When martial law was proclaimed in the country in 1977, Azad Kashmir was exempted while the Northern Areas was declared as martial Law Zone “E”. This resulted into a misplaced perception here that this new façade and veneering would thenceforward settle the long persisting constitutional imbroglio when martial would end and entitle this region a dispensation at par with the four other zones of the country to be accorded a provincial status once the martial was withdrawn. This naturally gave an impetus to the movement for the creation of a separate province. Such notions were but natural to thrive and bolstered with the advent of representation to G-B albeit with the observer’s status in the Majlis-i-Shura.
It is noteworthy that in response to the vociferous demand of the people, government of the day came up with unequivocal assurances in seventies that steps would be taken to lead the people of the region on to representative form of government. Yet a firmer assurance came in 1973 when it was promised to constitute the region into a province with its own legislative assembly in about ten years’ time came – something going unfulfilled afterwards as a result of the continued dithering that ensued during the course. As referred to earlier, the government remitted the land revenue in the region in 1974 which was regarded by the populace here as a benign gesture in that the public in general was groaning under the oppressive land revenue system long in vogue.
Come 1993, the government announced a judicial and administrative reforms package for Northern Areas. The post of chief executive for Northern Areas was created and filled albeit the package did not take off due to change of government in the centre. Later on, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) then taking up the reins enforced the package in 1994, no matter with some changes in it. But nonetheless, the key-issue id est constitutional conundrum remained unaddressed and unattended to as usual. While judiciary here was accordingly to be headed by a single judge called judicial commissioner.
The announcement of a constitutional package in 1999 under which elections were held in the Northern Areas for a legislative assembly came in the wake of the landmark decision of Supreme Court of Pakistan May 28, asking the government to upgrade the political and judicial dispensations in this region. In short, this verdict fully addressed what was sought by way of the constitutional petitions and in keeping with the jucticiability while requiring the government to remedy the situation relating to fundamental rights etc.
It was a welcome step in keeping with the longstanding demand of the people of this area. More importantly, the judicial reforms made included the creation of a three-member bench comprising supreme court-level judges for the dispensation of justice to put in place a judicature to help in enforce the fundamental rights of the people of this area, which till then had been a neglected sphere. This package of reforms encompassed greater changes insofar as upgradation of political, administrative and judicial institutions in the Northern Areas was concerned but nevertheless, the crucial issue of determination of constitutional status was not addressed.
Instead, the package announced by the Kashmir and Northern Areas Affairs Ministry envisaged provision of constitutional powers to the Northern Areas Assembly and elections to which were held the same year. However, an attempt was made in it to diminish the interference of the federal government in the day-to-day administration of the Northern Areas and to transfer financial powers from Islamabad to Gilgit for this purpose. In its landmark judgment of May 28, 1999, the Supreme Court, while recognizing the de facto authority of Pakistan over the Northern Areas, directed the government to provide fundamental rights to the people of the area, including their right “to be governed through their chosen representatives.”
While the more the Northern Areas enjoyed immense strategic significance to Pakistan, the more the region was kept neglected for too long in terms of covering the whole spectrum of life but unlike what the situation warranted. In all brevity, the deficiencies and deprivations until then stemmed from complete lack of participation in any concept of self-rule, denial of enforceable fundamental rights, poor attention to the problem of socio-economic underdevelopment and the continued non-declaration of the area’s constitutional status. These drawback and shortcomings were needed to be rectified and the sooner this objective was realized, the better it would have been for this strategically important area and for the country at large. To make this possible, the all encompassing and landmark Supreme Court judgment required to be followed by the government in letter and in spirit.
However, it was evocative of misgivings being expressed by some political parties over the way the package was put together and announced. These quarters looked askance at it by even questioning the government’s intentions in this regard. This was primarily because no efforts whatsoever, was made to take them on board on its eve. Ideally, a political consensus should have been evolved and support garnered before moving ahead with the implementation of the reform package, so that any fears or reservations that were expressed by some political parties of the area could have been addressed. This step should have formed part of a process designed to give the people of the region an effective voice and active involvement in the conduct of their affairs both at regional and national levels.
The latest dispensation has come in the form of ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 which has brought about the rudimentary institution of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) together with a set-up literally akin to and having provincial facade. This is alongside the sui generis body called the Gilgit-Baltistan Council (GB Council) brought into being which interms of powers, seemingly has a leverage over the former. The institution of the Supreme Appellate Court resulting from the present dispensation now completes all the very vital tiers required for judicial process up to the hilt. The new-found governance has barely entered into the second phase this year.
In the fore-going scenario, the question of determination of the constitutional status of the region in order to allow the region representation in the parliament is something hanging in balance. Going by the historical perspective, the locus and status to be accorded to this region becomes crystal clear if at all, a serious attempt is made to discern the fact from fiction and separate wheat from the chaff that may provides the essential underpinning for a judicious determination. It is expedient to do that at this point in time, even by according provisional provincial status, by way of a constitutional amendment, in the greater interest of this region as well as the country at large as it is not an insurmountable problem if there be a resolve to address it. Such a move is not in any way to harm the lingering Kashmir issue as adverted to somewhere else recently. The people of G-B as down-to-earth Pakistanis they are unquestionably deserved a dispensation of the kind so that they are allowed unhindered access to the parliament and the national policy-making bodies without any inordinate delay. Such a step would alongside, be greatly facilitative in going ahead with the implementation of mega projects including the Economic Corridor Project (ECP) especially when the last named is said to be the ‘game changer’.
Given the continuum as to the variegated governance intermittently put in place, the Governance Order 2009 is too which was viewed as ‘too little too late’ in that the region could aptly have been administered from the inception atleast in such a manner while simultaneously mulling plans to constitutionalize the region even provisionally to address the core issue in order to remove the growing sense of deprivation of the people and the consequential disillusionment persisting among the younger generation by giving them the right to partake of the national policy-making upon representation in the parliament of the country.