The disputed region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) is simmering once again after the Gilgit Baltistan Draft Order, 2018 was approved by the ruling PML-N government. Almost a decade after the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order of 2009 set up its administrative apparatus - (with a legislative assembly headed by an elected Chief Minister and a more powerful Prime Minister led GB Council), Islamabad recently approved the GB Order 2018, whose provisions have been the focal points behind the discontent. The genesis of the order lies in the launch of CPEC in 2015 and New Delhi’s subsequent criticism citing its passage through the disputed territory, prompting Islamabad to review GB’s governance structure. It was felt that any discontent would be addressed through greater devolutions. In late 2015, a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz was formed to look into GB’s status and suggest reforms, possibly in the direction of a constitutional recognition on par with other provinces, pending the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Some progress was expected this February, when the Prime Minister announced the dissolution of the all-powerful GB Council, transferring its powers to the GB Legislative Assembly.
The fundamental cause stirring the present discontent is that except the Chief Minister, the GB Legislative Assembly was kept out throughout the process of the making of this order by Islamabad, defeating the very purpose for which the assembly was formed a decade ago. Further, some of the controversial provisions are as follows:
The first anomaly is the altered definition of “citizen” in the 2018 order. While the Article 2 (b) of the 2009 order defined citizen as “a person who has a domicile of Gilgit-Baltistan”, the 2018 order, besides the former criteria, extends its ambit to persons “under the Pakistan citizenship Act (1951)”, which has been interpreted by skeptics as an open invitation for migration from outside the region.
Further, Article 5 states that “obedience to this order and law is the inviolable obligation of every citizen”. The absence of any such provision in the 2009 order probably alludes to some sort of nervousness on part of Islamabad, with a deliberate choice aimed at “disciplining” GB’s residents.
The order also accords overarching powers to the Prime Minister, primarily in the legislative sphere and the power to override any law made by the state’s legislature, as stated in Article 60. In this aspect, “the order states that Prime Minister shall have the powers to adopt an amendment in the existing laws or any new law in force subject to the legislative competence…” and 62 subjects have been conferred to the PM, enumerated in one of the ending pages of the order document. Additionally, the Prime Minister has the power to levy taxes on GB under Article 65.
Even the provisions for appointing the Chief Judge of the Supreme Appellate Court exclude GB residents from being eligible since Article 75 (7) states either such an appointee is a “retired judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan” or a “retired Chief Justice of a High Court”.
The order also defines the ambit of discussions in the assembly; with Article 57 restricting it from even discussing “matters relating to foreign affairs, defense [and] internal security”, which is highly unlikely given the region’s borders with China, India and Afghanistan.
On the positive side, the legislative powers on minerals, hydropower and tourism, earlier exercised by the Prime Minister led GB Council have been moved to the GB Assembly. According to GB’s Law Minister, “all powers exercised by the four provincial assemblies under Schedule IV of the Constitution of Pakistan had been entrusted to the GB Assembly”. Also, the new definition of “citizen” has been interpreted by supporters of the order as treating the people of GB on par with Pakistanis. In other words, earlier, the basic rights of GB’s residents were only limited to the region’s territorial boundaries, the present order expanded this protection to entire Pakistan. Given the widespread criticism, the success of the new setup hinges on how these positive aspects would be applied, since executive powers being vested under the Islamabad-based GB Council had been the bone of contention, which has now been reduced to an advisory body now. A five year tax holiday has also been granted to the GB’s residents.
Prime Minister Abbasi visited the region and addressed the assembly on 27th May, promising many things, including a separate civil service for GB, quota in the Central Superior Services of Pakistan, a consolidated fund and a more empowered Chief Secretary, enabling the region to function as a full-fledged province. If implemented, these measures would go a long way to address the alienation among GB’s residents.
In the larger picture, while local sentiment at large is not inclined towards separatism, there is resentment against treatment meted out by Islamabad. The arbitrary use of the Anti-Terrorism Act to target peaceful activists (including the widely popular Baba Jan) continues with impunity. Land acquisitions for CPEC projects in GB and the Pakistan army in past couple of years have been met with protests, which are seldom reported by the mainstream media. The region had just emerged from protests last November/December over taxation issue, only to face chaos once again.
Moreover, civil society activists have demanded a share in income from the CPEC, citing Pakistan’s dependence on a disputed territory for directly connecting it with China. For these voices, Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir has also been subject to criticism as Islamabad has failed to address GB’s grievances while at the same time criticizing India’s Kashmir policy. While the order, in theory may not be closer to addressing these grievances, hope rests on whether Islamabad’s promise of the greater power devolution is able to tackle the growing alienation.
Prateek Joshi is a research associate at Vivekananda International Foundation, a New Delhi based public policy institution