The widening chasm in Gilgit-Baltistan

Ali Ahsan 

In a class room of the Karachi University, some years ago, there was a discussion about the number of province in Pakistan. Some argued that Pakistan had five provinces and some stated that it had four. In middle of the confusion, the class turned to us, four students from Gilgit-Baltistan, to resolve the paradox!

We, the students from Gilgit-Baltistan, looked at each other to see if anyone knew the answer firmly. It appeared that we were not completely aware of our region’s constitutional status in the federation of Pakistan. The paradox remained unresolved in our minds. We were unable to determine whether the 1.8 million people of Gilgit-Baltistan are citizens of Pakistan. We kept wondering why the legislative bodies of Pakistan have failed to define the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan, a resource rich region located at a strategic vantage point!

The debate we had that day in our class has been going on during the last 65 years, in one form or the other and the result has also been confusion and more confusion. Meanwhile, our region is passing through a phase where the societies are collapsing due to excessive use of divisive, short-terms, tactics and the state and several governments.

The first and foremost reason for the social collapse is the never ending sectarianism, violent or otherwise, in Gilgit-Baltistan which has divided the population to that extent that sectarian affiliation is now understood as the only “pure”, true, social affiliation. This has further muddied the identity debate, to which the discussion on the constitutional rights is attached. This tunnel vision approach has also hindered social harmonization, by putting curbs on interactions and mobility.

The masses of Gilgit Baltistan are fully aware of the hands behind the 1988 carnage and later state sponsored sectarian proxies who came in to play at later stages. The divisive hands became naked while reacting to the nationalists’ demands for opening of land routes to Kargil, Central Asia and other neighboring regions. The divisive hands also stood exposed when a new wave of violence broke out in the city, two days after the elected representatives expressed dissent over some mega projects for which they had not been taken into confidence.

The second reason of the social collapse is weak institutions, which are essentially the products of the on-going constitutional limbo. After keeping the region waiting for 65 years, on August 29, 2009 the Gilgit–Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 was signed by the then President of Pakistan. The order promised to grant self-rule to the people of Gilgit–Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council. Gilgit–Baltistan thus gained de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. This presidential order, skewed heavily towards Islamabad in terms of powers, has however failed to compensate for the region’s demands for constitutional status.

The restriction, real and perceived, on free mobility on the Karakuram Highway and other roads are also adding to the disintegration of the society. The people are afraid of traveling and suspicious of each other, even if traveling.

In my observation, there is a growing sense in the public which hints at distancing of Gilgit-Baltistan from the federation of Pakistan. ‘The state has nothing to offer for Gilgit-Baltistan except sectarian divide and further break down of democratic institutions of Gilgit Baltistan’, as a fellow traveler on the KKH told me. Such sentences and feelings are increasingly being heard across the region, especially on the social media where a very large number of the educated youth from Gilgit-Baltistan are busy sharing their views and frustrations.

Under such social and political pressures, alienation from the mainstream becomes inevitable. Therefore, an increasingly larger number of youth of Gilgit-Baltistan question the authority and legitimacy of Pakistan’s institutions in the region. The sectarian divide is visible in every segment of the society of Gilgit Baltistan and interestingly the institutions do not possess the capacity to assess and handle issues, all the decisions is made by the federal security institution instead of the civil government of Gilgit Baltistan.

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