analysis: A step in the right direction —Rasul Bakhsh Rais
Since Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the Jammu and Kashmir state, its fate became linked to which way the disputed state would go. This was implicitly the reason for the six-decades-long delay in restructuring the governance of the region
Granting a sort of autonomy, or self-rule, to the Gilgit-Baltistan region is the first critical step in the right direction. This is something that the people of the region have been demanding for a very long time.
But is the proposed structure of self-governance that is going to be implemented through a presidential ordinance enough, or do we need more in terms of autonomy from the outset of reforms than wait for further political demands? Have we, in this sense, neglected Gilgit-Baltistan?
The people of this rugged and difficult region have their own individuality and a sense of ethnic identity that has been shaped by history and geography over a long period of time. There is no doubt that this sparsely populated, vast region has diverse communities within it, but at the same time there are overlapping bonds of religion, language and social networks.
Parallel to unifying themes, there are also distinctive feelings among communities at the local level, a pattern similar to the social patchwork that we see in mountain communities.
Unlike tribal communities, the social networks that we have observed in Gilgit-Baltistan are essentially non-feudal, less hierarchical and more open to social change and development than even mainstream areas in the rest of Pakistan. One is greatly impressed by how local communities have embraced the idea of education, community organisation and development, often in competition to outdo others in achieving social and developmental objectives.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan rightly take pride in liberating themselves from the Raja of Kashmir in 1947 and unconditionally acceding to Pakistan. This region like many others in the subcontinent had changed hands among local and foreign rulers before the Raja of Jammu and Kashmir annexed it in his ambitious quest of empire building.
Since Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the Jammu and Kashmir state, its final fate became linked to which way the disputed state would go. This was implicitly the reason for the six-decades-long delay in restructuring the governance of the region. In fact, equally crucial was the act in 1948 to separate Gilgit-Baltistan from what became known as Azad Kashmir or the Pakistani part of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir state.
It is interesting that Kashmiri nationalists on both sides of the Line of Control claim Gilgit-Baltistan as an inherent part of the Jammu and Kashmir state. The Indian government also took a similar position when it raised questions about Pakistan’s border demarcation agreement with China in 1963. In fact, Pakistan and China while signing the border agreement added a proviso that it was subject to the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
In the coming weeks and months, we will see a storm of protest from Kashmiri nationalists and even mainstream Kashmiri leaders over granting self-rule to Gilgit-Baltistan. One of the fundamental reasons Gilgit-Baltistan couldn’t get the status of a province was our interest in placating Kashmiris’ feelings.
There are two important issues that we need to discuss in this regard. First, who should really determine who the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are? No external power and group can fix the identity of any community. What is important in this case and universally acknowledged is how the people define themselves and the identity they give to themselves.
In our part, there are two sides to such identities, territorial and linguist-ethnic. The latter is much fuzzier because the territorial units we have evolved over centuries are not ethnically exclusive but contain other ethnic and linguistic groups. Gilgit-Baltistan has a territorial identity and a deep sense of historicity. But its linguistic particularities that are natural features of mountain communities living in isolated valleys are not too sharp to divide them into smaller identities.
How do the people of Gilgit-Baltistan define themselves? They may have petty regional differences, and sub-regional identities like Hunza and Nagar, but they don’t refer to themselves as Kashmiris. The only thing apparently common with the state of Jammu and Kashmir is their being subject to foreign rule against their will, and against which they rebelled and secured their freedom. But their freedom from the ruler of Jammu and Kashmir was unfortunately followed by direct federal rule from Islamabad in an independent Pakistan. But then the complex triangle of Kashmir, India and Pakistan and the sensitivities of the Kashmiri leaders that we have supported unconditionally at a great cost and may continue to do so were resistant in recognising the historic name and character of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The name sounds so natural and comes so easy on tongue than the bureaucratic characterisation of this historic people as the “Northern Areas of Pakistan”. The title Islamabad gave to this region and its people was devoid of human touch, as if territory mattered more than the people who have lived there for thousands of years.
The people in fact matter when they are granted the identity they wish to adopt, freedoms, and autonomy within a national framework of the state. There is no conflict and cannot be conflict between a national government and a region and province when powers are adequately devolved to the units to their satisfaction. This kind of federalism is a necessity in ethnically diverse countries like Pakistan.
Recognising self-rule for Gilgit-Baltistan should be considered a first instalment of governance reform with the objective of giving it the full status of province. The region has all the essential features, strengths, resources and more importantly political aspirations to become a province. The size of population should never matter in recognising such an historical realities; just cast a look at the variations in the sizes of American states: what matters is history for Rhode Island, Delaware and New Hampshire and not their demographic strength compared to California and New York.
The decision that the PPP and its coalition partners have taken in recognising rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan is courageous and politically mature. More than that it will pull the people of this region out of administrative mumbo-jumbo and set them on a clear path of political evolution to a province. It would be better and more far reaching if provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan is settled in the constitutional reform package now, than to leave it for future political dispensations.
Finally, Kashmiri nationalists lack sound reasons for tagging Gilgit-Baltistan to Jammu and Kashmir. In their own struggle, what matters is their sense of identity, constitutive elements of community and historical facts that they believe separate them from the rest. Why then do they deny the same right to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to define who they are and what type of political arrangements they want for themselves?
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org