The people of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) unconditionally acceded to Pakistan after liberating their area from the Dogras at the time of partition (1st November 1947).
However, since its accession 72 years-ago, its status has remained vague due to the recalcitrance of the Pakistani government to accept the accession. This accession was not accepted by Pakistan as GB was declared a disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir.
Thus for more than six decades following its attempted accession, the region was directly governed by the Pakistan government, and the people of the area were denied participation in any representative institutions.
Instead, ignoring history, GB was forcibly connected to the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir, with the Pakistani government giving greater credibility to treaties and agreements amongst usurpers such as the Sikhs, Dogras and the British in declaring GB a territory under dispute.
As GB’s constitutional status has been tied to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the area has been bereft of numerous of the rights that citizens of Pakistan enjoy.
Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of over 72,971 km2 (28,174 sq mi) and is highly mountainous. It had an estimated population of 1.249 million in 2013 (estimated at 1.8 million in 2015.
GB is administratively divided into three divisions: Baltistan, Diamer and Gilgit, which, in turn, are divided into fourteen districts. The principal administrative centers are the towns of Gilgit, Diamer and Skardu.
Geography of the region
Gilgit-Baltistan borders Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province to the west, a small portion of the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to the northeast, the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast, and the Pakistani-administered state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir to the south.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to all five of Pakistan’s “eight-thousanders” and to more than fifty peaks above 7,000 meters (23,000 ft).
Gilgit and Skardu are the two main hubs for expeditions to those mountains. The region is home to some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. The main ranges are the Karakoram and the western Himalayas.
The Pamir Mountains are to the north, and the Hindu Kush lies to the west. Amongst the highest mountains are K2 (Mount Godwin-Austen) and Nanga Parbat, the latter being one of the most feared mountains in the world.
Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions are found in Gilgit-Baltistan: the Biafo Glacier, the Baltoro Glacier, and the Batura Glacier. There are, in addition, several high-altitude lakes in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Self-governance orders of 2009 and 2018
While measures have been taken by the federal to address the issue — eg the self-governance orders of 2009 and 2018 — these moves have fallen short of the GB people’s expectations, particularly the 2018 order.
The GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009 established for the first time a representative government and legislature, and while this step was appreciated by the people of the region as a way in the right direction, despite fell far short of their aspirations for complete integration with Pakistan and constitutionally guaranteed autonomy at par with its other provinces.
Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018
Under the pretext of enhancing the empowerment of the local assembly, the PML-N government in the region promulgated a new GB Order in 2018.
The order effectively, reducing the sovereignty of this region by vesting powers in the prime minister to legislate on 68 subjects, although the premier is neither elected by the locals nor answerable to them.
By way of this promulgation, the local council which was vested with legislative powers was reduced to an advisory body. In doing so, the PML-N even disregarded the recommendations of the committee it had set up on the GB issue under Sartaj Aziz.
The proposed Order 2019
The legitimacy of this order was challenged, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered its replacement with the proposed Order 2019 by the current government.
Oddly enough, although the timeline for implementation of the SC directive has already expired, in what constitutes an obvious violation of the specific direction of the honorable court, the federal government has not repealed it, and GB continues to be governed by an invalid legal instrument.
Against the backdrop of this uncertainty and legal void, a great change has transpired in India-held Kashmir with far-reaching implications for GB.
India’s decision to revoke the constitutional status
India’s decision to revoke the special constitutional status accorded to IHK and bifurcate Ladakh into a separate union territory has set in motion its nefarious, oft-stated plan to transform the demography of this disputed region. It is an act in open defiance of the UN and practically makes its resolutions irrelevant.
This unilateral change in Kashmir’s 72-year-old disputed status quo presents grave challenges for Pakistan’s national security and foreign relations. If it is not countered strongly, an emboldened India in its madness will try to stake its claim on Azad Jammu Kashmir and GB.
GB is a source of vast glaciers feeding the Indus River system upon which Pakistan’s prosperity depends. The region has the added strategic significance of being the gateway for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In view of the changed geo-strategic situation and its national interests, Pakistan must rethink and reset its GB policy by announcing urgent steps to counter India’s recent moves in Kashmir.
It is important to remove any irritants in the existing opaque governance arrangements without further delay and provide a transparent governance structure based on the consent of the local assembly and a sound legal instrument establishing a strong linkage with the federation.
Proactive action is imperative
Proactive measures are crucial to foiling any attempts by the cornered Indian establishment to stir discontent in this sensitive area and to divert attention from the brewing agitation in Kashmir and in Kargil, which also borders Pakistan.
It is time to address the issue of self-rule for this region in line with the aspirations of the people of the region and the UN resolutions.
Hope to resolve the issue
GB’s association with the Kashmir issue is one of the factors that are making it difficult for the people of the region to have political rights in Pakistan.
It is obvious that the Kashmir issue is not going to be solved in the near future. During the last72 years, the demands of GB people could not be met. It is a violation of human rights as people living in Pakistan for seven decades are not given the right to vote to choose members of parliament.
In recent days the military and civilian leadership of the country much involved in the issues to elevate GB to the status of a full-fledged province with all constitutional rights, including its representation in the Senate and the National Assembly. It is therefore hoped that the people of GB will enjoy their overdue political rights soon.