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A woman stands in a queue to cast her vote during an election of the Legislative assembly for Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan

Is Gilgit Baltistan Democratizing?

A woman stands in a queue to cast her vote during an election of the Legislative assembly for Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan

A woman stands in a queue to cast her vote during an election of the Legislative assembly for Northern Areas in Gilgit-Baltistan November 12, 2009.

Nisar Ahmed

Ringed by world’s lofty mountain ranges including the Himalayas and the Karakorum, Gilgit Baltistan is located in a geographically strategic zone in the northern part of Pakistan. It shares borders with Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the north, China to the north east, Jammu and Kashmir to the south east, Azad Kashmir to the south and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west. Gilgit-Baltistan is a sparsely populated mountainous region covers an area of 72,971 sq km, which makes it more than six times the size of ‘Azad Kashmir’. The mountainous region is divided into Gilgit and Baltistan Divisions, which are further parted into seven districts. Gilgit, Diamer, Ghizer, Hunza-Nagar and Astore comprise Gilgit Division, where as Skardu and Ghanche comprise Baltistan. The region is also home to three of world’s longest glaciers outside the polar region, namely the Biafo Glacier, the Baltoro Glacier and Batura Glacier.

The region was originally known as Balwaristan or Boloristan. Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan unfolded as two distinct political entities namely, Dardistan or Gilgit and Baltistan. During the Sikh and succeeding Dogra rulers the two entities remained under the same political regime. On the bases of its strategic position the region has always been possessed by different sturdy tyrannies. The Dards history has remained concealed. It is believed that they had linkages with pre historic social groups called Shin and Yashkun, moreover the association also leads to the nomadic group of Sassanians,Kushanas,Achamenians,Huns and Scythians who used to live in Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia in between 1st Ad and the 7thCentury. The associations with dominions of Kushan Empire is more consolidated with the records of Buddhist,coins and cooper piece found in Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir region. In the following time , a number of Hindu Kings ruled Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan region at the same dominium. Lalitaditya(724-761) and his successor Karkota ruled Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir under the Dogra empire. Baltistan got influence of Buddhism under Kushanas which was part Lalitaditya’s empire in the 8th century AD but had a close interaction with Gilgit and Kashmir. Makpon dynasty was founded by Ibrahim Shah in Baltistan. Some historians link his origin to Kashmir and other trace his background to Egypt. During the rule of Makpon Boka, Mir Shamsuddin Iraqi is believed to have had access to Baltistan and preached Islam while other historians believe that Muhammad Nur Bakhsh, the founder of Nurbakshi(Molai sect) spread Islam in the region in 14488A.D. The treaty of Lahore was signed after the defeat of Sikh Army at Subraon on February,10, 1846, which forced Sikh prime minister Lal Singh to relinquish all the territories to British including the hilly territories of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. British decided to give absolute power to Gulab Singh as “Maharaja of Kashmir” made him a full fledge independent ruler of Jammu and Kashmir as he had paid the full indemnity amount of Rs. 75 lakhs to the British. His sovereign power was extended to Ladakh, , Gilgit, Chilas and Baltistan region. When Indian shores were left by the British, British Indian Government ceded the controlled areas of Gilgit Agency to the Kashmir State without the consent of the natives and the order took effect from 01 August 1947.Brigadier Ghansara Singh was designated as Governor of the area by the Maharaja. The Maharaja acceded to lndia when Pakistan invaded Jammu and Kashmir. The situation in Gilgit became hostile when there was news about the fall down of Srinagar. . Governor house was surrounded by Gilgit Scouts and Governor was asked to surrender on 01 November 1947. The Governor had to surrender evidently and all the Sikh soldiers escaped, killed or surrendered to the locals. ‘People’s Republic of Gilgit and Baltistan’ was set up after the arrest of the Governor which was headed by a local Rais Khan and Major Brown who was leading Gilgit Scouts. Pakistani flag was hoisted at Gilgit Baltistan lines by Major Brown on November 4,1947. Subsequently, the Mirs(rulers) of domain of Hunza and Nagar which were helot of Maharajas declared their accretion to Pakistan. Skardu was defended by state forces for over six months but after getting disconnected from India and facing lack of resources , Skardu garrison led by Thapa surrendered to Gilgit Scouts and local fighters and on August 14,1948, Baltistan declared accession to Pakistan. After getting under control of Pakistan, the colonial law of Frontier Crimes Regulations(FCR) was enforced in the region. All the territories merged with Pakistan were imposed by FCR including Federally Administrative Tribal Areas(FATA).
After while, the region (Gilgit and Baltistan)was named as ‘The northern areas of Pakistan’, and educed under the federal control and totally separate from the Pakistan-Administered Azad Kashmir. Unlike the four provinces, the region has had no status under the constitution of Pakistan nor has any political representative at either house of the Parliament. The people have no access to the superior courts of Pakistan.
