin in the governance system of region because all the packages introduced so far were administrative packages. Because of its administrative centric approach, the political dimension is totally ignored. As a corollary, the political arm of the government has become emaciated, whereas the muscles of administrative arm or bureaucracy have grown stronger.
The only good point in the new package is establishment of the Gilgit-Baltistan Consolidated Fund. In the previous system, the regional government had to wait for periodical release of funds from the centre. Also, the order does not give any representation to Gilgit-Baltistan in finance managing and distribution bodies like Indus River System Authority (IRSA) and National Finance Commission (NFC) and the Council of Common Interest (CCI).
The Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 encapsulates the history of seven decades wherein Gilgit-Baltistan has been kept in perpetual limbo so that it cannot remain what it was and not become what it wants. In the region of dark limbo, no light of hope can penetrate. The only thing that can nourish in the dark zone is bitterness and resentment.
The order administers administrative medicine for a chronic political malady that has started festering other organs of the state and society. The new administrative package is disempowering and a non-starter because it focuses on the symptoms at the expense of causes which are deep.
The writer is a researcher with background in philosophy and social science. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org