Gilgit-Baltistan polls are not will of people but of Islamabad

New Delhi: When Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on November 1 that Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) would formally be absorbed as Pakistans fifth province, he put global spotlight on a region which his country had taken through bloodshed from the Maharaja of Kashmir in 1947.

On Sunday, the region will witness elections for which Pakistan’s national political parties — the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the opposition Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) — are canvassing furiously.

The locals are, however, not enthusiastic about the elections as they know that ultimately it is the will of Islamabad that prevails. The three national parties have promised to provide full constitutional representation to GB, a sentimental demand among the locals which they have been asking for decades.

In a wide-ranging interview to, Mumtaz Khan, president of the Canada-based International Centre for Peace and Democracy, said that Pakistan might be holding elections, but it has a dubious relationship with democracy.

Khan said: “There is a history of elections in Pakistan. It has been seen that whichever party is in the power in Islamabad, that party forms the government in GB. It is not the will of the people of GB as elections are largely manipulated from Islamabad.”

It is common knowledge that the parties which form government in the disputed region of GB are the main political parties from Islamabad. What is also common knowledge is that political parties cannot win the elections not just in GB but also in Pakistan unless these have the blessings of the powerful military, also called “the establishment.”

Only those parties can form a government in GB which toe the line of the establishment or pursue the narrative from Islamabad. Locals who demand free and fair elections, those who want political ownership of their resources or seek independent decision-making are not allowed to be part of the political process in GB.

Regarding the decision to make Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan, the Canada-based activist said that the decision was not a political decision but an Army decision.

Khan said: “The Army chief summoned the parliamentarians to the General Headquarters (GHQ), which is the Pakistani Army headquarters, to discuss the status of GB. This was a secret meeting and he wanted to discuss whether GB should be given a provincial status… The Prime Minister was not there but the meeting was headed by the Army chief. The intention behind holding such a meeting was to force the political parties to seek assistance from the Army.”

GB remains underdeveloped. The local authorities have few powers. For instance, taxes and revenue are managed from Islamabad. The local governments have no political or decision-making powers over their resources, which is why people are apprehensive of China’s increasing role in GB. In fact it is the officials in Islamabad including bureaucrats, judges and others who run GB.

For the Pakistan government, things are spiralling out of control. It is also losing international traction on the Kashmir issue. This is also where the Gilgit-Baltistan narrative is slipping out of Pakistan’s hands.

The people of Pakistan had thought that after India’s decision to split Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into two territories in August 2019, Pakistan would muster international support.

However, except for a handful of Muslim countries like Turkey and Malaysia, it did not find the support it was looking for, neither bilaterally not multilaterally. On the contrary, it burnt its fingers with Saudia Arabia over the Kashmir issue.

Khan says that GB is not really part of Pakistan. “China has put pressure on Pakistan to declare it a province so that China has a legitimate reason to invest. Beijing also feels secure about its investment in the region. Therefore, Pakistan is trying to give it the status of ‘provisional province’ to satisfy the Chinese demand but not the people’s legitimate demands. The establishment is doing everything to ensure that the CPEC is not halted. That is the actual purpose of declaring GB as a province.”

The complete abdication of authority by the Imran Khan government, coupled with total Army control over the country’s governance, has led to distress among the political parties. What has also aggravated the situation is the anger over rising prices and the precarious financial situation of the nation.

All these factors have united the opposition parties in a surprising way. They are not only taking on the federal government but have also openly and publicly criticised the power Pakistani Army and the generals.

Mumtaz Khan said: “The establishment has always managed the politics of the country. They have created a narrative that without the Army, Pakistan is not safe. The public perception is built and developed around this narrative.

“But it is the first time in the history of Pakistan that all parties have come together and formed a political alliance—Pakistan Democratic movement (PDM). The alliance is criticizing the role of the establishment which was played during the 2018 elections to bring Imran Khan to power.”

He added that people feel the current government is not legitimate as it been installed by the army. “PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif has three times mentioned the name of the Army Chief Javed Bajwa and the ISI chief. He has openly said that they have stolen the election from the people of Pakistan,” Khan said.

The US is resetting its policies towards China and the South Asian region. Donald Trump had also decided to contain China.

“This has made the communist country nervous. I don’t see any big change in Joe Biden’s administration policy towards China or India. When they deal with India, they will deal with India from a Chinese perspective. The US needs someone to counter China and they don’t see anyone who can be a counterweight except India. With India the US will increase its engagement. Even the Biden admin will have the same approach as Trump-build alliances against China,” Khan said.

The Canada-based activist also said that in terms of Pakistan, the new US administration will have ad hoc policies. It is not because of the India-Pakistan equation but because of Pakistan’s internal policies as well as its close relationship with China. Mumtaz Khan says that the US understands that Pakistan’s strategic interests lie with China therefore it may not try to engage with it.