On November 1, 2022, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) commemorated its 75th Independence Day. GB links Pakistan with China and serves as CPEC’s entry point in Pakistan. Although the region has been administratively under Pakistan’s jurisdiction since 1947, its constitutional status is in flux because of its legal ties to the protracted Jammu and Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan.
Up until 1935, the Dogras and the British Government jointly controlled Gilgit. Later, the British Government leased Gilgit from the Dogras for 60 years. Ghansara Singh was appointed Governor of Gilgit after WWII. Under pressure from India, the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, announced the annexation of Kashmir with India soon after the partition. India dispatched its military into Kashmir while the people of Gilgit opposed Hari Singh’s decision to join India. Major William Brown, the Maharaja’s commander of the Gilgit Scouts, sensed the people’s displeasure and led a rebellion on November 1, 1947, ousting Ghansara Singh as governor. Under the code name “Datta Khel,” Brown meticulously prepared the uprising, which Captain Mirza Hassan Khan and Subedar-Major Babar Khan’s soldiers also participated in. Brown made sure minorities were protected, and the Treasury was safe. Locals in Gilgit organized a temporary administration with Mirza Hassan Khan as the supreme commander and Raja Shah Rais Khan as the president. Major Brown requested Pakistan to assume command through telegraph to Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan.
On November 16, Khan Mohammad Alam Khan, a political agent for Pakistan, arrived and took control of Gilgit’s administration. The Gilgit Scouts and Azad irregulars advanced toward Baltistan and Ladakh after seizing control of Gilgit, where they took Skardu. In an effort to drive the rebels from Ladakh in the autumn of 1948, Indian soldiers launched an offensive, but Baltistan became the rebels’ territory. Since then, GB and Azad Kashmir have been governed by Pakistan. In order to increase its chances of winning more votes in any prospective UN referendum on Kashmir, Pakistan decided to combine GB and Kashmir. AJK has its own constitution, whereas Islamabad controls the GB.
The Long Overdue Provincial Status
In 2021, GB’s Legislative Assembly unanimously adopted a Resolution calling for interim provincial status. Giving the people of GB constitutional rights has been a shared goal of all political parties in Pakistan. Zulfikar Bhutto abolished the FCR, putting an end to forced labor and local raja rule. In 1994, Benazir Bhutto established the first party-based elections. Yousaf Raza Gillani established the GB Empowerment and Self-Governance Order in 2009 and gave the area its present name. On November 1, 2020, right after India revoked the special status of Indian Occupied Kashmir, Imran Khan announced that his administration intended to award GB a provisional provincial status. This led to the draft of the 26th Constitutional Amendment Bill, which, if approved by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, would have given GB a provisional provincial status without changing Pakistan’s stance on the Jammu and Kashmir issue as required by UN resolutions.
The push for GB’s status could falter with a new administration in place. If the proposed constitutional amendment bill is approved, it will meet some of the constitutional demands made by the people of GB and result in three significant changes. It will first enable the representation of GB citizens in Parliament. Second, following the elimination of GB’s Supreme Appellate Court, Pakistan’s Supreme Court may extend its jurisdiction to that country. Third, the Election Commission of Pakistan and GB would be combined.
Despite significant progress being made in terms of administration, the Amendment cannot be passed by the present Parliament without a two-thirds majority. The economic crisis also necessitates the creation of a comprehensive financial impact strategy to evaluate the fiscal effects of this decision. GB must fulfill their end of the contract as well. GB will need to increase its resource potential and join the direct tax net to be included in the National Finance Commission’s (NFC) framework for resource mobilization. The AJK government has historically opposed any efforts to offer GB interim provincial status, arguing that the former is an integral part of Kashmir and that any change in its status will harm Pakistan’s position in the UN. As a result, it’s crucial to trust the entire Kashmiri leadership on both sides of the LoC. Finally, providing de facto provincial status is likely to provoke fierce opposition from India, which has recently threatened to invade this land and made numerous claims to it. Recently, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh expressed his hope to have GB as part of India.
The province status is crucial for defending CPEC’s legal standing and for the people of GB, who demand attention to preserve their fundamental rights. Its history, legal and political framework demand that the position of GB be elevated to that of a province. Provisional provincial status might not fully answer all of the populace’s demands for rights comparable to those of other provinces, including the transfer of legislative, financial, and administrative authority in accordance with the 18th Amendment. It will nonetheless be a tangible first step toward resolving the problem of constitutional ambiguity in this region.
Imama Khan is Research Associate with Global Village Space and pursuing Defense & Strategic Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University. Her articles have appeared in The News and The Pakistan Observer.