Afzal Ali Shigri
HISTORICALLY, Gilgit-Baltistan was designated as part of the princely state of Kashmir, but over the course of almost seven decades since Independence, the clamour for integration with Pakistan by GB residents has grown louder. At the time of Partition in 1947, the residents of this region struggled against the regular Kashmir state army to join Pakistan. However, the government of Pakistan, in view of the UN resolution for a plebiscite to determine the disputed status of the princely state, allied Gilgit-Baltistan with the territory, and is confident in the unwavering commitment of the locals to Pakistan.
To date, the plebiscite has not taken place, and it is not likely to be held in the near future either. Hence, the fate of GB hangs in what is effectively a constitutional limbo. In 2009, the PPP government took the first significant step towards self-rule for the area by creating a local Legislative Assembly, which was afforded limited powers for selected subjects of governance along with the semblance of a provincial administrative structure. Nevertheless, the empowerment of the region still fell far short of the kind of powers the provincial governments had.
With the accession to power of the PML-N government, constitutional reform towards a provincial status for GB was expected. Despite vocal demands by civil society and resolutions by the locally elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, the sitting government set up a committee under the adviser on foreign affairs in 2015, seeking recommendations regarding the resolution of this constitutional conundrum — neatly sidestepping constitutional reform by consigning the fate of GB to the adviser and his committee.
The simplest solution lies in setting into motion a concrete plan to merge Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan.
In January 2016, it was stated by the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan that the recommendations, aligned with the expectations of the residents of the area, had been finalised and would be announced forthwith. Almost two years later, the status quo prevails; the recent statement by the American defence secretary about the status of the Gilgit-Baltistan area in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has resulted in a flurry of activity to show that the issue is being addressed.
While the Pakistan government is giving a confused response to the US defence secretary’s statement that is an endorsement of India’s claim that CPEC passes through disputed territory, the so-called nationalist leaders of the area have seized the opportunity to malign Pakistan for perpetrating some imaginary atrocities in this area, from the platform of the Unrepresented Nations and People Organisation (UNPO), which is an NGO based in Europe that is being covered by the Indian media extensively.
The members of the local assembly have condemned this statement, once again unequivocally demanding integration of GB with Pakistan. The GB chief minister has criticised the statement of the US defence secretary; expressing apprehensions that the adversaries of Pakistan plan to use the US stance to derail the CPEC project as its success rests on access to the entry route of 500 miles (some 800 kilometres) from China into Pakistan.
Oddly, the Pakistan government, instead of actively resolving the issue of GB’s constitutional status, has sought recourse to countering the negative propaganda by planning to dispatch a delegation of GB’s Legislative Assembly members to Europe.
To counter this hostile propaganda, the simplest solution to the problem lies in setting into motion a concrete plan to merge GB with Pakistan provisionally till the ‘plebiscite’ takes place. With Pakistani citizenship their sole desire, the people of GB have proven their love and patriotism for Pakistan through the many sacrifices made in defensive battles waged in the name of the country’s causes again and again. This warrants appreciation and recognition.
Notwithstanding the fact that the enemies of Pakistan want to derail CPEC, the continuous denial of constitutional status to the GB region and the lack of planned development there (despite the CPEC project being under way) will serve to fuel the discontent of the local populace. The educated youth of the area continue to raise issues that impact their lives every day. Taxation by the federation sans representation is already becoming a big concern, land settlement is another flashpoint in danger of eruption, and scores of other issues related to appointments to key posts in the administration and judiciary exist.
Given the area’s key importance to the success of CPEC, disruption in the form of civic discontent to the issues highlighted could imperil the entire project. A realistic appraisal of the situation is needed, alongside a reasonable solution to which the residents are amenable.
Government procrastination and prevarication in the form of empty political statements over impending constitutional reform is hardly likely to hold the rising dissatisfaction with the status quo at bay for long. There is brewing discontent and the people are now raising their voice against these multiple issues. Sending a delegation to Europe or for that matter any other continent will be of no help. It will only complicate matters and create the impression of a cover-up. The committee report, whatever its contents, should be immediately taken up for consideration and the prime minister of Pakistan should take a bold political decision and integrate Gilgit-Pakistan into Pakistan.
The propaganda of Pakistan’s enemies led by India and helped along by the Americans has the potential of sabotaging CPEC by stoking the fires of minor issues and converting them into a blaze that endangers the entire initiative. If not for the people of GB then at least for protecting CPEC, the government of Pakistan should take immediate corrective actions to address the issue of integration of. Tomorrow may be too late.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Originally published in Dawn, October 24th, 2017