With the signing of the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009 by President Asif Ali Zardari Sep 7, the Pakistan government has taken the first step towards amalgamating this strategically significant part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government has patted itself on the back for undertaking far-reaching administrative, political, financial and judicial reforms in this region.
The order ostensibly offers autonomy to this region which till date had neither any status under the Pakistani constitution nor any modicum of self-governance. The region has since 1947 been governed by bureaucrats from Pakistan as a colony, without any avenue whatsoever of any judicial review. The order, signed by the president and aimed at giving more internal and political autonomy to the region, was unanimously approved by the Pakistan government Aug 29.
The order renames the region as Gilgit-Baltistan -- it was hitherto called 'Northern Areas' -- fulfilling a longstanding demand of the residents. It also gives the region a local administration headed by a 'Chief Minister', a post that did not exist. The chief minister will be elected by the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly and will head a council of ministers, comprising six ministers and two advisers. The legislative assembly will consist of 24 directly elected members as well as six women and three technocrats who will be elected by the members.
The order proposes some financial autonomy for the region. A consolidated fund has accordingly been created. The budget for the region will be presented and approved by the assembly. It also incorporates a judicial set-up with the establishment of an appellate court, comprising a chief justice and two other judges; there is a provision in the order to eventually increase the strength of the court to five. The order has provision for a separate public service commission, a chief election commissioner and an auditor general for the region.
However, the devil lies in the detail. Neither the chief minister nor the legislative assembly will have any worthwhile powers. The real powers will be with the governor of Gilgit-Baltistan who will be appointed by the president of Pakistan on the advice of the prime minister. Unlike the provinces of Pakistan, he will be an outsider. As of now, Minister of Kashmir and Northern Areas Qamar Zaman Kaira has been appointed governor till a new person is appointed.
Although a legislative assembly will be elected, the real powers will be with the council, whose chairman will be the prime minister of Pakistan and most of whose members will be appointees of the Pakistani government. Although the number of subjects on which the assembly can make law has been increased from 49 to 61, the council retains the exclusive power to legislate on 55 issues which are of much greater significance.
Certain issues like defense, foreign affairs and security are beyond the purview of both the assembly and the council. The chief justice of the appellate court will be appointed by the chairman of the council on the advice of the governor; other judges will also be appointed by the chairman on the advice of the governor after seeking views of the chief justice. The order says that the budget will be presented to the assembly and passed by it. However, what is significant is that it will be prepared by bureaucrats.
Similarly all members of the public service commission, the auditor general or the election commissioner will be either the direct or indirect appointees of the Pakistan government. Similarly all the key functionaries of the administration like the chief secretary, the finance secretary and the inspector general of police will be Pakistani bureaucrats deputed from outside. It is significant that the region has no representation in either the Pakistani parliament or the council of ministers, which will have the final say in the future set-up of the region.
It is thus quite clear that all the real executive, legislative and judicial powers will vest with outsiders or their appointees, whereas the Assembly or the Council of minister will in reality be toothless tigers.
The fact that the terminologies like the governor and the chief minister have been used, rather than the 'President' and 'Prime Minister', which are used for the heads of so-called 'Azad Kashmir', indicates a more sinister design to the whole exercise.
These cosmetic changes are intended to give an impression of autonomy, whereas the real attempt is to separate this strategic region, which has been an inalienable part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1866, from the other part of Pakistani Kashmir to eventually gobble it. Right from 1947, Pakistan has systematically worked towards this end.
Immediately after occupation, it separated the State of Chitral, a vassal of the Maharaja of Kashmir, from the region and incorporated it in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). In 1975, it abrogated the State Subject Rule, which had been set up to prevent outsiders from acquiring land or settling down in the region. After the abrogation, there has been a constant influx of Sunni Pakhtoons in this predominantly Shia region and the demographic profile has changed significantly.
The local leaders from the region as well as from other parts of Pakistan-administered Kashmir have severely denounced the order. According to Abdul Hamid Khan, chairman of the Balwaristan National Front, the order will further consolidate Pakistan's hold on the region. According to Manzoor Hussain Parwana, the chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, it is a ploy to perpetuate Pakistan's rule in the region. The Karakoram National Movement and the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) have also criticized the move.
In the past Indian response to the developments in the region has been quite muted. It is time India took up strongly the grievances of the inhabitants of this region, who are legally Indian citizens.