By Mohsin Raza Malik
Prime Minister Imran Khan approved in principle a legal plan last month to accord Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) the status of a ‘provisional’ province in accordance with the recommendations made by a high-powered reforms committee. However, Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar has recently made it quite clear that a blanket order can’t be issued to declare Gilgit-Baltistan the ‘fifth province’ of Pakistan since it is essentially a domain of the Parliament. He is currently heading a seven-member bench of the Supreme Court which is hearing a number of petitions challenging the Gilgit-Baltistan Order-2018, Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order-2009 besides seeking the fundamental rights of the people of the region. This SC bench has also constituted a committee of legal experts to finalise the nitty-gritty of the proposed bill after issuing guidelines to find a “solution” somewhere “above the GB Order 2018 and below the Constitution” to “bring Gilgit-Baltistan at par with other provinces of Pakistan”. Earlier in August this year, a 3-member bench of the SC restored the GB Order-2018 by suspending a decision of GB Supreme Appellate Court whereby it had been stuck down.
The present-day territory of Gilgit-Baltistan was part of erstwhile princely state of J&K. It was liberated by its local inhabitants with the help of Pakistan during the First War of Kashmir. Though Pakistan has been exercising a considerable control over this territory, GB is not a constituent part of it constitutionally. Pakistan has yet not annexed GB in view of the Kashmir dispute as this very act could jeopardise the just settlement of this dispute in accordance with UN resolutions. In 1970, this region was made a separate administrative unit after being named ‘Northern Areas’. In 2009, the PPP government renamed it ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ by promulgating Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order. Through this Order, a semi-autonomous and self-governing status was granted to GB besides ensuring some fundamental rights to its inhabitants. Despite the fact that the posts of Governor and Chief Minister were introduced, the GB Council, headed by Prime Minister of Pakistan, was the Supreme decision-making body.
The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order-2009 was later replaced by Gilgit-Baltistan Order-2018 by PML-N government whereby all powers exercised by GB Council were shifted to GB Assembly. However, this Order has also been criticised for being Prime Minister-centric. Under this Order, Prime Minister of Pakistan occupies a pivotal position in the administrative affairs of GB. A large number of local residents along with the combined opposition in the GB Legislative Assembly rejected this Order and demanded that GB should be declared a constitutional part of Pakistan instead of being administrated through Presidential Orders. Later, this Order was also suspended by the GB Supreme Appellate Court. Though the Supreme Court of Pakistan has restored Gilgit-Baltistan Order-2018, Pakistan currently has no comprehensive and viable legal plan to effectively govern GB territory besides adequately address the grievances of the deprived people of this region. Consequently, essentially involving a number of legal and constitutional complexities, the legal status of GB has now become a contentious question.
Spanning over some 73 thousand Square Kilometers, the strategically-crucial Gilgit-Baltistan means a lot to Pakistan. GB connects Pakistan with China. It hosts the all-weather Karakoram Highway (KKH).China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, is also passing through this region. Moreover, the multipurpose Diamer-Bhasha Dam is also being constructed in this region. GB has been in the international limelight since the formal announcement of the CPEC project in 2015. Ever since, an anti-CPEC international lobby has also been busy in trying to render this project controversial by constantly disputing the legal status of GB besides undermining Pakistan’s credentials to legally administer this region. The US and India are well known for their strong opposition to CPEC. In October 2017, the Trump administration told the Senate Armed Services Committee that CPEC was passing through a disputed territory. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s persistent anxiety over CPEC is also observable. To sabotage this crucial corridor project, he has also promptly visited China to persuade Chinese government to abandon it. Reportedly, Indian intelligence agency RAW also established a special desk to subvert CPEC. Pakistan now seriously needs to focus on determining the legal status of GB to counter further CPEC-related international hostile propaganda.
The people of GB are currently desperate to make GB a constitutional part of Pakistan. Therefore, it is high time for Pakistan to constitutionally absorb GB by granting it the legal status of a full-fledged province, provisionally or perpetually. However, it is advisable to do this only after duly holding a referendum or plebiscite allowing people of GB to properly and freely determine the crucial questions of their political sovereignty. At times, the rulers of various states comprising present-day Gilgit-Baltistan have requested to accede their states to Pakistan. Nevertheless, it is really necessary to seek fresh popular mandate before making GB a constitutional part of part of Pakistan in order to avoid future controversies. In fact, annexing a territory after allowing its people to determine their political future through a plebiscite or referendum is internationally-recognised legal method of acquiring a territory by a sovereign state. The right to self-determination is a cardinal principle in modern international law. Therefore, if people of GB decide their political future in exercise of their inherent right to self-determination, no individual or state should criticise or object to this very political development.
Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan is not part of the state of J&K. Even geographically, it is not well-connected with the state of J&K. In fact, this territory was conquered and forcibly annexed by Gulab Singh, the Dogra Maharaja of Kashmir in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Ever since, the people of GB have revolted against the Dogra dynasty many times. They have never accepted the Dogra rule by choice. Therefore, in 1947, as soon as the people of GB found an opportunity to get freedom, they readily overthrew the Dogra rule with the help of Pakistani troops and tribesmen. It is also a fact that the people of GB substantially differ from the Kashmiri people ethnically, linguistically, religiously and culturally. Therefore, once the people of GB have gotten independence, they must not be forced to again become part of the state of J&K against their will. This time the people of GB should decide their own political fate in accordance with the universal principle of “consent of the governed”.
India, being a usurper which is currently occupying IHK against the wishes of Kashmiris, has certainly no locus standi to object to the proposed referendum and annexation of GB to Pakistan. Kashmiris living on both sides of the LoC should also not object to it as it is a question of fundamental political rights of the people of this region. They should readily grant the same instruments of political freedom as they are strongly demanding from India for a long time. If they are seeking justice, then they should also be prepared to do justice. At this stage, the Kashmiri leadership and freedom activists must focus on liberating the original territories of the disputed sate of J&K. In order to avoid multiplicity and more complexities on the Kashmir dispute, they shouldn’t insist on getting the GB and China-held areas (Aksai Chin and Ladakh) back. This act would only complicate and prolong their ongoing freedom struggle.
Pakistan can proceed to hold a referendum in GB unilaterally without waiting for the implantation of past UNSC resolutions. In fact, the political future of GB has been in limbo for the last 70 years. Therefore, now the people of GB should not be made to suffer any longer. They should be granted full citizenship rights as well as all necessary institutions of the state meant for facilitating citizens. In this regard, Pakistan needs not to be much worried about past UNSC resolutions on Kashmir dispute. In fact, these non-binding resolutions have lost both their significance and relevance since long. If they can’t force India to hold referendum in IHK, then they also can’t prevent Pakistan from making crucial decision for the collective good of the people of GB.
There are many reasons for Pakistan to be optimistic about the outcome of the proposed referendum in GB. The people of GB have time and again requested to incorporate their territory into Pakistan. Presently, there is no significant anti-Pakistan or separatist movement in this region. Historically, this region has had great cultural and economic ties with Pakistan. This region has also been well connected with the territory of present-day Pakistan through the ancient Silk Route. Now the CPEC will further help integrate this region with Pakistan.
The people of FATA have gotten their long-awaited citizenship rights. Now, the deprived people of GB should also be granted their due political and civil rights. We need to be cautious and more careful about this region after the commencement of CPEC project. Indeed, Pakistan shouldn’t let the ongoing ‘accession movement’ in GB transform into a separatist movement.
(The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore. firstname.lastname@example.org)