Historically intractable conflicts such as Kashmir have their peculiar agonizing consequences. The 1.5 million people of Pakistan’s Northern Areas, bordering China and the Laddakh region of Indian-administered Kashmir, have suffered one such consequence: since independence in 1947, they have been denied the same constitutional rights as are available to the rest of Pakistanis, despite their unilateral decision to accede to Pakistan on the eve of Partition. Since the 1970s, three successive Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) governments, including the present, have attempted to extend democratic rights to the traditionally tolerant and culturally distinct people this beautiful area of the country, which is a huge attraction for international mountaineers each summer for having some of the highest peaks in the world.
Keeping up with past tradition, the Federal Cabinet of the PPP-led government on August 29 approved the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, which aims to give Northern Areas full internal autonomy besides changing its nomenclature to Gilgit Baltistan. A potentially significant by-product of introducing limited democracy to this previously neglected region may be the eventual reversal of a wave of extremism there, which was limited to Shia-Sunni sectarianism initially and has overtime expanded to extremism and terrorism that is a major cause for China in Xinjiang, India in Kashmir and for Pakistan itself. Democracy is the best antidote to extremism. Therefore, whether it is the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan or its northern Himalayan peaks, a long-term solution to extremism and terrorism emanating from these regions is to politically empower the people living there. In a relatively democratic system, people will gradually learn to realize their political aspirations through peaceful ways, instead of using force in the name of religion, as has been the case in recent decades both in FATA and Northern Areas.
The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 replaces Northern Areas’ Legal Framework Order 1994, which was introduced by the PPP government of late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The 1994 Order had succeeded the Northern Areas Council Legal Framework Order 1974-75, introduced by the PPP government led by her late father, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Under the latest reforms package, which is being sent to President Asif Ali Zardari for approval, the people of the region will directly elect 24 representatives for their own Gilgit Baltistan Assembly, which will also have six technocrats and three women representatives. The Assembly will elect a Chief Minister, who will be assisted by six ministers and two advisors. Gilgit-Baltistan will also have a Governor to be appointed by the President. The Assembly will formulate its own Rules of Procedure, and make laws for 61 subjects, as against the federally-controled Gilgit-Baltistan Council’s jurisdiction over 55 subjects.
The respective Consolidated Funds will empower the Council and the Assembly on financial matters. The Assembly will follow the same procedure for budgetary matters as being practiced by the country’s national and provincial assemblies. Gilgit Baltistan will have a Supreme Appellate Court headed by a Chief Judge, a Public Service Commission, an Auditor General, and a Chief Election Commissioner—as is the case in Azad Jsammu and Kashmir (AJK).
It is true that even with the latest reform package, the people of Northern Areas have not yet received the same constitutional rights as their counterparts in Pakistan’s other four provinces do. They will still not be able to elect their representatives for the National Assembly or the Senate. They will also not have a high court, and their judicial autonomy is limited to an appellate court. However, without any doubt, the new reforms package is a major improvement on the previous two Orders meant to extend limited democratic rights to them. Having the right to elect their representatives for the Assembly, whose name is also not limited to merely a geographical expression, is an important initiative.
The democratic aspirations of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan cannot remain hostage to the Kashmir dispute, which may take some more years or even decades to resolve. Just because it is not being resolved does not mean that that the political status of the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which historically, geographically and ethnically is distinct from the disputed Kashmir area, should remain ambiguous and its people continue to suffer due to this ambiguity. The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 is a bold attempt to let the people of the region feel that the country they acceded to voluntarily 62 years ago owns them and their future.
The government’s decision to politically empower the people of Northern Areas, in howsoever a limited manner, has received criticism from expected quarters. Yasin Malik and Amanullah Khan, the leaders of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front in Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, respectively, have condemned the government for approving the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009—as, in their view, it strengthens India’s position on Kashmir and weakens Pakistan’s and Kashmiri standpoints on the dispute. Sardar Atiq, the former AJK prime minister, has termed “moves to unilaterally alter the status of these areas and gradually give them the status of a province” as “suspicious and unacceptable.”
Like Kashmiri leaders, Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has only blamed the government for undertaking a major political step with implications for Kashmir dispute without consulting all of the political stake-holders. Interestingly, India is also upset with this decision. Indian officials have reportedly condemned Pakistan’s decision to introduce internal autonomy to Northern Areas, dubbing it as a move intended to integrate an “occupied” area which “belongs to India.”
Such criticism is contrary to historical realities. Neither India is right in linking its irredentist ambitions for Kashmir with any change in the political status of Northern Areas, nor are Kashmiri leaders in Pakistan and Indian-administered Kashmir right in considering the region as geographically and demographically linked to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Prior to Pakistan’s independence, the Northern Areas were part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and a key component of British India’s strategic northern frontier. In 1947, the people of the region had en masse rebelled against the Maharaja of Kashmir and supported full integration into Pakistan. The 1846 Treaty of Amritsar, this region was initially excluded from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, later, the Hindu Dogra rulers of the princely state were allowed to administer them on behalf of the British for reasons of access.
However, the people of Northern Areas did not accept the suzerainty of Dogras, who exercised meaningless control over the region through a British Political Agent based in Gilgit or through local princes of the vassal states such as Hunza and Nagar. In 1935, the British got these territories on lease for a 60-year period from the Dogras. The lease was cancelled, as the British decided to partition the Subcontinent. Afterwards, the Dogras tried to re-assert their political control over the Northern Areas, but its people fought valiantly, liberating the region and then willingly acceding to Pakistan a few months after independence.
