By Hassan Niazi
What is past is prologue.
In 1846, after years of war, Gilgit-Baltistan, or for brevity’s sake G-B, became a part of the state known as Jammu and Kashmir. At that point, who could have known that this singular act would create the ripples that would prevent G-B from ever officially becoming a part of Pakistan.
The fate of Kashmir and G-B should have diverged into two separate paths when the latter gained independence from the former. It must have seemed to the people of G-B that this was true, when in 1947 the region acceded to Pakistan, while Kashmir would from that point forward be known as ‘the Kashmir issue’.
But a fate tied together for so long would not untangle without a fight. Without consulting the people of the area, the state of Pakistan would peg the status of G-B to the eventual resolution of the Kashmir dispute. It seems the reason for this intertwining of fates was Jammu and Kashmir’s unwillingness towards allowing G-B to become a separate province. Pakistan, not wanting to alienate the Kashmir cause, put G-B in the same limbo basket as Kashmir. And so, despite having gained independence from Kashmir, G-B’s autonomy still lies in hands other than its own.
Today, the people of G-B are not recognised as citizens of Pakistan, and the area is not governed by the Constitution of Pakistan, because of the Kashmir issue. Since the day Pakistan appeared on the world map, the people of G-B have shown a strong commitment to the idea of Pakistan, yet this commitment has remained unreciprocated. Instead of the constant prevarications that Pakistan has mastered when confronted with this issue, perhaps it is time to walk the road to redemption.
We could begin with understanding that G-B’s status should never have been mixed with Kashmir. Blessed with their own rich individual identity — independent from that of Kashmir — the people of G-B deserve to celebrate their autonomy. The more we associate them with Kashmir, the higher the probability that we will nurture feelings of resentment amongst them. It is because the people of G-B wanted to be masters of their own fate that they fought for independence from Kashmir, and so, every time we tie their fate to Kashmir’s we enable frustration and resentment to materialise within its people. Pakistan must tread this path carefully. For feelings of resentment can morph into feelings of hate.
It has never made sense to tie G-B’s fate with Kashmir, because while Kashmir may be a disputed territory given the peculiar fallout of partition; G-B, an independent state, upon partition, unconditionally consented to integration with Pakistan.
Granting the people of G-B full citizenship rights and the region provincial status shouldn’t be taking us so long. Forming a province of G-B will not require the sort of political capital that, say, a Seraiki province would. It would require a constitutional amendment, which would mean the PTI reaching across the aisle for support. But this is an issue in which multiparty unity is actually feasible. What are we waiting for?
With the advent of CPEC, which is contingent upon G-B, shouldn’t the people of that area have a say in parliament about this massive project that will have a direct impact on their home? Do we really wish for feelings of victimhood to fester in another area that has given so much for Pakistan? By denying the people of G-B the rights granted under the Constitution, we deny them the ability to control their own destiny. They are left voiceless; without proper representation.
Glimmers of hope were seen when the Sartaj Aziz Committee was formed to recommend a solution to this issue. The committee’s recommendations have so far not been implemented. Hope was rekindled when the Supreme Court took notice of the issue this year, but it seems yet another commission has been formed to look into the matter. Irony shows no mercy sometimes.
While Pakistan completely fails the people of G-B is there any way for its citizens to at least get basic liberties provided by our constitution? In constitutional law, there is precedent from some jurisdictions which says that certain provisions of the Constitution apply to regions where a country exercises ‘de facto’ sovereignty. This is what the Supreme Court of the United States stated in the case of Boumediene vs Bush when the Bush administration tried to wiggle its way out of the constitution by claiming Guantanamo Bay was outside the jurisdiction of the United States, and therefore, detainees could not be extended the right of habeas corpus. Justice Kennedy shut down this argument, making the point that the US had complete control over the Bay for more than a 100 years. “Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this,” he said.
There is an argument then, that given that Pakistan exercises de facto sovereignty over G-B, its people, even if not its citizens, should be given certain fundamental rights under the Constitution.
We also need to be mindful that anything short of giving G-B provincial status would be unjust. Arguments have been made along these lines, but they should be rejected for the colonial relics that they are. We should not treat G-B the way the US has treated Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s status was decided by a long line of US cases that are referred to as the ‘insular’ cases. To summarise: these cases stated that Puerto Rico was an unincorporated territory and thus did not have all the rights under the Constitution that fully incorporated states have in the US. Such principles reek of colonialism and the ‘insular cases’ came about when US expansionism was at its peak. Pakistan should be wary of going down the colonial road.
It is full provincial autonomy and full citizenship status that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan deserve. Anything less would be an insult to the people of a region that was one of the first to join Pakistan.