Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s emerging fifth province
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is in the news, as it conducted third general elections for its legislative council on Nov. 15 to elect 24 members. The ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has captured a plurality of seats but remains short of a majority to form the regional government in this strategically important part of the country. It is likely to get the support of seven independents to gain power.
In the past, the ruling party at the federal level swept the elections in GB, as locally influential candidates have pragmatically aligned with those in power to secure patronage and leverage influence for local development. This time around, the PTI has failed to repeat the ‘miracle’ performance of the other two major parties, but has adequate numbers to establish a government.
The people of GB have for a very long time struggled to have their own separate province, to be given representation in the parliament of Pakistan and in the civil services as a federating unit. Well short of provincial status, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) government granted regional autonomy to GB through the Self-Governance Ordinance in 2009.
Since then, the region has functioned like a province but with limited autonomy and without any representation in the elected institutions of the federation. It has a chief minister that is the chief executive of the province, but practically the governor appointed by the federal government and the bureaucracy in Islamabad have controlled the resources and exercised much of the power within GB.
In the past, all political parties have invariably supported the demand for a province but have failed to take any practical steps due to political rivalries. The push for consensus came in September, when PTI consulted with opposition parties and told them it needed their support to create a new province.
They endorsed the plan but deferred it to after the elections, as they feared that the party in power might take credit for making GB a separate province for electioneering.
Under the Pakistani Constitution, it would require a two-third majority in both the houses of Parliament to get the constitution amended and GB declared a new province.
The region that used to be referred to as the Northern Areas connects Pakistan with China, with whom it signed a border agreement in 1963 to demarcate the colonial boundary.
The agreement is provisional and subject to a final settlement of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. The provincial status of GB will also remain provisional, as historically it has been part of this formerly princely state divided into Indian and Pakistan administered territory.
Since colonial times, the state comprised many regions and ethnic groups that were made part of it through conquest. This predominantly Muslim region that had its native rulers was invaded and brought under control by the Hindu rulers of Kashmir between 1839 and 1841.
Under the British, this region remained part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir until the partition of India in August 1947.
The people of GB wanted to join Pakistan, and as the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir hesitated, they agitated. In fact, the Gilgit Scouts comprising locals that provided security for the region rebelled and arrested the state-appointed governor, and declared they were part of Pakistan on Nov. 1, 1947.
Pakistani authorities were quick to move in and take control subsequently, but wavered for decades on the question of its constitutional status.
The leaders of Azad Kashmir have continued staking a claim over GB as a part of the territories of the British era princely state. Pakistan’s legal and diplomatic position on the state of Jammu and Kashmir as a disputed territory was equally responsible for keeping it in limbo for the last 73 years.
A number of developments within and around the region have convinced the security establishment and major political parties to work together to make GB constitutionally the fifth province of the country. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s several hydroelectric projects, water reservoirs and highways are located in this region. It links Gwadar deep-sea port in the south of the country to Xinjiang province of China and to Central Asia. India has fragmented the disputed state ending its status as a federating unit in its effort to suppress resistance within the Kashmir valley.
Finally, resentment over a lack of provincial status and representation among the population of GB has grown over the years, spinning local sub-nationalism with the potential of foreign interference.
The region is known globally for its huge numbers of high mountain peaks, long glaciers, lakes, scenic valleys and rugged, snow-covered mountains that attract climbers and tourists from all over the world.
Pakistan wouldn’t risk restiveness and turmoil in this strategic region by delaying provincial status for GB any further. However, it remains to be seen how quickly it may act. Surely however, a direction has been set.