Gilgit-Baltistan’s elusive self-governance

Alocal party from Gilgit-Baltistan in the north of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) has decided to challenge the political control of their region by mainstream Pakistani political parties through their local branches, while indigenous parties have been reduced to virtual nonentities. The Karakoram National Movement (KNM) has decided to move the Supreme Appellate Court (SAC), the highest court in Gilgit-Baltistan, to challenge the functioning of Pakistani bureaucracy in this region, and of political parties that are registered in Pakistan and not in Gilgit-Baltistan. The KNM avers that Gilgit-Baltistan is not a territory of Pakistan: its future is yet to be decided in accordance with the United Nations resolutions on Kashmir.

One can imagine the fate of this appeal in view of the fact that the SAC is headed by a Pakistani High Court judge who understandably will not go against his country’s interests. Worse, he cannot challenge his court’s verdict. But the KNM says it will approach the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if it is denied justice by the SAC, because, it argues, this is an international issue and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, whose basic rights are being trampled, have the right to knock on the doors of world courts and human rights organisations.

A Karachi weekly, ‘Baang’, recently reported that the KNM challenged the government of Pakistan to produce any document to show that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan had agreed to accede to Pakistan. No such document exists, yet the rulers of Pakistan have taken the people of this region for granted for the past six decades, the article said.

Baang quoted a KNM statement: ‘When we don’t want to join Pakistan, why are we being forced to do so? We have been saying that our constitutional status should be determined. We want an autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan but Pakistan’s rulers have enslaved the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for more than the last six decades without giving them their birthright of self determination to decide about their future.’

The KNM has opposed any move to merge Gilgit-Baltistan into Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, with which it has a running territorial dispute. Moreover, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have a hatred for Pathans because of their past experience. Since Gilgit-Baltistan is not a territory of Pakistan, it has no authority to take decisions about it, the KNM argues. ‘An incursion into our territory had also been made in the past, giving our areas to China [in 1963],’ said the KNM, and demanded the return of these areas to Gilgit-Baltistan.

This is a reference to Pakistan giving Gilgit-Baltistan’s large chunk of territory in Hunza to China under a ‘border agreement’, which loudly mocked UN resolutions on Kashmir. The ruler of Hunza, Mir Mohammad Jamat, protested. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, as President Ayub Khan’s then Foreign Minister, manipulated this agreement to make UN resolutions meaningless while at the same time swearing by them. Bhutto thought China’s involvement in Kashmir would strengthen Pakistan’s occupation of Kashmir. Expansionist China, knowing very well the illegality of this border agreement, won’t say no. The Mir of Hunza was punished for opposing this agreement when Mr Bhutto came to power in December 1971.

Since Gilgit-Baltistan is ruled by Pakistani parties and not by its own indigenous parties, and since the media concentrates on the activities, statements and misdemeanours of Pakistani parties, the concerns of indigenous parties and the problems of the people remain mostly unknown. It is not therefore common knowledge what the locals think of expanding Chinese activities in Gilgit-Baltistan.

There may have been suspicious Chinese activities during the construction of the Karakoram Highway linking China with the POK, but then Prime Minister Bhutto snubbed the local people when they told him about their suspicions in 1974. Nawaz Sharif’s government did not consider it necessary to take the people of Gilgit-Baltistan into its confidence about the agreement it made with China for an ‘economic corridor’ through POK. Nationalists keep protesting that it is not Pakistan’s territory, but Pakistan does not have to bother about such protests because Gilgit-Baltistan is in the clutches of its army, intelligence agencies, bureaucracy and political parties.

There are local parties and groups that do not matter electorally because (presuming elections are fair) voters prefer Pakistan-based political parties. One reason is that since the influx of Sunni Pakistanis into this occupied territory, beginning in 1988, the voter profile has changed in favour of Pakistani political parties. Local parties, on the other hand, are divided on issues like provincial status, autonomy or independence. Thus, the Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance, a conglomerate of nationalist parties, failed to win a single seat in Gilgit-Baltistan’s so-called Legislative Assembly elections in 2009. Nawaz Nazi’s Balwaristan National Front, which fought on its own, also drew a blank. Later, in April 2011, this party won only one seat in by-elections. There are other nationalist parties, including the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, which reject elections as a sideshow and demand the undoing of the ‘annexation’ of Gilgit-Baltistan.

However, issue-based nationalist groups can make waves. For example, early this year, when the Pakistan government withdrew its subsidy on wheat, forcing poor people to starve, an alliance of 20 non-Pakistan parties formed an Awami Action Committee (AAC) and brought Gilgit-Baltistan to a standstill. The AAC, led by young people with a zeal to fight injustices against the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, was fully supported by students, ordinary folk and, most notably, by Shias and Sunnis alike, who put aside their sectarian differences for the first time since 1988, when Gen Ziaul Haq followed a policy of keeping them apart.

After Pakistan gained administrative control of Gilgit-Baltistan under an agreement with Muslim Conference bosses in April 1949, it banned political activities using the Raj era Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), which outlawed political activities in Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan revived this law after it got administrative control. The Muslim Conference, which ruled POK, then became its victim. In 1951, confident of the Pakistan government’s patronage, it opened a branch in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Pakistan government ordered its immediate disbandment. However, the government never objected to Pakistan parties opening branches in Gilgit-Baltistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto opened a division of his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1971 after taking over the three-week-old Tanzeim-i-Millat. Bhutto opened this branch despite the FCR, and abolished it in 1974 when he was in power. Then came Jamaat-i-Islami and Tehrik-i-Istiqlal (now defunct) in the same decade, followed by the Muslim League, Jamaat-ul-Ulema-i-Islami and a host of sectarian and jihadi parties.

Self-governance, as promised to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in the 2009 ‘Self-Governance Order’, is as deceptive, or rather fraudulent, as the prefix ‘Azad’ for occupied Kashmir. Far from offering self-governance, the 2009 order tightened Pakistan’s grip over Gilgit-Baltistan, where people continue to be ruled by Pakistan-based political parties and Pakistani bureaucrats. The 2009 order is something like the 1974 Provisional Constitution made by Pakistan for occupied Kashmir to institutionalise its slavery. The whole notion of self-governance is not only a mockery, but elusive as well.

— Samuel Baid