The main reason behind the restlessness among the residents of Gilgit -Baltistan and perpetuation of violence, pop up of all accounts, to the absence of pure and legitimate democratic and constitutional mechanism to provide the constitutional and human rights. For more than six decades, time cradles at the same node in Gilgit–Baltistan, showing to total negligence by successive political powers in Islamabad.
In 1999,General Musharraf political reforms package attempt for the region upgraded the Legal Framework Order 1994( LFO) to the Northern Areas Legislative Council. The Presidential order provided space for the new assembly to elect its own head, approve its own budget but Judicial system remained under the control of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA) Ministry. But the order was not substantially covered with the 1973 constitution. The authoritarian power, however, rested ‘with the chief secretary and the other civil bureaucracy who are deployed by the federal Government and are sought from other provinces to the high positions. In reality, most the laws enforced were promulgated by the sections officers in the Kashmir Affair Ministry. The assembly didn’t owned provision for vote of no confidence nor the Chief executive was elected and responsible of the assembly who used to be deputed by the federal government. Similarly, the deputy commissioners were commanding other districts autocratically and were accountable to the chief secretary and not the deputy chief executive, the local who was elected by the house. The chief secretaries, who have constantly been outsiders with absolute power and accountable to the federal Government and owing more power than the elected representatives of the region.. People of the Gilgit Baltistan have been deprived of the basic human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which Pakistan has endorsed and is signatory. The rights of the people are fully compromised due to absence of independent judiciary and without access to superior courts of Pakistan justice will be an ambiguous dream. On May 28,1990,Pakistan supreme court asserted its concern that on what basis the people of northern areas are denied of their basic rights safeguarded under the constitution.
In 2009 Pakistan People Party attempt to change the providence of Gilgit Baltistan and to move ahead in the democratic provision, Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order was approved through the executive order of President Zardari. Beside changing the region name from ‘Northern Areas’, to Gilgit Baltistan, an autonomous Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly(GBLA) was established consisting of 33 members with provisional legislatures- formulating its own rules, legislative power on 61 subjects, allocating and investing development funds. However the federal limited the internal powers of GBLA as conceded to the other provinces by the constitution. The Chief Minister authority was limited to appointments and posting of civil servants below grade 18 and had limited power to use financial resources for development. Some critics are of the point of view that the current administrative package is more problematic as half of the total budget is spent on the protocol and salaries of assembly members and the federal Government has not substantially increased the budget in considering it as a province. After the elections the chief minister has been invited to participate in the federal cabinet meeting as an observer but he could not take any stance on any decisions formulated by the cabinet. The region was not included in the National Finance Commission(NFC) forum where all provinces finance ministers sit and decide the distribution of financial resources. If the Gilgit Baltistan is included in the NFC under article 160(1), even a non constitutional unit, it would have a stance and say in the forum where majorly decisions are made on vote basis. The human rights report on August 30,2010 states that the Prime Minister who is the chairman of the Gilgit Baltistan Council, becomes the regions defacto President under article 34 of the 2009 order, and has been bestowed the power to remission and pardon sentences awarded by any court.
The free trade agreement between Pakistan and China though Karakorum Highway(Gilgit Baltistan)swelled to $5.563 billion in 2009-10 and Pakistan export to China is around $1 billion annually. The natives of Gilgit Baltistan expect a certain percent of amount to be spent on the developments in the region as dealt with the other provinces resources. Sino-Pak Boarder Agreement contracted between Pakistan and China in 1963, a clause (article 6). mentions that when Kashmir dispute is resolved, the government of China and government in power in the northern areas will re-negotiate the agreement. Under the agreement China owes 2000 sq km land to Gilgit Baltistan . In the last five years several agreements were contracted between Pakistan and Chinese government, the Gilgit Baltistan representatives were not involved in the process which was criticised local politicians and activists . On April 17,2008, Pakistan has ratified human rights treaties on International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) and International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(ICESCR). The covenants (article 1), recognises the right of all peoples to self determination, including the right to ‘ freely determine their political status’ and freely purse their economic , social and cultural development and manage and dispose of their own resources.

Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly completed its first tenor, interim government has been setup consisting of 12 members and the upcoming elections are expected in May,2015. The opposition parties in Gilgit Baltistan and in the federal show dissatisfaction over the interim body claiming its members affiliation with the ruling party the federal. The local media, critics and natives express their dissatisfaction over the assembly performance in the last five years. Besides do not having any development projects, the government could not get control on terrorism and sectarian conflicts in the region despite spending Rs.300million annually on law enforcing agencies. Corruption, nepotism, illegal and unmerited appointments in civil service witnessed significance boom in the last five years. No substantial measures were taken to promote tourism in the region and in June, 2013, the assault of nine foreign tourist at Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest peak in Gilgit Baltistan blow up the tourism industry. Education and Health conditions witness no improvement and freedom of expression was fully suppressed, several journalist and activist were imprisoned. The flood affectees of 2010 and the IDPS of Attabad,Hunza are still struggling with the settlement and awaiting for the promises to be fulfilled.
The Gilgit Baltistan government released a 167 page report to highlight its performance over the last three years but got hard criticism from lawmakers and opposition parties. According to the report,68 resolutions were passed, legislation made on 24 subjects, schemes approved in mineral sector of worth Rs.200 million. Nearly 2,000 vacancies were created and filled in the civil services. Wazir Baig, speaker of the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly and member of the ruling party accused the Chief Minister of being biased, acknowledges rampant of corruption in the region and wonder why no action is taken place against the big fishes.

Despite all the flaws and bad governance, to move ahead in the democratic transition and demanding for constitutional and human rights, free and fair election in the region is an obligatory . The Government seek to fulfill the recommendations made in the previous election by neutral bodies. Free and Fair Election Network(FAFEN) blamed the previous ruling party (PPP) of misusing government resources and authority in the elections. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan(HRCP), reported the whole poll procedure was smudged by flaws, which was caused by insufficient preparations and hastily organised elections. HRCP also pointed out that the ink claimed to be lasting was easily removable. Secrecy of ballot was not appropriate at many polling stations. The Election Commission of Gilgit Baltistan and National Database& Registration Authority(NADRA) contracted to conduct computerise election in the region back in 2013 yet no official statement has yet come to ensure the computerised electoral system which can be an important component to ensure fair and free elections.
The Election commission and the interim cabinet are mounting with immense pressure to conduct free and fair elections. Though both bodies set up come up to existence with severe criticism by opposition political parties and locals for nepotism but the future of the people are dependent on the bodies. Hindering the influence of Islamabad would be the major challenge in the process. Barjees Tahir minister for Kashmir and Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan has been appointed as Governor of Gilgit Baltistan. The opposition parties have apprehended the governor appointment as part of the pre-poll rigging and local outcries it a continuation of the hegemony of the federal.  Protecting the rights of women to vote, substantial measure to ensure election monitoring, imposition of electoral regulation and codes of conduct, improvement in the complain process, convenient accessibility to polling stations, publicising security plans and voter education through local media are to be ensured for free and fair elections. A large number of Gilgit Baltistan natives are settled in other cities of Pakistan due to lack of educational and employment opportunities in the region. The Government needs to take extra measures to include them in the electoral process and protect their basic human right of voting. Setting up polling stations in the major cities and accepting votes via couriers can accumulate the process to maximum right to vote. The natives are optimistic that electoral process is a democratic step to move ahead to solve the multiple issues-Political, ethnic, economic, strategic and socio-cultural. The free and fair elections, decentralized democratic and autonomous assembly, itself can be a consolidated part of a strong democracy in Pakistan and Gilgit Baltistan, otherwise a group of so called local elite , beneficiary of the federal can manipulate the system and would be the concealed maharajas of the region.

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