Aziz Ali Dad
Since October 2017, Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed massive protests against the imposition of taxes in the region by the government of Pakistan. The basic argument of GB’s residents stems from the universal rule that there should be no taxation without adequate representation.
The ever-expanding nature of the protest forced the GB government to withdraw all taxes being imposed in the region. This measure may have helped the regional government to rein in a popular protest in GB, but it did not assuage the growing concerns of the populace about the liminal status of the region within the polity of Pakistan. The main reason to keep GB in a liminal position within the political system of the country is its association with the Kashmir imbroglio.
It is important to highlight the fact that GB is the only region in the country that decided to accede to Pakistan after gaining independence from the Dogra rule through an armed struggle. When India took the Kashmir dispute to the UN in 1948, Pakistan declared GB to be a part of Kashmir without consulting the locals. Since then, the status of the region has been held captive to the Kashmir issue at the expense of the political and constitutional rights of the people. Owing to this, the state has launched manoeuvres to grant a few crumbs of power to the local political class, which remains content with these perks and privileges, and has turned a blind eye towards the basic question of the status of GB.
The collusion of the state and the local political class has kept GB in perpetual liminality in Pakistan. Franz Fanon refers to such areas as “zones of nonbeing”, which he describes as “extraordinarily sterile and arid region[s], and utterly naked declivit[ies] where an authentic upheaval can be born”. The sterility of the region has deep repercussions on the political unconsciousness of people. It sublimates in the social and political domains where the people do not want to escape from that zone and instead placate themselves with the few crumbs of power that they have. The people of GB do not want to face the structure that denies their identity. Fanon’s concept of the zone of nonbeing has two characteristics – limbo and total absence. GB perfectly embodies both these traits. In fact, it is the cowardice of the political and ruling class of the region that it does not dare to look into the chaos which gradually engulfs the personal, social, political and cultural domains.
To remain meaningful and relevant, it is indispensible for any political arrangement to bring people towards the ‘zone of being’ by investing power in them. Bringing people within the ambit of the constitution can create this zone of being. In the case of GB, the government is keeping people as zombies in the zone of nonbeing rather than citizens in the zone of being. The disconnect between power and the people generates anger, which then provides a fertile ground for upheavals. However, the sterile and arid region of nonbeing also incapacitates the political leadership and numbs the minds of intellectuals. As a result, the genuine struggle for political rights cannot be born despite the fact that the objective conditions are ripe. At an intellectual level, the so-called thinkers of GB have failed to build a coherent narrative to create a new social contract.
The breakdown of the social contract manifests in the fragmentation of politics, society and the self. Before the fragmentation of political discourse in GB, the self and society witnessed disintegration. This has produced two effects on the political domain of GB. First, it has expanded the sphere of liminality and robbed people of their identity. Second, the liminal status of the people who inhabit the zone of nonbeing has provided an opportunity for exogenous forces to superimpose their identities and decision on the people.
The operation of the aforementioned processes of the political unconscious can be witnessed in the further disintegration of traditional but fluid identities into the smallest possible identity units. It can also be seen in the disappearance of an overarching political agenda regarding the constitutional rights of GB. An important manifestation of the politically nonexistent existence of the people in the power arrangements and political system of Pakistan is the federal government’s recent decision to propose a constitutional package for GB. It has been reported in newspapers that the federal government rejected recommendations to make GB the fifth province of the country. Instead, it decided to maintain the status quo of the region.
According to a report, GB was not given representation in the National Assembly, the Senate and other major decision-making bodies “due to [the] objection on the part of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK)”. What is interesting in the decision is that a government that calls itself democratic has given priority to the objection of AJK over the popular aspirations of the people. Surprisingly, the Kashmiri leadership keeps harping on about the unequal treatment of the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. But when it comes to GB, their psychological affinity with the oppressor becomes evident.
So, the question that arises here is: why has the democratically elected government of GB failed to convince its own party in the federal government to grant a constitutional status to the region? Although the region has witnessed the ritual of elections for its ever-mutating elected body – the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) – for last two decades, its representatives are still subservient to their lords in the centre.
There is a general trend in GB that the party in the centre normally wins the elections in the region. This is the result of a mentality that develops in the region where politicians belonging to national-level parties seek largesse from the centre for their peripheral zone of nonbeing. Once in power, they prefer to toe the line dictated by the rulers at the expense of popular sentiments. The wide chasm between the views of the incumbent government of GB and the people regarding taxation in the region shows the weak position of the peripheral power of the liminal region vis-a-vis the powerful centre.
Instead of providing a long-term solution, both existing and previously ruling parties in GB try to capitalise on popular sentiments for their political mileage. As a result, the long overdue question of the status of the region remains in perpetual limbo. It is the act of keeping GB in perpetual limbo for the sake of the intractable problem of Kashmir that begets anger. What the ruling class fails to understand is the failure of the system. Instead of integrating the region and its people within the constitution of Pakistan, the system is further dehumanising and alienating them by pushing them into a zone of nonbeing.
Being sterile, the zone of nonbeing cannot give birth to dreams, equality or justice. Instead, it allows deep wounds to fester, robs people of dreams, creates discord and engulfs people in darkness. The spate of sectarian violence, regional divisions, parochialism and massive protests are warning signs for those who hold the reins of power.
To rephrase Marcellus in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, something is rotten in the current political system of GB. If people act out and protest, it is time for our rulers to ponder. Remember, the fish is rotten from the head down. As a result, all is not well at the upper tier of politics and the existing system in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.