The verdict has set the ball rolling for a reset of the region’s relationship with Islamabad especially in the popular imagination - something that was earlier missing or made to be irrelevant.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan’s recent verdict on the constitutional Status of Gilgit-Baltistan, declaring it an inseparable part of the Kashmir Issue and the inability due to International Law governing it, to assimilate the region into the body-politics of the Pakistani state, has once and for all laid to rest the confusion over the region’s political status, especially within the minds of the masses of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) itself. The urgency displayed at times by certain elements to unconditionally absorb the region into the Pakistani State, not only defied legal logic and historical processes but also undermined contemporary imperatives of preserving the region’s core indigenous rights and identity, especially in the milieu of a shifting strategic calculus.
The political-intellectual discourse of the region had over the years evolved a historical disconnect with Kashmir – somewhat inherent, some engineered. The popular memory of the region lacked a manifest association with the erstwhile state of J&K, as the region remained dominated by the British under various (Gilgit) Agencies as a key outpost of the then unfolding Great Game. It however remained a tributary of the J&K state. If at all the martial accounts of confronting the Dogra forces inform the meta-narrative of the region. The Karachi agreement of 1949, wherein the region was separated and signed off to Pakistan by the leadership of AJK, as a cat’s paw to the former, without any representation or consultation with the people of GB, went a long way in constructing the prevalent misgivings towards Kashmir. The fact that subsequently the Kashmiri leadership failed to extend any support to GB especially during times of injustice – imposition of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) Laws, stripping of State-Subject Rule, prolonged sectarian strife or during the various local rights movements further alienated the people of the region. Recent initiatives such as the visit of leading members of GB civil Society to AJK is a step in the right direction towards mending ruptured ways.
The obfuscation of history however didn’t help much. By shutting out historical linkages, it also divested itself of a much more potent role and positioning. Having maintained its Kashmir linkage as a reference point not only could GB have acquired a robust political status but also guarded its indigenous interests more adeptly. While historically the border “pocket-size” Kingdoms beyond the Gilgit Wazarat remained semi-autonomous under the Maharaja of J&K’s suzerainty, yet when the British left they handed over the entire Gilgit Agency to the Maharaja and thus on 1st August 1947 the region completely integrated into the J&K state. This also meant that laws that had hitherto not extended to the region came into force including the coveted State Subject Rule. This law sanctified indigenous rights including rights over land, natural resources etc. Most importantly it embodied an inbuilt barrier against demographic change a much resented and over-practiced policy in GB. On the basis of this rule the Maharaja was able to maintain his state’s rights over mining and natural resources in the region despite the Lease agreement with the British. Even today the Law stands enforced in J&K (despite widespread erosion) and AJK while GB has been stripped of it in 1974. The law would have been a compelling mechanism against encroachment of indigenous spaces especially in the wake of the region’s role as gateway to the CPEC project, extracting a greater share and trickle-down from the project’s ambition as a hub for International trade and connectivity.
The verdict has also done the unthinkable – rallying otherwise factious political elements under one call – Demand for Internal Autonomy. The reference to the UN Resolution of 1948 employed by the Supreme Court has been further invoked – part II A (2) obligating (and conflating) both GB and AJK to be administered by “local authorities”. This has been translated to the establishment of an autonomous political set up, fully empowered and accountable to local authority bereft of the Presidential orders that otherwise govern the region. The Introduction of the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 in May last year proved the prelude to the current simmering resentment. While high on optics such as abolition of the Gilgit Council and the transfer of all its powers to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly along with the elimination of the role of Pakistan Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, it actually vested extra ordinary powers with the Prime Minister of Pakistan giving him the final say on all legislation and policies of the government in the region. This literally disrobed the GB Legislative Assembly stripping it of all authority and credibility as the Veto power now shifted to the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Prime Minister was further empowered to levy taxes – taxation being another contentious issue in GB, while no decree or order could be issued against him. There was also tinkering with the Justice system of the land with a clause to import the senior most judge from Pakistan while the Prime Minister would also have a say in the overall make-up of the judiciary. In an extension of the arbitrary nature of the Order, the order itself could not be challenged. This evidently took away what ever had been ceded in the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009 – a potentially debilitating move in a much more aware and politically charged environment.
Further demands as a response to the verdict include the release of political prisoners like Baba Jan especially as Pakistani Laws such as the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and Schedule 4 – convenient tools for scuttling local voices, cease to apply to the region in the light of the verdict. There’s also raised awareness regarding protecting native resources such as its minerals, forests, water ways, wildlife etc. The role and relevance of Pakistan origin parties in the political processes of the region has also been questioned along with matters of legal jurisdiction over mega- projects such as the Bhasha-Diamer Dam. A cap on the quota of Pakistani civil servants posted in the region too has been underlined even though the verdict discreetly raises it. These evolving dynamics have aligned a definitive shift towards an indigenously owned and scripted articulation of rights and empowerment of the region.
The verdict has set the ball rolling for a reset of the region’s relationship with Islamabad especially in the popular imagination – something that was earlier missing or made to be irrelevant. While earlier a taboo, the idea of overlapping political Institutions with AJK is slowly but steadily gaining ground, even though AJK has (meekly) been advocating the same since 1972 in various forms. An arrangement restoring traditional linkages could strengthen indigenous interests of both regions.
Also, the various lacunae in the CPEC framework with regards to GB, if not addressed prudently especially in terms of local rights and share in development could sharpen the gestating clefts between ambitions of the Pakistani state and the indigenous aspirations of the region. The evident prejudice in the projected windfall of CPEC towards GB beyond the extractive transit route (Karakoram Highway – KKH) could bring to the fore, the hitherto veiled deprivation institutionalised in the “management” of the region. While not much ground has been lost yet, unattended fault lines could however prove an inflicting inflection point.
(The writer is a native of Gilgit Baltistan. An Alumna of University of Cambridge, she is working on her maiden book on the region).