Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) – politically, socially and economically was in a turbulent state but excitedly looking forward to assembly elections which were to be held on Aug 18. But the GB Election Commission postponed these on the flimsy ground that it was not in a position to make arrangements to conduct the elections. According to sources, the new schedule for elections will now be issued in October.
GB legislative assembly of 33 members, headed by Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was dissolved after the completion of a five-year term on June 24, 2020.
In an all-party conference called on July 10 by the GB chief election commissioner except for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) all political parties opposed the decision to postpone the elections and termed it pre-poll rigging by the ruling party. The all-party meet was attended by the president of Pakistan PTI’s GB chapter Syed Jaffar Shah; president of PML-N’s GB chapter and former chief minister Hafeezur Rehman; president of Pakistan Peoples Party’s GB chapter Advocate Amjad Hussain and leaders of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, Jamaat-i-Islami and Majlis Wahdat-i-Muslimeen.
The Imran Khan government manoeuvred to appoint former DIG Police Mir Afzal as a caretaker chief minister. Mir was one of the three candidates interviewed by federal minister for GB and Kashmir affairs Ali Amin Gandapur in Islamabad for the position. The previous government in GB run by PML-N had a majority with 22 members while Tehreek-e-Jafana had four, Majlis Wahadat-e-Muslimeen had three and PPP, PTI, Muthida Qaumi Movement and Balwaristan National Front had one seat each.
Senge H Sering, Director of the Institute of Gilgit Baltistan Studies, the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva told this journalist: “Gilgit -Baltistan is a constitutional part of India. Pakistan occupied the territory which has been declared a constitutional part of UT of Ladakh. Pakistan has no legal means to extend the scope of its political system to GB and hold elections. Elections to the so-called GB assembly are expected to take place in November of 2020. This is a ploy to increase exploitation and control over local resources. People of GB must oppose unconstitutional election process and demand withdrawal of Pakistan citizens from the region.”
Of the total population 12.5 lakhs in GB, Shias dominate with 39.85% while the others include Sunnis at 30.05 %, Ismaili at 24% and Noorbakhshis 6.1%. If the upcoming elections are held at all, it will be under the challenging Covid-19 conditions in the under-resourced region. GB is dependent on Pakistan’s financial aid and the health system is in chaos due to the shortage of medical equipment. The outgoing chief minister has criticised Islamabad for not providing funds for GB’s fight against the pandemic.
In forthcoming elections, youth will play a decisive role. A majority of the youth are critical of the federal government and have demanded real empowerment of locally elected leaders and autonomy in local administration. Successive governments have tried to address the problem through reforms but the locals have described these measures as cosmetic.
The youth of GB have been in a political struggle since the colonial-era and various organisations like Gilgit-Baltistan United Organisation, the GB Action Committee, the Ladakh Baltistan Muttahida Mahaz, the GB Students’ Federation, the Idara Taraqqi-i-Hunza, were formed. Students used these platforms to demand political rights for the people of GB, abolition of the FCR (Frontier Crimes Regulation) and the end of feudal rule. Within the region, organisations such as the Gilgit League and the Tanzeem-i-Millat have been against the FCR and have been demanding political rights.
Following the closure of educational institutes across Pakistan due to the pandemic, students who study in universities of other cities have returned to their native towns and villages. They have been exposed to modern education, and their vote is going to play a decisive role. In Ghizer and Hunza, nationalist leaders Nawaz Khan Naji and Baba Jan have great influence among the youth.
Baba Jan has been sentenced to 71-years imprisonment by an anti-terrorism court for promoting anti-government sentiments. In 2015, he contested local elections from jail and secured the second-highest number of votes, more than the PPP and PTI. The Hunza youth played a pivotal role in Jan’s election campaign. Nawaz Khan Naji BNF has already launched a drive to mobilised youth.
Significantly, the Awami Action Committee has developed a political strategy for polls. It has formed an alliance of 22 religious, civil and political parties — drawing attention to key issues such as the Land Reform Act, compensation for small business owners harmed due to the pandemic and supporting students demonstrating for access to internet for their studies.
According to a political activist in exile, GB under the control of Khaki would bring so-called all Pakistan-based federal political parties to form a collation government or will try to have Shia religious party MWM alliance with the PTI.
Exiled Chairman of the United Kashmir Peoples National Party, Sardar Shaukat Ali Kashmiri supporting the argument of other exiled leaders from GB said: “Imran Khan will form the government there. May be Muslim league-N will give them a tough fight, but some individuals backed by agencies and some Shia religious groups like Tahrik e Jaffairia will support Imran Khan.” He is of this opinion that India should raise the issue in the UN vigorously. India should launch a campaign for these areas and show solidarity with people who under Pakistan’s occupation.”.