By: Izhar Hunzai, Ashabullah Baig
The proverbial natural beauty of GB is witness to the harsh political realities that the people of the region have endured for more than a century. GB has enjoyed a distinct political identity as a collection of independent states for much of its history. However, the never ending political troubles of the region started off with a feud in 1842, when a local prince Karim Khan, scuffled with the ruler of Gilgit and overthrew him with the help of Sikh army. Later in 1846, the East India Company as the then defacto colonial ruler of sub-continent sold out “all the hilly territories east of Indus” including parts of current GB, to Maharaja of Kashmir, under the Treaty of Amritsar. In order to avert a perceived threat from Russia, the British retook control of the area in 1877 and formally established their rule under Gilgit Agency granting internal autonomy to the local rulers. On August 14, 1947 at the time of partition, the departing British Administration handed over Gilgit Agency to the Maharaja of Kashmir. A war of liberation succeeded in GB against the new colonial rule, and the heroic struggle culminated in independence on 1 November 1947. On 15th of November 1947, the newly founded Republic of Gilgit declared its unconditional accession with the state of Pakistan. The unceremonious link between GB and the State of Jammu and Kashmir has been that of forceful subjugation and literal sellout of the area by one colonial ruler to another. After the liberation and the decision to join Pakistan by people of the region, relating GB with Jammu & Kashmir is utterly contemptible and contrary to the spirit of liberation of GB.
At the time of accession with Pakistan on 15th November 1947, the people of the region wanted whole heartedly a full, constitutional, political and cultural integration with Pakistan. But contrary to the aspirations of people, the fate of the region was unscrupulously linked yet again with resolution of Kashmir dispute and was given a sub-ordinated status. Uncertain of its identity for more than half a century, GB is given a nominal political and administrative autonomy in 2009; whereby the region was granted self-rule with a quasi-provincial status through Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) and GB Council (GBC). These measures have proved to be an eyewash as real policymaking is kept in federally dominated GBC for it can overturn any legislation promulgated by GBLA that has no jurisdiction on key income generating sectors of local economy. The present arrangement is unsubstantiated and devoid of Parliamentary consent. The political reforms thus introduced are not sufficient even to entitle the people of GB to be the formal citizens of Pakistan.
The geographical area of GB, spread over 74,000 sq. km is seven times bigger than AJK and nearly equals the size of Sindh province. This resource rich region has running waters considered as sustainable ‘white’ goldmines that can generate over 100,000 MW of hydropower; it has huge reserves of mineral wealth in its mountains; it offers a climate conducive for growing high quality horticultural and agricultural products; and is home to the biggest theatre of mountain peaks and glaciers in the world. It has a young, capable and an increasing literate workforce. Yet, these human and material resources have remained grossly under-utilized for the last seven decades owing to the neglected and undecided constitutional status that has been kept in limbo for misconstrued historical reasons.
The strategic importance of GB is further established in the context of the growing Pak-China economic relations. Bordered and connected with China through KKH, the region serves as the gateway to Pak-China Economic Corridor. Exploiting the economic opportunities offered by the region without first restoring the rights to self-govern and granting the ownership of resources to its people will be a fatal political mistake. Pakistan can no longer afford to dilute its own sovereignty over a vital part of the country, and deprive the people of GB of their legitimate rights. It is now incumbent upon the federation to recognize the liberation of GB on 1st November 1947, and welcome the offer of accession to Pakistan made on 15 November 1947.
The time has come to re-write the social contract between the people of GB and federation of Pakistan in line with Article 1-40 of the Constitution. Should the long-standing stance of Pakistan on Kashmir and the relevant UN Resolutions, calling for a plebiscite come in the way, then GB’s integration into Pakistan shall be deemed as ‘provisional’. The article 370 of Indian constitution grants special autonomous status and privileges to the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir. Similarly, the present political set up in AJK provides far greater rights and privileges under an interim constitution, including the offices of the Prime Minister and President, Supreme Court, even a state flag. Likewise, in order to compensate for the seven missing decades of development and recognition, the region deserves to be given a provisional provincial plus status with greater internal autonomy. This special provincial status should entail a series of affirmative actions and constitutional safeguards to protect the rights of people of GB as equal citizens of Pakistan, who can no longer be kept as a hostage to a final settlement of the territorial dispute between India and Pakistan.
More specifically, the letter and spirit of provincial plus status should entail four key affirmative measures taken by the Federation of Pakistan; including 1) full constitutional rights to the people of GB; 2) restore and enhance State Subject Rule (SSR) that was revoked in 1976 in GB, the way it still applies in AJK and Indian held Kashmir. This is imperative to protect the interests of small and economically & politically weak population of GB which can be overwhelmed and potentially displaced and deprived of their resources by financially and numerically stronger groups from all directions; 3) Proportional share in income generated from economic corridor; and 4) Ownership of the resources including the mineral and water resources; and provincial share of revenues.
The people of the region aspire to have political autonomy whereby the current GBLA should be upgraded as GB Assembly with full powers of legislation at par with other provincial assemblies. The people of the region further want to have fiscal autonomy whereby they will be able to manage and develop the regional economy so as to minimize the existing financial dependence on federation. The people of the region in addition want to preserve and promote their cultural diversity that gives GB the unique identity. The people of GB are patriotic and sincere to Pakistan since its inception 1947. They won their freedom and decided to be part of Pakistan voluntarily. They have made great sacrifices to defend and protect the matters of national integrity. The time has come to give due recognition to their patience and sacrifice with new spirit. A developing and prosperous GB can be a harbinger of success and prosperity to the rest of Pakistan. This is only a matter of giving GB a fair chance!