Why can't the people of Gilgit-Baltistan vote in the General Elections?
As Pakistani voters excitedly shared pictures of their inked thumbs this July 25, a viral tweet provided a counterpoint to the narrative of equal voting rights. With a simple “GB can not vote” written in place of permanent ink, this image captured decades of struggle by residents of Gilgit-Baltistan for civil and political rights.
While failing to provide a voice to local representatives at the center, the Pakistani state has continually reaped the fruits stemming from GB’s strategic location. For starters the Indus River, the lifeblood of Pakistan’s economy, first enters the country through Gilgit-Baltistan. In an ever power-conscious Pakistan controlling and harnessing these access points is crucial. This is apparent in moves to hasten the construction the Diamer-Bhasha dam, cries and fundraising for which have peaked in the past few months.
Gilgit-Baltistan also provides a crucial land-link to China. The opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in the 1970s helped deepen economic links between Pakistan and China, but also wrought adverse environmental and demographic transformations to Gilgit-Baltistan. CPEC will also pass through the KKH and cover significant area in Gilgit-Baltistan, cementing the area’s position as a linchpin in Pakistan’s current developmental vision.
Since 1947 the people of present-day Gilgit-Baltistan have repeatedly called for representation at the federal level and integration within Pakistan, but successive national governments have followed a policy of deliberate ambiguity in governing this area. GB has been in a constitutional limbo for over seven decades, with the Pakistani state arguing that a change in status quo would have a detrimental effect on the Kashmir dispute. At the same time this disputed status of Gilgit-Baltistan has not historically stopped Pakistan from exchanging control of Trans-Karakoram tract to the Chinese in 1963 (a move that is still contested by India), or from constructing mega-infrastructure projects in the area.
Independence Day is celebrated on August 14 all across Pakistan, but the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan also celebrate a yaum-e-azadi on November 1. They commemorate the Gilgit Scouts rebellion against the Dogra ruler of Jammu and Kashmir, who acceded to India following partition. Spurred into military action by this perceived injustice, the Scouts planted the Pakistani flag on their soil and proceeded to form a provisional government.
The preceding decades of British imperialism had changed the nature of political authority in this region. The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was created in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War (1846), and served as a way of rewarding the Dogras in Ranjit Singh’s Sikh court for allying with the British. The Treaties arising from this war were interpreted to include some areas in present-day Gilgit-Baltistan.
With the Treaty of Amritsar The Dogras effectively became rulers of a territory and people they had little knowledge of and relations with. Prior to the mid-nineteenth century Gilgit-Baltistan consisted of small, internally autonomous, principalities whose local leaders provided tribute to sovereigns mostly in China or Central Asia.
As the local leaders of present-day Gilgit-Baltistan protested annexation by the Dogras, the British also increased their stronghold on the area. In light of strategic concerns the British established a Political Agency in Gilgit to control trade routes, taxation, and military power. This effectively sidelined Dogra political power in the region, and by 1935 the British had also officially leased the Gilgit wazarat (settled areas) from the Dogras.
However Partition tied the fate of Gilgit-Baltistan back to the princely state of Jammu of Kashmir. With independence looming the British “handed back” Gilgit on August 1, 1947 to Maharaja Hari Singh, a Dogra ruler who even at this point had little in common with his subjects in this region. Following the Gilgit Scouts rebellion and the UN negotiated ceasefire of 1949 the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan were assigned to Pakistan’s part of the disputed territory.
The unwillingness of the Pakistani state to grant autonomy or actual provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan is tied intimately with the Kashmir conflict. While Pakistan opposes India’s claim over AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan, it does not recognize them legally as part of Pakistani territory fearing it would imply giving up their claims over the Indian administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir. When, and if, a plebiscite is held these areas will arguably form part of the vote bank for Pakistan.
Up till 1971 local leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan retained existing control of their territories. A high level bureaucrat (a Political Agent) was posted as a representative of the state and accorded a wide range of legislative, judicial, and financial powers. Colonial modes of governance also continued with the extension of the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) to this territory; a draconian colonial era law denying civil and political rights to people.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government made significant administrative changes; the areas comprising present-day Gilgit-Baltistan was politically united for the first time, the FCR and rule of hereditary princes was abolished, and an attempt was made to bring the administrative structure in line with those of settled areas. However even with these reforms the Northern Areas were not granted a semi-autonomous parliamentary setup like Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and were ruled through executive fiat from Islamabad.
Over the course of the next few decades a political movement calling for the constitutional integration of the Northern Areas into Pakistan gained steam, and citizens repeatedly called for the extension of basic constitutional rights to them. The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 was passed as a response to decades of this political organizing. It created a local Legislative Assembly, however many of its members were directly appointed by the government. The region was also not included in the NFC award, and the central question of federal representation remain unresolved.
The PML-N enacted the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 following three years of consultation. This was seen to be even more pressing in light of Gilgit-Baltistan’s key role in CPEC. The Order purportedly provides a wider range of legislative powers to the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly. It also provides citizens access to courts across Pakistan, as compared to previously being limited to Gilgit-Baltistan. However there is still no mention of electoral representation in Pakistan’s National Assembly, or a share in the NFC Award.
Opposition parties in Gilgit-Baltistan argue that it extends the decades-old stronghold of Islamabad over Gilgit-Baltistan, with the Prime Minister acting as the final arbiter. They also fear that the Order will dilute the power of local representatives, and replace it with bureaucratic control from the center - much like what was practiced in the bygone era of Political Agents.
While Gilgit-Baltistan is at the center of Pakistan’s developmental vision today - with patriotic crowdfunding in full swing for the Diamer-Bhasha dam - it is worth reflecting upon the unequal political geography and forms of citizenship that still exist in the region seventy-one years after attaining azadi.
Doctoral Candidate of History at Princeton