The people of Northern Areas have often pointed out a major contradiction in Pakistani policy, whereby the 1973 Constitution recognizes the country’s sovereignty over the region, yet its people do not enjoy full political rights. They question, if the Northern Areas have not been as such a part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, why link their political fate to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute?
After the adoption of the 1973 Constitution, the Northern Areas were placed under the jurisdiction of the federal government of Pakistan. The Constitution placed under its jurisdiction “such states or territories as are or may be included in Pakistan, whether by accession or otherwise.” The Gilgit-Baltistan region was divided into five districts—Gilgit, Skardu, Diamer, Gangche and Ghezer.
The people of Northern Areas have no similarity with the Kashmiri people ethnically or culturally. Despite this, the authorities in Azad Jammu and Kashmir tried to extend their administrative control over the region, by securing some legal verdicts from the Azad Jammu and Kashmir High Court in the 1990s, but these attempts were resisted successfully by the people of the Northern Areas through appeals in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Until the Cabinet’s approval of the August 29 Order and despite the earlier reforms packages, Northern Areas were ruled by executive fiat from Islamabad through the federal ministry for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, whose minister was its unelected chief executive. The Northern Areas Legislative Council, the region’s elected legislature under the 1994 Order, was powerless, and civil and military bureaucrats ran the region’s affairs. This was despite the fact that the Pakistan Supreme Court had passed a landmark verdict in 1999, which directed Islamabad to extend, within six months, fundamental freedoms to the Northern Areas, allowing its people to be governed by their elected representatives.
Seen in this backdrop, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009 will go long way in politically empowering the people of Northern Areas. The change in nomenclature, from Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan, is important, as it acknowledges the distinct ethno-territorial identity of the region. Even if the people there cannot send their representatives to the centre, they can elect candidates for their own legislative assembly as is the case in AJK.
The hesitation on the part of Pakistan’s successive civilian and military regimes to give full political rights to the Northern Areas has arisen from their hope to secure a Kashmiri verdict in favour of Pakistan whenever a plebiscite is held in Kashmir under the UN Security Council resolutions. Obviously, Islamabad expects the Northern Areas people, who never want to associate themselves with the state of Jammu and Kashmir, to vote for Pakistan in the UN-supervised plebiscite. Islamabad perceives the Northern Areas in terms of their strategic utility at the time of the Kashmir settlement, or its perceptions about Northern Areas because of their strategic importance have been purely security-oriented.
Thus, it is understandable from Pakistan’s point of view as to why the region cannot be fully merged into the federation—for the fear that such a step could undermine Islamabad’s claim on Kashmir. For instance, if it is made a full-fledged province within the constitutional framework of Pakistan, New Delhi could perhaps argue that the disputed region of Kashmir administered by it legitimately belongs to India and, therefore, it is a settled issue.
The government’s dilemma vis-à-vis Northern Areas is also understandable: on the one hand, ensuring that all people who claim to be Pakistanis, as the people of this region have since 1947, have the same constitutional rights; and, on the other hand, also guaranteeing that any step towards extending the fruits of democracy to this region should not complicate Pakistan’s historical stand on Kashmir.
By introducing the limited democratic reforms package for the region, the government has performed a fine balancing act, and quite successfully. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan will be happy to get more democratic rights and recognition of their peculiar geographical and demographic identity, and state constraints vis-à-vis the Kashmir dispute will also not be radically affected with the introduction of limited autonomy in the region. At least the long-deprived people of Northern Areas can now hope to get even greater political rights progressively, pending the settlement of Kashmir.
In the new relatively democratic environment, where the elected local Assembly may overtime gain greater say than the unelected federal Council in Gilgit-Baltistan, the consistent rise of sectarianism and extremism in the region in the last three decades may be constrained and eventually reversed.
Sectarianism has been a bane for the traditionally pacifist people of the region since the military regime of General Ziaul Haq (1977-1988). The region’s majority population is Shiite, with most of them subscribing to tolerant Ismaili ethos. In the 1980s, the military regime sponsored Sunni extremist elements there, including a 1988 Lashkar attack. In the following years, Gilgit and other areas were engulfed with sectarianism. In the 1990s, the region was used strategically as part of Pakistani security establishment’s policy to support the militant uprising in Indian-administered Kashmir, a policy that surfaced amply in the 1999 Kargil war with Northern Areas acting as a springboard.
The region acing as sanctuary for extremists is equally a worrisome factor for the Chinese authorities trying to combat an al-Qaeda inspired insurgency by extremist Muslim-Uiygur people in its southern province of Xinjiang. Beijing has numerous times expressed its grave concern with Islamabad over the presence of extremist outfits in the bordering region and their support to ethno-religious insurgents in Xinjiang. Given that, any step towards politically empowering the people of Northern Areas should be welcomed by China, and there is no reason why the Indians should not be happy about it.
Let’s hope that overtime sanity should also prevail in India and its leadership comes up with the same conciliatory spirit to settle the Kashmir dispute as Pakistan’s current leadership or its predecessor has been in recent years. However, with or without such eventuality ever occurring, what the government in Pakistan, the present and its future successor, can do is to incrementally extend the fruits of democracy to the region, with the next step being emulating the rights the people in FATA currently have in Gilgit-Baltistan region.
Access column at weeklypulse.org