By Mazhar Iqbal
A senior lawyer-cum-politician from Gilgit Baltistan (GB)-a territory disputed between India and Pakistan and currently governed by Pakistan-backed government, has recently sent a communiqué to the president of Pakistan soliciting representation for this region in the upper house of the parliament. Advocate Amjad Hussain, member Gilgit Baltistan Council and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader expressed his opinion in a letter addressed to President Asif Ali Zardari. He is among one of those members of ruling PPP who have been extraordinarily active to put pressure on Islamabad-controlled government in Gilgit Baltistan to hastily make administrative changes in this area. A recent announcement by the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan to divide whole region into three administrative divisions is part of such political advancements.
The Gilgit Baltistan Council is the controlling body of the government of Pakistan for this region. It comprises of prime minister of Pakistan, governor and chief minister of Gilgit Baltistan, six members nominated by prime minister and six more by Gilgit Baltistan Legislative assembly. The federal minister of Kashmir & Gilgit Baltistan affairs is a non-voting member and minister in-charge of this council.
The Gilgit Baltistan region, formerly known as Northern Areas, was directly controlled by a division in the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas (KANA) in Islamabad until as recently as 2009. The government would never have considered an elected government in this region if it had not come under a firm political pressure by a number of human rights organizations and diplomatic missions in Islamabad, particularly the EU member states. Now, a province-like setup has been made functional here under the arrangements of Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 (GBESGO).
Currently political and democratic rights of the people of Gilgit Baltistan are being managed (controlled) by Pakistan through Gilgit Baltistan Council. The GBESGO gives more powers to Islamabad-controlled Gilgit Baltistan Council than Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly which otherwise should have been given the status of the highest democratic institution at local level.
Advocate Amjad Hussain has officially approached federal government of Pakistan to make arrangements for allocation of seats in the Senate for people of Gilgit Baltistan, which he thinks would be a suitable measure to redress the grievances of people of this region. He says that Gilgit Baltistan is neither represented in National Assembly nor in the Senate. Thus, people of this area have no say in the Parliament and they feel divorced from the political mainstream. He further argues that Pakistan Election Commission (PEC) has announced the Senate elections this year and awarding a ticket to a representative from GB will strengthen the political process initiated by the GBESGO.
By officially endorsing the sense of deprivation and lack of a suitable platform for redressal of grievances of local people, the PPP politician from GB has accepted that not only the incumbent government has failed to deliver but also much-trumpeted GBESGO is still far from being fruitful. This has not been the first instance that a politician from an area which is part of former state of Jammu & Kashmir and claimed by India as its territory, has strongly asserted that people of this region should be given representation in Pakistani parliament. Many voices have been raised in past to advance this agenda. However, there is no such provision in the current constitutional framework of Pakistan that people of any part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir could be given representation either in the parliament or the provincial setup.
This is not the case that only Gilgit Baltistan region is deprived of its right to influence important decisions about its people in the federal cabinet. People of Azad Kashmir have also been denied representation in the national legislatures because of the absence of constitutional or legal provisions. In absence of political or constitutional backing at national level, safeguarding people’s interest becomes more difficult for local politicians either in Gilgit Baltistan or Azad Kashmir. They have no mandate to interfere into the affairs of parliamentary committees and other high-level resource management bodies of the government and their efforts to gain more powers and influence are often frustrated by the powerful federal ministries.
Why people of Gilgit Baltistan or Azad Kashmir can’t be given representation in Pakistani parliament is not a matter of choice for Pakistan. By virtue of international obligations and binding resolutions on Kashmir no part of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir including Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan could be annexed or brought under the national constitutional framework. However, Pakistan could improve governance issues by justifiably considering people’s demands in these areas. But, this matter is more influenced by political will than the constitutional or legal arrangements.
Almost all of mainstream political parties of Pakistan have been and continue to nurture a skeptical and jaundiced opinion about giving greater political rights to the people of Azad Kashmir. Whether it is Pakistan Peoples Party, Muslim League (N), (Q), (A) or (F), JUI, JI, ANP or MQM; they are not willing to give people of these areas any leverage in national affairs. The reason behind this jaundiced approach is not that Pakistani politicians are afraid of powerful military establishment which has hitherto controlled the Kashmir policy.
They are simply not giving them importance out of arrogance and selfishness. They would never take up issues affecting the performance of Kashmir Council, Gilgit Baltistan Council, federally controlled bureaucracy or judiciary in Gilgit Baltistan or Azad Kashmir and role of intelligence agencies.
The government of Pakistan is aware of the fact that considering giving greater political influence to the people of Gilgit Baltistan would not be a welcome move for the people of other parts of Azad Kashmir. More than ever, those groups, who are backed by pro-independence political forces, would consider it a direct interference in the affairs of people of Jammu & Kashmir.
(The writer is a peace & human rights activist and associated with Press for Peace. He could be reached at [email protected])