By Ajmal Hussain
The recent strikes across Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) represent a refusal of the people against the imposition of new taxes in the region by the G-B Council. Protests were held on the calls given by Gilgit-Baltistan Central Traders Association, Awami Action Committee and some political parties. The imposition of taxes in G-B was also opposed simultaneously by the Supreme Court Bar Association, Hotels Association, Petroleum Dealers Association, Transport Association, various enterprises and business stakeholders. These demonstrations were held in opposition to another federal tax under the income tax law, adopted during the government of Pakistan Peoples Party in 2012. When the PML(N) came to power in 2015, it endorsed the Act without any reservation(s).
Regardless of the freezing temperatures, people in the entirety of G-B displayed tremendous unity under the one-point agenda of “No Taxation without Representation”. The protests gathered momentum with the passage of time as calls for solidarity echoed across major cities of Pakistan such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad through social media and TV channels. However, it was appalling to witness the deafening silence of major media houses which failed to provide adequate coverage to the demands of the people of G-B.
Since G-B is by definition not a part of Pakistan under Article 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973; therefore, the act of the imposition of taxes can be deemed unlawful. Similarly, on the 13th of August 1948 a unanimous resolution was passed by the UN General Assembly outlining G-B as a disputed territory. Hence, the status of G-B was made conditional upon the resolution of Kashmir dispute. It was also highlighted that during the interim period both Pakistan and India were to exercise merely de facto administrative control over the respective sides of the border.
It must not be glossed over that G-B secured liberation from the Dogra Raj in November 1948 through an indigenous rebellion. However, the people of G-B at that point in time had the choice of not acceding to Pakistan as per the Principle of Partition. Nevertheless, they opted to become part of Pakistan by their own volition. Today, it is strategically Pakistan’s most important region where people do not enjoy complete constitutional protection and fundamental liberties.
It must be kept in mind that in 1983 as well indirect taxes were introduced; however, no shutter down strikes or protests were held in the region. Similarly, 28th May 1999 was significant as the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Al-Jehad Trust and Others v. Federation of Pakistan, 1999 SCMR 1379 held that the government should clarify the status of G-B. However, in paragraph 27 the Court observed:
“. . . [n]or can we direct that the people of Northern Areas should be given representation in the Parliament as, at this stage, it may not be in the larger interest of the country because of the fact that a plebiscite under the auspices of the United Nations is to be held.”
In short, the Court’s decision was a major setback for G-B’s exclusion from constitutional certainty. Characterizing the issue as political and transferring the responsibility on the Parliament and the Executive further lingered its determination. Yet, it can be seen that other than the introduction of the Gilgit-Baltistan (Governance and Self-Government) Order, 2009 (Order of 2009) no substantial progress been made to lessen the ambiguity of the region.
The Order of 2009 established the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and the Gilgit-Baltistan Council. It also created the post of Governor and Chief Minister. They would represent the president of Pakistan and function as the de facto rulers of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the successive governments of Pakistan since 1947 have tried to reimagine Gilgit-Baltistan in ways that are non-controversial to the state, i.e., largely as a depoliticized, docile space. On the other hand, the Gilgit-Baltistan Self-Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009 represents a further step in the regulation of the “exceptional” constitutional status of the territory without in fact challenging it. According to Bouzas et al. (2013) although the use of the word “self” before “empowerment” and “governance” would seem to imply regional autonomy without state interference, reality contradicts this assumption.
The Chief Minister’s diatribe against demonstrators calling them “RAW Agents” undermines the local sentiment and effort for greater rights and autonomy. At best, the dismissive statement of the Chief Minister is a reflection of the lack of serious thought and leadership by those who enjoy power in Pakistan. Instead of blaming the demonstrations as anti-Government propaganda, the local government could have taken proactive measures to ameliorate the situation. However, the passive response of the PML(N) government indicates a fatal flaw in the political system G-B: local governments of G-B have almost always been subservient to the federal government of Pakistan. Since the imposition of taxes were backed up and engineered primarily by the incumbent PML(N) government in Islamabad, the local government of PML(N) in Gilgit could not have opposed such a move, even if it wanted to. Hence, the recent opposition against imposition of new taxes in G-B has also paved way for further discussion on the importance of regional autonomy of G-B and the value of policy making based on local context rather than whims of the centre.
The contributor is an Assistant Professor at KIU, Gilgit.