Taxation and politics in Gilgit-Baltistan

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By Mudabbir Akhund
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan lack fundamental rights like the right to elect their representatives to the national Parliament and the right to have a say in use of their own natural resources.
Though the arbitrary administrative control of Pakistan over GB is not only welcomed by the locals, with passing time they have also showed their loyalty by sacrificing lives in the name of Pakistan, but even these sacrifices could not buy them citizenship rights from Islamabad.
Citizenship rights became important in the modern world with the emergence of the idea of nation-states. Not having citizenship rights, the people of GB lack any anchoring into the national foundations of Pakistan and have been rendered vulnerable as well as suspicious in the eyes of many in the rest of Pakistan. This is the reason why students from GB at education institutes in other parts of the country complain of being ‘alienated’ and ‘otherised’ while interacting with administrative forces like the police and other law enforcement agencies.
The political orphanage of GB is undeniably linked to the Kashmir dispute, and it is understood that Pakistan can never see GB detached from it, which in other words mean that people of GB will be able to exercise their fundamental rights only once the Kashmir dispute is resolved. But there has been zero progress on that front even after 70 years of Partition. Importantly, the question of getting basic rights through self-determination has been a quite irrelevant question for the people of GB, until recently.

GILGIT: In a massive anti-taxation campaign, thousands of people from Skardu launched a historic long march towards Gilgit city – headquarter of Gilgit Baltistan, against the unlawful imposition of taxes by Islamabad. Shutter-down strike in Gilgit-Baltistan against imposition of withholding tax by local government was held for several days in November last year.

In the last few decades, GB has undergone massive socio-economic changes, and its society has opened up to the rest of the world, resultantly a vast middle-class has appeared with its own prejudices and apolitical character. Politics has lost its meaning for this vast majority having an exceptional literacy rate. In their perception, the fight for constitutional rights or for self-determination is merely a wastage of time and energies which otherwise could be utilised to get a lucrative government job that will eventually help sustain a life with ‘dignity’ and ‘respect.’ GB has remained a political enigma with respect to its status as a polity since the day it was affiliated with Pakistan. To come out from this perpetual politically volatile situation, the region has hitherto failed to create an all-inclusive and collective social movement around the issue of basic rights – the only exception being the struggle against the Dogra Raj and resultant declaration of independence on November 1, 1948. Although there have been attempts for collective struggle in the past, almost every time the movement was either purposefully crashed from within – before it could get strength – with use of sectarian, ethnic, and regional cards or from outside by its convenient tagging as anti-state. In such a detestable situation for politics, political activists like Baba Jan have played the role of an icebreaker. Against the backdrop of Attabad land disaster, a sudden and spontaneous pressure group emerged in Hunza and started gaining momentum, demanding the rightful compensation for the victims, under the leadership of Baba Jan. It was purely a working-class movement that later also spoke for the constitutional rights of the region. But it was crushed from outside with all might of state machinery. Here it becomes important to remind ourselves of the role that organised parties can play by leading and sustaining movements until they reach their logical conclusion. The party at the helm keeps a record of each and everything that can influence the movement both positively or negatively, and accordingly plans future strategy. Instead of organised political parties, the political spectrum of GB in the last few years has remained dominated by spontaneous lobbies that build pressure on the government and get their exclusive self-interests protected. Take the example of the recent movement built around the tax issue. It had enough potential to become the foundation that could have led the region towards a constitutional status and accompanied citizenship rights, but the lobby comprising mainly of traders and businessmen settled on the withdrawal of taxes mainly targeting people with high incomes, and the Awami Action Committee (leading the protests) vanished from the scene leaving the big questions of protection of constitutional rights and civil liberties untouched. The majority of the protestors, from the working classes, who spent cold nights on the roads during the agitation returned empty handed. Spontaneous lobbies die out so quickly because they have no political project, no organization, and no room for laywomen and men to gain leadership positions.
The political lesson that can be learned from the recent protests is that while political organisation and mass movements do not depend on each other, they can complement each other for better results. Movements without organised party have not delivered fruitful results. If through some historical accident, GB had become a part of Kashmir dispute, it does not mean that the people of the region should just wait and watch for another historical accident to rid themselves of the consequences of the earlier one. People ought to make history through their collective struggle and sacrifices.
(The writer is an alumnus of Government College University and a member of the Progressive Students Collective)