Pakistan on Monday held an election for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. India has criticised the election, and reasserted its claim over G-B as part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
G-B, the northernmost territory administered by Islamabad, has seen its geostrategic importance rise after China spotted its potential for an energy corridor through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The region, straddled to the north by China’s restive Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR) on the one side and Afghanistan on the other, is central to the recent agreement for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, running from Gwadar port in Balochistan to Kashgar in the XAR. To G-B’s west is Pakistan’s troubled north-west, to its south is PoK, and to the east, J&K.Though Pakistan, like India, has linked G-B’s fate to that of the Kashmir issue, it treats the region differently from “Azad” Kashmir. While PoK has its own Constitution that sets out its powers and their limitations vis-à-vis Pakistan, G-B has been ruled mostly by executive fiat.
Until 2009, the region was simply called Northern Areas. G-B, the name, came with the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, announced in September that year, which also replaced the Northern Areas Legislative Council with the Legislative Assembly.The NALC was an elected body, but had no more than an advisory role to the representative of the federal government, the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, who ruled from Islamabad.The Legislative Assembly is only a slight improvement. It has 24 directly elected members and nine nominated ones — six of whom are women, and three are technocrats. In theory, it can pass a budget and make laws on 61 subjects, but the list excludes certain key areas such as natural resources, including water and minerals. A Chief Minister elected by the largest political party or grouping will form the government, but real power is still wielded by the federally-appointed Governor, through a 12-member Legislative Council, half of whose members will be nominated by him. Given the region’s importance, the Pakistan Army plays an outsize role behind the scenes.
The 2009 reforms package satisfied no one: G-Bs were unhappy with the illusory autonomy it offered, with constitutional guarantees still absent; India said the move was part of a plan to make G-B a province of Pakistan in all but name; Kashmiris saw in it an insidious move by the Pakistan People’s Party government of that time to dilute their cause by giving a region internationally considered a part of the Kashmir issue a province-like status within Pakistan.
The term of the first Legislative Assembly ended in December 2014, and through an executive order, the Prime Minister appointed a caretaker government to hold the next election. The region has 600,000 registered voters; its assembly seats are distributed over 7 segments: Skardu, Diamer, Gilgit, Hunza-Nagar, Ghizer, Ganche and Astor. Results to Monday’s election will be declared on June 11. In the fray were 272 candidates.
According to Senge Hasnan Sering of the Washington DC-based Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, there are three broad types of political sentiment in the region: the most vociferous is for merger with Pakistan, and the next loudest demand is for merger with “Azad” Kashmir. In recent years, a demand for independence from Pakistan has grown as well. Whatever New Delhi might think, G-Bs feel no political connect with India.
A majority of the estimated 1.5 million G-Bs are Shias. Sering says there is anger against the way in which Pakistan has bred sectarian militant groups that target Shias, but that the dominant view is that with the status of a “fifth province” with sufficient “internal autonomy”, G-B would be able to protect its political, social and economic security.
G-Bs want at least the same constitutional status as “Azad” Kashmir — but do not want their fate to be connected to Kashmiris’. They have little in common with Kashmiris, they belong to several non-Kashmiri ethnicities, and speak a host of languages, none of which are Kashmiri. In the 19th century, the British sold the region to the Dogra ruler of Jammu & Kashmir. On November 1, 1947, the people of G-B revolted against the Maharaja and put their future in Pakistan’s hands — only to discover that it was complicated. For Pakistan, to accept G-B’s accession would be to undermine the international case for a plebiscite in Kashmir. It also reckons that in the event a plebiscite ever takes place in Kashmir, G-B votes will be important.
The election results are expected to reflect broadly the political arrangement in Islamabad. It was like that in 2009, it has always been like that in “Azad” Kashmir, and that is how voters, parties and the Pakistan establishment renegotiate their contract in these regions. All the main parties are contesting: PML(N), Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, and PPP, which won the most seats the last time.What gives this election an edge, though, is Baba Jan, a local environmental activist who was last year sentenced to life imprisonment for “terrorist” activities. Jan, who is a candidate in Hunza for the Awami Workers’ Party, led an agitation in 2010 for compensation to villagers hit by a massive landslide in Attabad, and went to jail for this in 2011. He was released two years later, only to be charged and convicted of sedition in 2014. Baba Jan’s story underscores the lack of say G-Bs have over the natural resources and unique geography of their area. The run-up to the elections saw protests against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor too.Baba Jan’s fate will determine how far the feeling of being left out resonates, and how that goes down with the Pakistani establishment. Through Sunday and Monday, the hashtag #voteforBabaJan was trending.