[Opinion in Press] A powerless legislature for Gilgit-Baltistan

The Gilgit-Baltisatn Empowerment and Self-Governance Ordinance 2009 promises to give full internal and political autonomy to the Northern Areas by restructuring the existing current legislative set-up which critics consider is an ‘old wine in a new bottle’. However, a welcome aspect of the new reforms is the change of name of the region from Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan, which gives a sense of identity to the people. The government has thus avoided the blunder of giving the region a geographical name as has been the case with the NWFP for sixty years.

The reforms package has been bitterly opposed by Kashmiri politicians and in particular by the pro-independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) of the both sides of the divide. In a TV interview Yaseen Malik said that ‘the reforms package for Gilgit-Baltistan is like a bullet for Kashmiris’. Mr Ammaullah Khan, Chairman of JKLF, said ‘We strongly condemn this package. It will harm the interests of Pakistan as well as Kashmiris,’ Their views, it is interesting to note, received more space and importance in the country’s print and electronic media than of political leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan.

The reasons for JKLF leaders’ anger is easy to understand and can be traced back to pre-partition days. Kashmiris, Pakistan and India for long have had considered Gilgit-Baltistan part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, ignoring the events that preceded the independence of the subcontinent relating to Gilgit-Baltistan.

But, contrary to their views, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and also the international institutions such as the UN, EU, etc., have always upheld that the rule of Maharaja Harisingh over Gilgit-Baltistan as a colonial occupation had ended with the success of ‘Jang-i-Azadi Gilgit-Baltistan’ on November 1, 1947, when the last governor of the state of Kashmir Mr Gansara Singh and his associates were killed in the war between Gilgit Scouts and Kashmiri forces.

This had ended the century long Kashmiri rule over the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Then, a new independent state called ‘Islamic Republic of Gilgit’ was established and after 14 days of its existence it had affiliated itself with Pakistan as a separate entity, independent of Kashmir.

However, since then Pakistan had kept the status of the Gilgit-Baltistan undefined and in fact muddled its identity by naming it ‘Northern Areas.’ Gilgit-Baltistan has never been part of Kashmir. Each year since 1947, people of Gilgit-Baltistan celebrate their independence day — independence from Kashmir — on November 1 just as Pakistan and India do on August 14 and 15.

The new reforms package, keeping in view the past history, is a progressive step for it recognises the fundamental human rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. But it seems that the media in Pakistan is not fully aware of the history of Gilgit-Baltistan because it often describes the region as part of Jammu and Kashmir. A reputed national daily in its headline even named Gilgit-Baltistan as Northern Areas of Kashmir rather than its previous name of Northern Areas of Pakistan. Renaming the region, one hopes, would end the confusion and help promote its political position as a separate entity from Kashmir.

Other than renaming the region, rest of the package is a pack of gimmickry and is more a symbolic gesture of empathy towards the people rather than a real change in the governance structure of the area. One of the fundamental demands of the people of the region has been self-governance and transfer of powers from the ministry for Kashmir and Northern Areas affairs to the elected representatives, (now of new Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly) in the subjects of finance, administration and Judiciary.

The current set-up is a hybrid form of a provincial set-up and that of AJK assembly but with minimal powers to the elected representatives. The current chief executive will now be replaced by a chief minister who will be elected by a 33-member assembly that includes six women and three technocrats. A governor will be appointed by the president of Pakistan and he will head a 12-member council, half of them from the Assembly and another half to be appointed by him.

The governor will have greater say in the affairs of the council. This measure is a calculated move to deprive the elected assembly of its democratic and decision making powers. This would reduce its status to an advisory body of the council which would be dominated by un-elected but powerful nominees of Islamabad. This reform is the most undemocratic and detestable measure, disempowering the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Islamabad will thus continue to maintain its tight grip over the governance structure of the region.

The governor will also have greater say in the appointment of the chief judge of appellate court and 5 other judges, as he would recommend the names to the chairman of the council, the prime minister of Pakistan. The elected chief minister would not have any say in it. Expected announcement of a high court is missing in the package, which means the people will have to go all the way to Islamabad for appeals.

The package is completely silent regarding administrative set-up. Hitherto, the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly (NALA) was virtually subordinate to the chief secretary of the Gilgit-Baltistan and DCOs of districts were in control of all financial and administrative matters. They were and will be appointed by Islamabad and will report to Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs ministry without being accountable to the new chief minister.

This leaves the elected members of Gilgit-Baltistan with little or no say in development matters. Administrative affairs will be subject to the whims of inefficient and corrupt bureaucrats appointed by Islamabad. Formalisation of Gilgit-Baltistan Service Commission is a good step but is too little.

According to the package, the financial autonomy of the legislature remains highly ambiguous, but it is clearly shown that powers would remain with the council not with the assembly. Assembly could only pass the budget whereas control over revenue and expenditure will be the task of unelected body of the council.

The ordinance is intended to appease the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to create conditions for achieving the objectives of construction of much controversial dams and exploration of minerals in the area. The falsehood of the package came to limelight more vividly when in a briefing to Kashmiri leaders from the both sides of divide the foreign minister Mr Shah Mahmmud Qureshi stated that in the package there was ‘nothing substantial and only the separation of two divisions of Gilgit and Baltisatn and rest of the rules of engagement remain the same as they were’.

Further, it serves to calm down the international pressure regarding the violation of fundamental human and democratic rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan ‘without a genuine change in the political status of the region’.

Although the package is very much short of empowerment and self-governance, it has once more brought to the fore the question of Gilgit-Baltistan being part of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact Kashmir attracts tremendous media coverage because of atrocities committed there since partition of the subcontinent. Gilgit-Baltistan remained completely neglected. Why?

It is because India and Pakistan fought three mega wars over Kashmir and then within Kashmir, more often Jehadist have adopted a regressive approach under Kalashankof culture against either India or Pakistan which has attracted significant media coverage and sympathies.

Incidentally, the peace-loving people of Gilgit-Baltistan have not indulged in any violent engagement either against Pakistan or India to seek their fundamental rights and right of self-rule. In a peaceful and decent manner they have always raised their concern regarding their deprivation but governments in Islamabad have often been indifferent towards their demands.

If Islamabad does not solve the genuine problems of Gilgit-Baltistan and only tries to put the real issues under carpet as they have done now in the form of ‘Empowerment and self-governance ordinance 2009 ’they would be providing fuel to the already flamed nationalism in the region.

Mere promises cannot empower the people; it needs practical measures like transferring real powers to elected representatives which has not been done.

abbashnz@yahoo.com   (source)

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