Up in the mountains, it is that time of year when folks dust off their crumpled Khapols (traditional caps) with feathery flumes and go all out celebrating Independence Day.
The twist, though, is if you ask them if they are truly independent in the strictest sense, they will probably shake their heads and say it is a work in progress.
If the mention of mountains hasn’t already clued you in, the other introduction of it perhaps would be exotica on Earth – that is what the mainland Pakistanis describe it to the exclusivity of humans there and their due rights. Anyways, we are talking about Gilgit Baltistan where hard-won independence from Dogra Raj is being commemorated today with traditional zeal and fervor.
Let’s have a brief look back in time; Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), before its independence, was a part of the larger princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This historical connection traces its origin to a significant event in 1846 when the British East India Company sold the Kashmir region to Gulab Singh for 7.5 million rupees of that time. This princely state was composed of four distinct regions: Jammu, Kashmir, Gilgit, and Ladakh. GB was notably significant for strategic importance.
In view of the strategic significance and particularly the fear of Russian invasion from Central Asia, the British established what they called the ‘Gilgit Agency.’ This arrangement divided governance responsibilities: civil administration remained under the control of the Dogra rulers, while the British took charge of military and security matters. However, this arrangement faced a significant turning point in 1947 when the British abruptly terminated their lease and took direct charge themselves. Long story short, as the end of British colonial rule in sub-continent approached, the Gilgit Scouts, local paramilitary force, rose in revolt against Dogra rule in 1947 and put them to flight. It certainly needs emphasis that the Gilgit Scouts were armed with mere sticks and the barest of resources to run the well-resourced and better-armed Dogra out of the town; what they possessed in abundance was an indomitable zeal and zest for freedom. Their actions culminated in the declaration of the ‘Islamic Republic of Gilgit’ that lasted for 16 days – finally acceding to Pakistan unconditionally on 16th November.
Despite the unconditional accession, Pakistan didn’t bring it into its constitutional fold just to score brownie points in case of a plebiscite in Kahmir. Instead, they have been fiddling with administrative setups, rolling out reforms and packages, all the while keeping the constitutional limbo alive and kicking to the utter frustration of GBians.
To provide a more comprehensive perspective, it is important to emphasize that being outside the constitutional framework deprives Gilgit Baltistan of representation in both houses of parliament. Consequently, it lacks a voice in the central electoral process, cannot cast votes for the prime minister, and is thus, electorally insignificant to the PM’s agenda.
Furthermore, Gilgit Baltistan does not share in the National Finance Commission (NFC) award, which translates to a lack of a dedicated budget. Without a proper budget, the region faces limitations in terms of development, infrastructure, education, healthcare, and various other essential services. Thus, being outside the constitutional framework leaves Gilgit Baltistan significantly disadvantaged in numerous aspects of life, resulting in a substantial developmental lag. This growing sense of frustration is particularly evident among its burgeoning youth, and therefore necessitates a receptive audience and tangible steps toward constitutional integration and streamlining.
The identity crisis facing Gilgit Baltistan (GB) has cast a shadow over its population, particularly over the burgeoning youth who bear the biggest brunt of this conundrum. When they find themselves deprived of due rights, devoid of stable internet connectivity, enduring prolonged power outages, coupled with a dearth of educational opportunities and virtually non-existent job prospects, they inevitably begin to raise question out of sheer frustration: How much longer must we grapple with this persisting constitutional limbo? To make matters worse, the state machinery has, at times, resorted to heavy-handed tactics like using Schedule Four to quash the voices pushing for progress. This just pours more salt on the wound, making an already tough situation even tougher.
In 2018, Nawaz Sharif established a high-level committee led by Sartaj Aziz. This committee put forward recommendations supporting the idea of a provisional province, which gained significant momentum during Imran Khan’s time in office but was ultimately kicked down the road. In my humble opinion, the possibility of creating a provisional province remains a viable option, particularly until the Kashmir issue is resolved, and it should be implemented in the best interests of its people.
Although I hope that the saying ‘negro fiddle while Rome burned’ never becomes applicable, it feels like the situation requires immediate action that isn’t currently in sight.
Twitter handle: IlyasGBian