Local demand for constitutional rights for Gilgit Baltistan is as old as Pakistan’s presence in this territory of state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan took control of Gilgit Baltistan in 1947 during a war with India. The war broke out after Pakistan violated the standstill agreement it signed with the ruler of Kashmir followed by an attack by Pakistani forces which compelled the rule of Kashmir to accede to India.
Since then, locals have been asking Pakistan to delink Gilgit Baltistan from Kashmir and grant it rights similar to those enjoyed by the Pakistani citizens. However, successive regimes have been putting off merger of Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan throughout these decades and instead tried to treat the chronic matter through ad-hoc governance ordinances.
Pakistan fears that delinking Gilgit Baltistan from Kashmir will compromise her stance on the issue and help India gain grounds. At the same time, India, although lacking physical control over Gilgit Baltistan, went ahead and amended its constitution to declare Gilgit Baltistan an integral part and granted the locals citizenship and a representation in the political institutions.
Pakistan’s policy of running Gilgit Baltistan with ad-hoc ordinances is very long. In 1994, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto issued a legal framework ordinance (LFO) to establish the first Gilgit Baltistan assembly. Later, General Pervaiz Musharraf after becoming the Chief Executive of the country issued another LFO in 2007. In 2009, Prime Minister Gilani issued empowerment and self-governance ordinance for Gilgit Baltistan which was subsequently replaced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with a reformed package in 2018. Locals dubbed it the Emperor’s package since it consolidated absolute authority in the hands of the Prime Minister himself. All these ordinances and packages have come without constitutional protection and therefore fail to grant locals citizenship or representation in the parliament.
Disapproving the theatrics of rulers, the proponents of the merger of Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan filed a case in nation’s Supreme Court. To their dismay, Supreme Court ruled that Gilgit Baltistan is still part of Jammu Kashmir, and it cannot be absorbed into Pakistan and further that the concerned authorities should grant locals basic rights without affecting the Kashmir issue.[i] The Attorney General of Pakistan stated that Pakistan’s constitution cannot be amended to address Gilgit Baltistan issue and therefore existing ordinance would be reformed to satisfy the locals. Following the verdict, the federal cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan affirmed the statement of the attorney general on the basis of country’s geostrategic interests and refused to declare Gilgit Baltistan part or province of Pakistan.
This verdict is also affirmation of the statement of Dr. Muhammad Faisal of the foreign office, who on June 21, 2018 stated:
“Gilgit Baltistan is part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and is a disputed territory. Please visit the UN website to see the numerous Security Council Resolutions on the Jammu & Kashmir dispute. Under International Law and as per the directives of the UN Security Council, the final disposition of the State of Jammu & Kashmir shall be made as a result of a free and fair UN-administered plebiscite, wherein the Kashmiris will decide their fate in accordance with their basic right to self-determination. The legality of the Jammu & Kashmir dispute in rooted in these binding UNSC Resolutions. Therefore, there is no doubt about the disputed status of the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit Baltistan.”
People of Gilgit Baltistan have rejected the verdict of the Supreme Court and threatened region-wide protests.
Pakistan doesn’t have many options left in regards to Gilgit Baltistan. Firstly, Pakistan cannot amend its constitution to merge Gilgit Baltistan. Secondly, Pakistan also cannot withdraw and allow India to assume control of Gilgit Baltistan as the success of CPEC rests on absolute control over Gilgit Baltistan. At the same time, Pakistan cannot leave Gilgit Baltistan in its current limbo as this will only increase dissent and the demand for self-determination. Thirdly, Pakistan also realizes that it cannot expect support from the United Nations due to the fact that the Simla Agreement deemed Kashmir a bilateral issue.
Therefore the only option available for Pakistan is to replicate the constitutional framework of “Azad” Kashmir in Gilgit Baltistan. It is expected that the people of Gilgit Baltistan will accept an Azad Kashmir-like constitutional set up granted it establishes genuine autonomy. In addition, people of Gilgit Baltistan also want Pakistan to stop violating the state subject rule that enables illegal demographic change and settlements in Gilgit Baltistan.
Lastly but most importantly, Pakistan must recognize its interests in the long term resolution of this conflict with India and engage in earnest peace talks and break the pattern of supporting terrorism in Kashmir in order for the region to move forward.
Senge Sering, a native of Gilgit Baltistan, is President of the Washington DC based Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies
Islamabad: Attorney General of Pakistan Anwar Mansoor Khan informed the Supreme Court of Pakistan that GB cannot be made a separate province. He adopted this stance in front of the seven-member bench of the apex court, headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar, on Friday during the hearing of the case related to GB’s constitutional status.