Thursday, September 03, 2009

GILGIT-BALTISTAN: SELF-RULE OR CHICANERY

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    There are two areas under the control of Pakistan where a pervasive sense of alienation, deprivation and disillusionment has infused in the people a feeling of being colonised by the state of Pakistan. The first is the province of Balochistan, in particular the Baloch-dominated areas of the province. The second is Gilgit-Baltistan, which is a part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir but is currently under the illegal occupation of Pakistan.

The misrule and repression unleashed on the people of Balochistan by successive Pakistani governments – both military and civilian – has driven the Baloch, especially the youth, to a point where nothing short of complete independence will satisfy their aspirations. The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, which civil rights activists often refer to as the 'Last Colony' of the world, also threatened to spiral out of control unless Pakistan took some urgent political measures that would help to keep a lid on the simmering discontent among the people of this region.

It is precisely to prevent Gilgit-Baltistan from becoming another Balochistan that on 29th August, 2009, the government of Pakistan announced a package of political reforms that will, for the first time since 1947, purportedly give the people of this region a modicum of political autonomy and self-rule. Until this package was announced, Gilgit-Baltistan was denied even the most basic civil, political, constitutional, and legal rights on the grounds that it was not a part of Pakistan.

Of course, such legalese never prevented Pakistan either from separating this region from rest of the occupied part of the Jammu and Kashmir state (euphemistically called Azad Jammu and Kashmir) or parcelling a part of the state – Chitral – and amalgamating it with NWFP, or even administering Gilgit-Baltistan directly from Islamabad through non-local bureaucrats and the Pakistan army and brutally suppressing any dissent in the area; nor for that matter did it stop Pakistan from undertaking projects like the Karakorum highway or now the Bhasha dam that will benefit Pakistan more than it will benefit the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Even more significantly, Pakistan scrapped the state subject rules to settle Sunni Pashtuns in the area in order to dilute the majority of local Shias. Worse, state-sponsored pogroms of Shias were organised to try and keep control over the people and the territory. But instead of cowing down the locals, the repression only created a reservoir of resentment among the people which over the years has manifest itself in the form of a sort of sectarian nationalism.

The methods that the Pakistani state adopted in Gilgit-Baltistan defied all political logic. After all, the people of the region were only demanding that they be integrated into Pakistan as its fifth province and that they be given political and constitutional rights as citizens of Pakistan. According to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, even if their fate was tied to the resolution of the larger Kashmir issue, there was no reason why they should be denied those basic rights which the Pakistanis had already conceded to 'Azad' Kashmir'. At the same time, they opposed being linked politically and administratively to 'Azad' Kashmir since this would not only rob them of their identity, but also swamp them by the numerically larger population of 'Azad' Kashmir.

On the face of it, therefore, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-governance Ordinance 2009, is a piece of progressive legislation that has given political autonomy and self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. At least on paper the area has got the rights and paraphernalia of a province, if not the status of one – an elected Assembly headed by a chief minister with powers to legislate on some 61 subjects and also pass the budget, a public service commission, an auditor general and election commissioner for the region etc. In addition, judicial rights have also been bestowed upon the people with the formation of an appellate court. But since the devil is always in the detail, what the state of Pakistan has given from one hand, it has taken away from the other hand.

For instance, not only will there be a Governor who will be sitting on the head of the elected chief minister, there will be a non-elected Gilgit-Baltistan Council that will be headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan and will hold a virtual veto over the functioning of the elected assembly, as happens in the case of 'Azad' Kashmir. As far as legislation is concerned, the now defunct Northern Areas Legislative Assembly (NALA) has no history of having legislated on any issue despite being delegated powers to legislate on around 49 subjects. Being utterly powerless, the elected members of the erstwhile NALA were only glorified show-boys. Everything was controlled by the bureaucracy, which in classic colonial style is imposed on Gilgit-Baltistan by the colonial master – Pakistan. And there is no reason to believe that things will be any different now. After all, what are the chances that the Pakistan army and bureaucracy, who continue to call the shots in 'democratic' Pakistan, will allow the newly empowered elected representatives of Gilgit-Baltistan to uninhibitedly exercise their powers?

Despite the grumblings and protests over their views not having been taken into consideration in preparing the political reforms package, both the pro-Pakistan politicians as well as the 'nationalist' parties will try and work this new system. To an extent, the sense of expectation created by the devolution of power will push forward the political process in this region. But a lot will depend upon the quantum of freedom and self-rule that Pakistan allows in this territory. If the government of Pakistan permits political expression to flower and allows the political processes to function without too much interference, this political package could go some distance is satisfying the immediate political urges of the people. However, if Pakistan violates and subverts the letter and spirit of the political reforms package, then the entire exercise of allowing self-rule in Gilgit-Baltistan could backfire badly and create even greater disillusionment, dissatisfaction and discontent than exists at present.

The success of this political stratagem will also hinge critically on how competitive politics plays itself out in the region. If the Shia-Sunni divide widens, regional and ethnic issues acquire salience, and tensions with Islamabad mount over issues like mega dams or the boundary issue, then the entire edifice could come crashing down. On the other hand, there is also a possibility that if the system works reasonably well, it could prompt demands for even greater levels of autonomy than what the Pakistanis might be willing to concede, which in turn could fuel political and social unrest in this strategically very important region.

For its part, India is caught in a double catch-22 situation on the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan. The first catch-22 is that while India claims this region to be its integral and inalienable part, India has not even raised its eye-brows over the measures that an occupying power like Pakistan is taking in the area. But merely because India is ignoring this issue is not going make it disappear. On the flip-side, by raising its voice over the issue India could draw unnecessary and unwanted international attention on the Indian state of J&K. The second catch-22 for India is that if it protests Pakistan's political package in Gilgit-Baltistan it might appear as though India wants to deprive the people of this area their basic civil and political rights; on the other hand, keeping quiet will virtually amount to a tacit acquiescence to Pakistan's back-door annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan.

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    <1250 Words>                    3rd September, 2009

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