By Eli Anniyah
The recent shift in political focus to Gilgit Baltistan by the government of Pakistan has its basis in the push by China to have a secure operational setting for the CPEC. This is a reasonable requirement given that China intends to invest roughly 46 billion dollars in projects related to the CPEC agreements. That being said, the process so far has been not been inclusive has and failed to recognise the inherent rights of the people of Gilgit Baltistan for self determination.
The strategic importance of Gilgit Baltistan in the larger view of the region cannot be underestimated. It is the gateway to the CPEC trade route. It is the holder of vast amounts of mineral, hydrologic, and other resources. Division of Gilgit Baltistan into component territories, continued subjugation of its people, and loss of cultural cohesiveness of GB people through cultural degradation and dilution are the recipe for an escalation of violence with untold disastrous outcomes for a region already saturated with violence.
A more sensible response would be one with a constructive set of activities that will contribute to the long term benefit of Gilgit Baltistan and its 2 million people by fully resolving the fact that GB remains without a legitimate system of self governance or true representation of its people. Despite its political age, the 9 year old European Parliament Resolution of 2007 retains a basic validity and is a good reference point for the present analysis.
In Points 19 and 20 under the Explanatory Statement subheading of Gilgit Baltistan, the document clearly puts forward the fact that GB lacks a constitutional identity and has no civil rights.
- Gilgit and Baltistan has no status or even the semblance of democratic representation.
- Gilgit and Baltistan is administered by Pakistan. As Pakistan maintains that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir is disputed territory, it is not able to formally incorporated Gilgit Baltistan under the present circumstances. As such, it is neither a province of Pakistan nor a part of AJK. The Northern Areas Council, set up some time ago, with the boast that it is functioning like a ‘Provincial Assembly’, screens, in reality, a total absence of constitutional identity or civil rights.
The actual power of government rests with the Ministry of Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan Affairs, and the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly gives the appearance, but not the reality, of self determination. A review of the 2013-2014 One Year Performance Report by the Ministry of Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan Affairs, posted on the Ministry website, on the one hand shows investment in GB in the description of projects completed. However, the on-the-ground realities belie genuine concern or significant progress.
At the same time, the government of Pakistan has numerous shortcomings in its management of Pakistan as a whole, not just Gilgit Baltistan. The unfortunate state of affairs is that the government of Pakistan has no particular experience with being a well functioning entity and has a poor human rights history in general. It also has the dubious reputation of being one of the most corrupt governments in the world. Given this, Gilgit Baltistan should not consider itself singled out as a target for inequity. In such a political environment, it would be of no particular surprise if indeed the members of the GBLA are not fully authentic or legitimate actors for the people of Gilgit Baltistan and that the GBLA is engaged in some amount of corruption.
Point 21 in the European Parliament Resolution of 2007 under the Gilgit Baltistan subheading begins “The people are kept in poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. The deprivation and lack of even very basic needs provision can be easily seen”. This has been a longstanding problem that the government of Pakistan has sadly allowed to fester throughout Pakistan as well as Gilgit Baltistan. The uneven distribution of services is well known domestically and internationally but is not likely to undergo any substantial change until the underlying societal supports for the behavior are somehow altered. That does not mean that the situation should be casually accepted. It does mean that expecting a sudden or radical change is not a sensible mode of thought and that pursuing on the ground social and economic development in addition to education should be given continued priority in the charitable, private, and commercial sectors.
The demand for a plebiscite is not a good use of time or energy. The European Parliament Resolution of 2007, under the Gilgit Baltistan subheading, states: The issue of a plebiscite
- The report makes clear its support for the current peace process between Pakistan and India as the way forward. Pakistan continues to point to early UNSC Resolutions on Kashmir to support its contention that there should be a plebiscite to determine whether a reunited Jammu and Kashmir should “join” India or Pakistan. The report notes, however, that the UN-laid down conditions for such a plebiscite have not been, and can no longer be, met by Pakistan. The situation has moved on.
Those comments were made 9 years ago. If the plebiscite was already a seen as a waste of time then, it cannot have gained any more value as an option since. In other words, it’s time to begin examining the issues and searching for solutions from new vantage points; the old ones have run their course.
The increasing division of Gilgit Baltistan under political party imports has not proven to be a worthwhile path to this end. Religious sectarian divisions are deepening with tragic effects and even the educated youth are reacting in devastating ways to their feelings of being disenfranchised. Ultimately, the issue here is personal empowerment, as individuals, groups, and as GBians. The growing trend of sectarian violence perpetrated by educated individuals is testimony to that. Yet to seek direct confrontation with the government of Pakistan is to invite tragedy with no purpose served. More effective then, is to utilize the strengths of GBians to create novel and innovative solutions.
