It is more than an irony that some autonomous regions or divisions of the world that geographically lie inside the territory of a “Nation State”, are subjected to various human rights violations under a controlled or flawed democracy. The list includes Xinjiang the autonomous region of China where the local inhabitants have been in conflict with the Chinese authorities since 1930s for greater self-rule and identity rights. Similarly, the case of Indian Administered Kashmir which in 2019, directly came under the Indian rule after the newly re-elected government abolished its special status described in the Indian Constitution therefore abrogating articles 35-A and 370.
Pakistan also finds itself surrounded by ironies such as Azad Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan regions are still not completely recognized as a part of the country by the constitution of Pakistan, keeping the fact that the mentioned areas have no representation in the parliament of Pakistan. Both regions have their respective legislative assemblies and premiers which are largely dependent on and dominated by the decisions of the federal government while the questions like whether the people of GB and AJK are freely exercising their democratic rights or they are the victims of loosely-observed political repression, are never clearly answered beside that the regions have a history of struggle for the conflicting interests. The major backstop in between the development and recognition of these regions is the Kashmir Conflict and the international pressure lobbied by India as many experts believe that the accepting GB and AJK constitutionally would be a failure for Pakistan from the diplomatic point of view particularly in its cause of Kashmir.
During the partition of the subcontinent, the people of Gilgit Baltistan opted for Pakistan despite being under the rule of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Interestingly one of the reasons behind the accession was the Kashmir’s influence over GB which the people did not want any more however after the independence Pakistan did not fully accept GB because historically it was a region of Kashmir so consequently it was considered as a part of Pakistan Administered Kashmir(Azad Kashmir) but later soon in 1949 the authority of GB was officially handed over to the Government of Pakistan who governed the territory directly without any formal and elected representation given to its people. From 1949 to 1970 Government of Pakistan established Gilgit Agency and Baltistan Agency. In 1970 Northern areas council established by then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Gilgit Baltistan was directly administrated by federal government and it was called FANA(Federal administrated northern areas).
The systematic isolation of Gilgit-Baltistan population existed because of the few main problems primarily for decades it was not in the list of the mainstream political parties because no elections were being held there secondly the whole of Pakistan itself remained poor in democratic progress as Pakistan spent almost half of its age under military regimes and last but not the least there was also a lack of public pressure as an active civil society was absent in the region, with young educated youth migrating into urban centers for education and prosperous life rather than staying in the region
Another example of sad state of affairs in the region was the tensions between Shia and Sunni communities as GB was populated by Shia-diversity(Twelver, Noorbakshi and Ismaili groups). The conflict had been there since 1980s but intensified under the administration of General Zia-ul-Haq when the riots broke out between the two communities subsequently a military intervention was taken place targeting mainly the Shia population. The incidents of 1988 is often termed as an attempt by the state to suppress the dissent of the local communities by giving it a sectarian angle. There was an important breakthrough regarding the status of GB when in 1999 the Supreme Court of Pakistan passed its landmark judgement declaring people of Northern Areas as Pakistani citizens with having all fundamental rights but unfortunately no potential efforts were made to address the concerns.
It was not before 2009 that after the formation of its government, Pakistan Peoples Party enacted Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-governance) Order- 2009. Which enabled GB to have a separate sub-division preserving its distinct and historical identity with a legislative assembly to be elected by the local public. The Gilgit-Baltistan Council was also established under the same order whose Chairman would be the Prime Minister of Pakistan including Governor & Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The GB assembly now has 33 seats with 24 for elected representatives and 9 seats reserved for women and technocrats also the elections are supposed to be held after every 5 years. In 2009 Peoples Party won the majority of the seats while in 2015 Pakistan Muslim league-Nawaz formed the government. Despite that groundbreaking developments GB had found no representation in the parliament of Pakistan.
However the arrival of Imran khan and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in power through 2018 general elections, has so far proved crucial for Pakistan along with GB politics as the Prime Minister has promised the people to give GB a full provincial status while the united opposition despite blaming the government for being ‘selected’ by undemocratic forces, is also somehow supporting the provincial status for GB but there are many speculations around it. Many analyst find the Chinese factor behind it as GB enables Pakistan to share its border with China which is also very important for the future of CPEC project meanwhile India also claims the authority over GB while considering it a part of disputed Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. The major concern around the debate is that changing the status of GB would cause harm to Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir and it will also make the cause irrelevant to the International community.
Although the AJK government, the people and the political parties have opposed the move to change the status for GB as it would weaken their struggle for united and independent Kashmir in future as GB remained under the influence of Kashmir rulers for many years. On the contrary the people of GB have always thought themselves to be ethnically different from the Kashmiris and resented being under Kashmir state rule.
On 15 November 2020 Pakistan has witnessed fresh elections in GB after its second elected assembly has successfully completed its constitutional term. PTI seems leading the race with almost 10 seats in its favor while continuing the trend that the party in the Federal government also forms the government in GB. The Opposition parties and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have concerns and reservations over the newly-conducted elections with PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zaradri has called out a protest calling PTI victory a result of rigging.
Under all these circumstances the missing element is the will of the people of GB as the local political activists are being suppressed and find no place in the agenda of the contenders for the race of GB like Baba Jan a leftist politician, who is currently serving a lifetime prison sentence for protesting against the killings of citizens by GB police in 2011. In the month of October the people of Hunza protested and put forward a demand of releasing all the political prisoners but didn’t get any attention from mainstream media and the political parties while the latter have been seen using old self-centered rhetoric in their election campaigns despite giving the space to local politicians.
No one knows what this new wave of so-called democratic spring holds for the future of GB. It is now depended on Pakistan to set its priorities: whether to serve the purpose of CPEC; the cause of Kashmir or the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.