Pakistan Reader# 137, 9 October 2020
The local civil society is missing in the decision-making process. There is a widespread expectation that a provincial status would provide the people of GB a say in the local governance.Sneha M
Gilgit-Baltistan suffers from both political and constitutional limbo which has largely created a divided society and has resulted in deteriorating living standards. During recent years, there has been an initiative within the GB to have a political and constitutional status - including acquiring a provincial status. This commentary identifies five arguments as to why the people of GB look forward to getting out of the status quo.
Successive governments in Pakistan have turned down the interests and aspirations of the people in this region ever since it was occupied in 1947. In September 2009, the Government of Pakistan provided a semblance of an administrative status with political empowerment through the "Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order." The order which aimed at decentralization of power paradoxically turned out to be an oligarchical rule.
Today, the people of GB want to get rid of the status quo, for the following five reasons.
Absence of governance
The 2009 Empowerment and self-governance order led to the creation of a government in Gilgit-Baltistan. Under Article 33 of this order, the Chairman is the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the Governor of GB is the Vice-Chairman. Along with other six federal ministers as its members, it is the only central decision-making body. This council has supra legitimate power to legislate on 55 subjects such as coordination with the Government in Pakistan on various matters, including socio-political-economic coordination.
Sustained denial of constitutional and political rights under the Jammu Kashmir conflict's pretext has resulted in the decline of faith of residents on the governance. Repeatedly, the GB has expressed concerns and dismay over the lack of local governance and malpractices of the elected government and political leadership. For the GB, unilateral actions only breed alienation and suspicion rather than building the bridges of mutual trust and closeness between the system and its citizens.
GB suffers from the implementation of democratic principles. The local civil society is missing in the decision-making process. There is a widespread expectation that a provincial status would provide the people of GB a say in the local governance.
The crisis in identity
The young in GB complain that their identity is confused. Gilgit-Baltistan is not part of Pakistan - neither legally nor constitutionally. As a result, the people of the region cannot claim any rights or privileges enjoyed by rest of the Pakistani citizens.
Consequently, the region's human rights violation has been pervasive in the area where the authorities have assorted to violence to curb dissent of Gilgit Baltistan people.
This disarray is mainly due to the internationalization of the Kashmiri conflict. Regardless of GB's people seeking Pakistani citizenship, Pakistan fears that elevating GB status will affect their stance on claiming the entire Kashmir region.
The Gilgit-Baltistan is predominantly home to three significant communities - the Shias, Sunnis, and Ismailis. GB had peace and harmony till 1970, after which sectarianism emerged. The brunt of the radical Islamization policy of General Zia-ul-Haq in this region focused on settling outsiders in the area, impacting directly and adversely on the local people and their culture.
Sectarianism is fundamentally linked to religious and geo-political anxieties because GB has a Shia-majority. Pakistan has promoted sectarianism as a calibrated policy to encourage the Sunni version of Islam in GB. By legally denying a constitutional identity to the people and depriving them of political rights and recourse to justice, Pakistan has created an environment for outsiders to engage the locals through sectarian violence.
The people of GB wants to put an end to sectarian violence. There is a strong belief that the administrative control of the region from Islamabad is a major hindrance to address sectarian violence in the region. Hence, they would want to take control of the local administration to keep sectarian violence away.
Poor quality of education
For any region to develop and become self-reliant, education is the key to it. The existing education system under GB is quite upsetting. GB's young have outspoken continuously on issues such as the deteriorating quality of education, poor infrastructure, and professional incompetence of teachers. One trend prevalent in GB is that the private sectors play an upper hand in education quality when it comes to any other public schools, which is quite common in South Asia. Also, the teachers hired in public schools, mostly based on their political affiliations. A research conducted by "Conciliation Resources" claims that most female teachers belong to influential families and generally hire an under-matric or matric educated female to teach on their behalf, who receives a minimal payment from the actual teacher. (Conciliation Ressources: Syed Waqas Ali and Taqi Akhunzada, “Unheard voices: engaging youth of Gilgit Baltistan” https://www.c-r.org/resource/unheard-voices-engaging-youth-gilgit-baltistan , January 2015)
Due to the lack of ministry of education, under-development in higher education is not entirely surprising. Students from GB complain that they neither have a medical or an engineering college in the region, and due to low financial status, many students do not pursue higher studies. With minimal job opportunities in the area, this has resulted in severe brain drain. Many students move to other bigger cities like Islamabad, Lahore, or even abroad for a better future.
Mismanagement of natural resources
Gilgit-Baltistan is strategically important due to the presence of rich and variety of natural resources. The Indus River, which flows through GB, offers the vast hydro potential to the entire country. It is also rich with nickel, cobalt, copper, coal, and precious metals such as iron, gold, sulphur, zinc, etc. These resources can be better utilized when it is strategically used and traded with the external world. However, there are various barriers to the region's economic growth, such as low technology, infrastructure, and lack of investment, which has undermined this region's potential growth.
Mismanagement also means that the outsiders have engaged in environmentally damaging practices, such as the fast depleting forests. Also, due to the absence of guidance by the relevant authorities in preserving and uplifting the trade policies and development, it has resulted in the mismanagement of natural resources, strengthening this region. Hence, by bringing necessary government changes, especially by granting provincial status, such problems can be attended and solved.
To conclude, the locals believe getting a provincial status will bring multi-faceted development and prosperity to the region and Pakistan. It will also ensure the GB government's presence and participation at all forums where decisions will directly impact residents' daily lives, who are citizens in letter and spirit, if not yet in the constitutional sense.
About the author
Sneha M is enrolled with the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan. . She is also pursuing her Masters in International Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. Her research focus includes Gender and Social Issues in Pakistan.