Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) was formerly known in Pakistan as the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA). The Gilgit-Baltistan region is an administrative territory constituting the northern portion of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is a common belief in all the four provinces of the country that people of this region want to merge with Pakistan.
There is an ongoing debate on changing the constitutional position of Gilgit Baltistan by making it the fifth province of the country. Pakistan government intends to make Gilgit-Baltistan a province with all constitutional rights, including representation in the upper and lower houses of the Pakistani parliament. However, the elections for the region’s legislative assembly were postponed earlier in August because of the coronavirus pandemic.
What is meant by a province in Pakistan? And why Gilgit-Baltistan needs to be formed a province. Province is the highest administrative unit in Pakistan. All the four provinces are divided into divisions, districts, and subdistricts (tehsils). These units are run by a hierarchy of administrators, such as the divisional commissioner, the deputy commissioner at the district level, and the sub-divisional magistrate, sub-divisional officer, or tehsildar at the tehsil level. The key level of administration is that of the district, where the deputy commissioner, although in charge of all branches of government, shares power with the elected chairman of the district council.
During the period of British rule, the deputy commissioner was both the symbol and embodiment of the central government in remote locations. Expected to serve the constituents in numerous ways, the officer’s responsibilities ranged from that of magistrate dispensing justice to record keeper, as well as provider of advice and guidance in managing the socioeconomic condition. Those multiple roles have varied little since independence, but increasing emphasis has been placed on self-help programs for the rural populace.
After becoming Prime Minister in 2018, Imran Khan, in principle, approved changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan by accepting the recommendations of a reforms committee that was formed by the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government.
The area that today forms GB was a portion of the pre-partition princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. In 1935, the British had leased the area from the state’s autocratic Maharaja, the ruler, for a period of 60 years.
On 1 August 1947, the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, prematurely terminated the lease, effectively returning the region to Maharaja Hari Singh, ruler of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of partition.
When the rulers of the princely states of India were given a choice to accede to either Pakistan or India, Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir signed a controversial Instrument of Accession with India on 26 October 1947. The predominantly Muslim population of the Gilgit region opposed the accession of their land to India by an oppressive Hindu Maharaja, and local paramilitary forces on 31 October 1947 initiated a revolt against them and liberated the area.
On November 1 1947, local military and political leaders declared a new independent state centred in Gilgit. This independence was short-lived, however. The leaders of the rebellion and members of local ruling families realised that the region’s security, as well as their personal interest, would be better served with Pakistan – they acceded to Pakistan within two weeks.
In the beginning, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known as Azad Jammu Kashmir, became a single territorial unit. The Karachi Agreement inked in 1949, between Pakistan and AJK’s state, gave administrative control of the then Northern Areas (renamed to GB in 2009 after Pakistan awarded limited autonomy to the region), giving it a distinct identity from AJK until a final decision was made about the accession of the former J&K state.
Now, there is clearly no mention of GB and AJK as official parts of the country according to the constitution. Yet, the two regions are entirely dependent on Islamabad for all their financial and development activities, as well as in matters of defence, economy, and foreign policy.
Islamabad had governed Gilgit Baltistan directly through the “federal ministry of the Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas” until 1970. In 1970, the Northern Areas were separated from AJK, and since then, had passed through several reforms. Under the last bout of them in 2009, the term ‘Northern Areas’ was replaced with GB, and the local legislative assembly was empowered.
However, the question regarding whether this region is officially part of Pakistan, and whether its residents are legitimate Pakistani residents, remains unsolved.
The UN called for a referendum in 1949, asking both India and Pakistan to allow the people of divided Kashmir to choose their final destiny – whether to merge with either of the two countries. The referendum was never held, leaving the entire region, including Gilgit-Baltistan, in the lurch.