By Tahir Mehdi
THE first Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly completed its tenure on Dec 10 last year. The prime minister appointed a caretaker chief minister the same day. The presidential order of 2009 that had instituted a new governance system in this long ignored area did not provide for such appointment, so the order was amended.
Since it was an order, the prime minister did not have to go through any parliamentary procedures. No debate on its pros and cons ensued and no political wrangling was witnessed; a simple note drafted by a section officer of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs did the trick.
The original order also called for fresh elections within 90 days of completion of the tenure of the assembly ie March 10. This ‘problem’ was solved too by the same section officer by the addition of another clause to the amendment saying that the election may be delayed by an additional 90 days.
The strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan has probably never been higher than it is today.
This is typical of how affairs of the erstwhile Northern Areas have been run by successive governments, and there seems to be no respite.
The much-trumpeted elevation of the status of the area through the said order is an eyewash, a farce in fact. It is a legalised extension of the same old policy of denying the people their basic political rights.
The order offers the area a hesitant and vague recognition of the lowest sort, giving it very few political rights from one hand and taking all of them back with the other. It reeks of mistrust of local people, the kind of mistrust that only has parallels in our colonial past.
Compare the 2009 Gilgit-Baltistan Order with the Indian Councils Act of 1909 or with the later laws enacted by the British to afford a limited, cautious entry to the locals in Raj matters and you will find more similarities than differences.
The ‘bicameral’ system instituted through it provides for a 33-member elected assembly and a 15-member council, half of whom are nominated by the Pakistani prime minister. The prime minister himself, the governor appointed by him and the elected chief minister are also members of the council. The majority of eight non-local members is of nominated persons compared with the indirectly elected seven locals.
The assembly, however, consists of 24 members elected from geographical constituencies and six women and three technocrats elected on the pattern of reserved seats in Pakistan.
But as a counterweight to this democratic concession, the distribution of legislative jurisdiction between the two is made to tilt heavily in favour of the council. Mineral wealth, tourism, railways, highways among others come under the council’s exclusive domain; while the assembly is given comparatively mundane subjects ranging from public order and prisons to libraries and museums.
More importantly, a law passed by the council comes into force automatically while the one passed by the elected assembly needs the assent of the governor who can return it for review and the assembly is bound to ensure that it is not “in any manner prejudicial to the security, integrity, solidarity and strategic interest of Pakistan”.
These and other provisions collectively make the elected assembly a mere talk shop for locals.
The upcoming elections to this assembly will be held under a caretaker government and chief election commissioner appointed by the prime minister, while the all-powerful office of the governor is bestowed upon a PML-N federal minister elected from a Punjab constituency.
Colonial templates for fixing the country’s present political problems come in handy for the babus of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. What they fail to realise is that they have lost their healing touch over the past century as societies have evolved and their power structures have become more complex.
Pakistan had similar illusions about its tribal areas and dragged its feet for half a century on the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, refusing to acknowledge that the ground realities there have changed. Denying the area democratic rule, it has stuck to a colonial governance arrangement. The huge governance gap in Fata became a breeding ground for mafias and militancy sponsored by state and non-state actors. Pakistan sustained the area as a blind spot to further its strategic interests in Afghanistan until matters got out of hand.
The strategic importance of Gilgit-Baltistan has probably never been higher than it is today. It is home to Pakistan’s large hydel power ambitions. It is the country’s only geographical link with China that is its most important strategic ally besides being the mainstay for a promised new phase of economic prosperity.
Gilgit-Baltistan is at the fountainhead of these plans. The route of the Pak-China trade corridor is being hotly contested these days by various interest groups all across Pakistan. They are staking claims to the potential benefits of the proposed road on behalf of their respective constituencies. While the route can pick and choose its path and stopovers in mainland Pakistan, it cannot avoid Gilgit-Baltistan and yet the voice of this area is conspicuously missing.
It will be dangerous to interpret this silence as an indication of ‘all is well’. This is an enforced silence. The present political system of the area is incapable of formulating and channelling local voices in a credible manner. On the other hand, alternate voices from the area are being silenced. The local activist, Baba Jan, known for his campaign for compensation for families affected by Attabad lake landslide, was sentenced to life imprisonment by an anti-terrorism court last September for damaging public properties while leading a protest.
Pakistan is once again placing its strategic ambitions in the black hole of governance and more worryingly it has again assumed that as in Fata it can have its way by faking democratic rule and backing it with a callous mix of administrative high-handedness and dubious wheeling and dealing with the local elite.
They say once bitten, twice shy. Our rulers are, however, an exception for if they were willing to learn only one lesson from the long, bloody Fata saga, Gilgit-Baltistan would have already been given the status of a full federating unit accompanied by fully functional democratic rule.
The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group.
Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2015