September 24th, 2020
By Ahmad Saeed
While lawmakers have agreed to give Gilgit-Baltistan a provisional ‘provincial status’, forming the fifth province and allowing it representation in the parliament, a constitutional amendment in this regard can only be expected after elections for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly which will be held on November 15. But the process is not too smooth, like some quarters, in particular representatives of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, are already voicing their concerns that doing so would undermine Pakistan’s bid for occupied Kashmir.
It has been an age-old demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to confer the status of a full-fledged province to the region so they may enjoy the same constitutional and legal rights as other citizens of Pakistan.
Prior to the Partition of the Subcontinent, Gilgit-Baltistan remained under Dogra rule until a revolt by the Gilgit Scouts liberated the region on November 1, 1947. It was declared and functioned as an independent state for all of 16 days, but was then annexed by Pakistan after talks with the founder and first Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Although Pakistan was able to establish its authority over the region, it was not fully integrated. Rather, Gilgit-Baltistan was given special status due to a UN resolution regarding the area declaring it disputed territory.
Former National Security Advisor and Advisor to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz, who chaired the committee on conferring provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan and give it parliamentary representation, stated that the development will not harm Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir issue as there will be no change to the status of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. However, if it is given complete provincial status through amendment of Article 1 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the Kashmir cause might suffer a setback. Therefore, even as a provisional province, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan can access all the rights guaranteed to the citizens of Pakistan.
Israr-ud-Din, Coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in Gilgit-Baltistan, was of the belief that Gilgit-Baltistan should be included in the Constitution, as only then can it catch up to the rest of Pakistan in terms of development, and benefit from the fundamental and civil liberties enshrined in the Constitution. He noted that there has always been strong opposition from Azad Jammu and Kashmir and India whenever there are talks on changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, he argued that if the voices of the region’s people are not heard and they are not afforded their due rights, it may become too late to address and remedy the grievances of the local populace.
Habiba Salman, a women’s rights activist in Gilgit-Baltistan, was not too optimistic about the development, stating that there were similar plans in the past but they went nowhere. She added that she did not believe there would be a significant improvement in the rights and liberties of women in the region after it achieves provisional provincial status as women were not a priority.
According to Aziz Ali Dad, an analyst with a keen eye on the history and politics of Gilgit-Baltistan, stated that the local populace has been pinning their hopes on the creation of a fifth province for 72 years now and that if their demand is not met this time around, there is a threat of the emergence of radical thinking among the upcoming generations. Radicalism has a greater chance of being enforced in the region due to Pakistan’s history of enforcing strict laws such as martial law in Gilgit-Baltistan, whereas laws meant to strengthen and protect citizens are never implemented.
According to Jamil Nagri, a journalist from Gilgit-Baltistan posited that in addition to the guarantee of civil rights and liberties to the people of the region, the local government may also receive more finances in the form of financial awards and provincial budgets that will usher in prosperity and development in the region.
Although the people of Gilgit-Baltistan welcome the announcement with open arms, they are also plagued by doubtful fears that this time as well the move may just be a political strategy to turn the tides in the upcoming provincial election. According to analysts, if the promise of conferring provisional provincial status to the region is not fulfilled this time around, then the people of the region may lose their faith in the state of Pakistan for good.