Gilgit-Baltistan: Constitutional Limbo Must Come to an End
Photo Courtesy of: Umairadeeb 2016 @Flickr
Support for an end to the ambiguity surrounding Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional status is gaining traction among major Pakistani parties, such as the PTI. Its constitutional limbo is to a large extent the result of historical and self-interested strategic considerations by the central government in Islamabad – while the peoples’ economic freedom and prosperity is neglected and their basic human rights are blatantly violated. Surely it should be in Pakistan’s very own interest to put an end to this situation and “steer Pakistan in the right direction”.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) central leadership has demanded that Gilgit-Baltistan be given the constitutional status of a full province. In a country in which the concerns of this ‘autonomous’ region seldom reach the public conscience, it is good that PTI has finally taken up this issue. Not only would this serve to silence those who blame the party of having a singular focus on Punjab, but it would also help in bringing a marginalised issue onto the national stage. Few people are cognisant of the current status of Gilgit-Baltistan, and even fewer realise the historic injustice being done to the people of that region. Unfortunately, the state has considered strategic concerns more important than providing citizens their due rights. And the state needs to revise its policies if it wishes to make Pakistan a more inclusionary state.
Gilgit-Baltistan received its official name in 2008 by the government of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) with the supposed logic being that its former name – ‘Northern Areas’ – led to people confusing it with the ‘militant-infested’ Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which in turn was damaging its tourist industry. Unfortunately, however, political concerns remained largely ignored, and this change in nomenclature did not include making the region a constitutional province. This reluctance on the part of government in providing due rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan can only be understood by going further into the history of the region. Before independence it was part of the princely state of Kashmir. Following the prince of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession to India, Gilgit Scouts revolted and managed to secede from the princely state and joined Pakistan. While the Pakistani state did take control of the region, it maintained that the region was territorially disputed and its fate was closely tied with the larger Kashmir dispute. The ‘strategic vision’ behind this policy was that in case of a plebiscite on Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan would be included in it, and the support of the people of the region would result in a larger vote in favour of Pakistan.
The strategic calculations of Pakistan now need to take into account the changing imperatives of the current time. The Kashmir dispute, though extremely important for Pakistan, must not be mishandled to the extent that it would alienate people of the regions that Pakistan does control. This could only lead to further marginalisation and engender feelings of being wronged by the centre. In addition, the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor depends on giving Gilgit-Baltistan constitutional status as a province. China has already expressed its concerns over the current status of Gilgit-Baltistan, and these concerns are reasonable since the project’s fate seems tenuous if its only entry point to China is a region that is disputed territory. Nevertheless, more importantly, refusal to give the people of Gilgit-Baltistan their due rights is injustice, and the state should principally trump justice over supposed ideas of strategic calculations. The only way Pakistan can hold together the diverse population of its republic is by becoming an inclusionary state. And this cannot be achieved if the state continues to deprive the people of Gilgit-Baltistan of their rights. Pakistan adopted a federal form of government long ago, but sadly it remained a unitary government in substance. Hence, only a qualitative change that gives people their due rights and effectively devolves power can steer Pakistan in the right direction. And this change needs to be started by giving the people of Gilgit-Baltistan the rights that they have been deprived of for a long time.