There has been a movement of late toward bringing different individuals and entities together to revitalise a spirit of unity. This activity has met with moderate success. Additionally, only unions between similar individuals and entities tends to occur, limiting the overall potential value of such actions by excluding those whose views may differ from each other, sometimes substantially, although their stated goals are the same or nearly so.
The integration of these individuals and entities across the invisible but highly reactive ideological lines of political, secular, and sectarian stances is critical to the actual and sustainable realisation of improving the lives of GBians. The youth of Gilgit Baltistan are extremely intelligent and motivated, and among them are talented integrative leaders. It would be an act of wisdom to develop these gifted young men and women into a trained leadership base. It makes far more sense to raise up leaders who will function as bridges not only within Gilgit Baltistan, but also between GB and the government of Pakistan as many of them have attended university and are employed in Pakistan.
Presently, the government of Pakistan perceives the autonomy of Gilgit Baltistan as a threat to its wellbeing, and a confrontational approach by Gbians will get exactly that: confrontation. The process of building solutions through integrative leaders means Gilgit Baltistan can gain empowerment in a partnership with Pakistan by focusing on common goals and demonstrating that it is in the best interest of both to allow GB its civil and human rights. The CPEC is an ideal opportunity for motivating such a dialogue.
One possible option that can be investigated is the creation of a Compact of Free Association (aka Protectorate as defined in present day international law) such as was suggested by social activist and writer Asif Ali Ashraf (An Alternative Solution for the Status of Gilgit Baltistan, Dardistan Times 20/01/2016). A Compact of Free Association (CoFA) would allow for a gradual separation of governmental rule between Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan while retaining mutual benefits.
The amount of expense and effort being put into protecting the CPEC investment by both China and Pakistan, with military exercises by Russia added for emphasis, could be better spent in constructing an environment in which stakeholders have a vested interest for protecting it themselves. By seeking to accrue the majority benefit to limited parties, the potential for disruption is increased. In the case of Gilgit Baltistan, the withholding of rights has been kept tied to the Kashmir dispute with India over proprietorship of the territory. A CoFa between Pakistan and Gilgit Baltistan reframes the situation entirely by giving autonomy to GB while retaining strong ties between the two. There would no longer be a claim on GB by Pakistan for India to contend with.
Among the many worthwhile actions under such an agreement, would be to give GB the responsibility to create its own constitution, develop institutions for self governance, achieve the ability to negotiate on its own with foreign powers, work on educational and economic advancement, budgetary self-reliance, and become an autonomous nation. Freedom of movement, employment, and unrestricted residence as nonimmigrants between the two countries could continue, although each population would have its distinct citizenships. The CoFA would have a defined lifespan before renewal and could include a procedure for negotiation in the interim.
The CoFA would need to be designed with a timeline and achievable self governance targets with a gradual withdrawal of support and presence of the Pakistan government in GB and its affairs. It is necessary to allow for readjustment at a moderate pace to prevent a repeat of the previous collapse of Gilgit Baltistan as an independent nation or a sudden shock to the soundness of either country in any way. The goal is to have a strong alliance between the two governments, fostering mutual support and benefit while improving the lives of individual citizens.
GB would do well to follow this with a declaration of neutrality, as suggested by another GB youth activist and writer Sher Nadir Shahi, to prevent military incursion by either of the old combatants or by new ones. Kyrgyzstan is an excellent regional role model, successfully establishing itself as neutral territory after its separation from Russian control. The importance of solidifying GB as a neutral territory goes beyond the mere prevention of invasion or external forces using it as a battleground. Gilgit Baltistan is the largest reservoir of freshwater outside the Arctic (Asif Ali Ashraf, A Brief Analysis of GB’s Geopolitical Status, Pamir Times 21/9/2015). Control of GB and its water resource by any outsider puts the power balance of the region at risk as the impact of climate change builds.
The longstanding stalemate on the status of Gilgit Baltistan has come to the forefront of attention again as a critical factor in the security of the CPEC. Rather than engaging in deceptive offers of implied civil rights acquisition or barely disguised military threats, it would be better to support the most valuable resource of Gilgit Baltistan, its youth, by supporting those who seek to develop them into trained integrative leaders who can act in a neutral capacity to assist in bringing the focus to common goals and shared objectives. The use of a Compact of Free Association for GB autonomy in conjunction with a declaration of Gilgit Baltistan as a neutral territory would be novel approaches to solving the GB part of Kashmir dispute, the bitter issue of disenfranchisement for the people of GB, and preventing future use of GB as a battleground by outside combatants.
The contributor is co-founder of One Future and Assistant Director of Himalaya Rural Development Programme (HRDP). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org