ISLAMABAD: In a significant development amid political tensions in the country, the government and the opposition almost reached a consensus on granting “provisional provincial status” to strategically-located Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) while agreeing to hold consultations on the issue after the elections of its legislative assembly later this year, it emerged on Monday.
According to sources, the government and the opposition had discussed the move prior to the meeting of the political leadership with the army chief.
The sources said the issue was discussed in a meeting between a government team comprising Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar with leader of the opposition and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz president Shahbaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.
Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah and PML-N’s secretary general Ahsan Iqbal were also present in the meeting, which was held in Islamabad a few weeks back.
When contacted, Mr Iqbal said the government had only informed them that the plan was on its agenda, but no further discussions were held on the issue.
Asked about his party position on the issue, the PML-N secretary general said they believed the people of GB should have their constitutional rights without affecting the country’s stance on the Kashmir dispute and it was also mentioned in their party’s manifesto.
However, the elections on 24 general seats of the GB Legislative Assembly, which were earlier scheduled for August 18, were postponed due to Covid-19 situation. The five-year term of the previous assembly had ended on June 24, bringing an end to the five-year rule of the PML-N.
The opposition parties had already warned the federal government against any move to interfere in the elections in GB terming it a sensitive matter and the warning was also mentioned in the 26-point declaration issued at the conclusion of the opposition’s Sept 20 multiparty conference.
Speaking at a news conference in July, PML-N leaders had stated that any attempt to rig the GB elections would be against the national interest and national security of the country. “The interest of Pakistan lies in free, fair and transparent elections in GB. Pakistan cannot afford to have any political controversy or dispute in GB which has already become a flashpoint in the region and many countries are eyeing it to get benefit,” he had stated before adding that he wanted to give a message to the national institutions so that free, fair and transparent elections were held in GB. “The federal government should refrain from horse-trading and interference [in the polls],” he had remarked.
Mr Iqbal said GB had acquired great significance in the region due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that was now a “jugular vein” for the country. GB was a “sensitive area” and a flashpoint in the region as the enemies were looking for excuses to spoil the law and order situation.
Earlier when Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed claimed that the leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) had assured Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in a recent meeting that they would support the move to grant “provisional provincial status” to Gilgit-Baltistan, the leaders of both the opposition parties said that an understanding had been reached at the meeting that the issue would be taken up and discussed after the elections in GB.
Talking to Dawn, the railways minister, who had divulged the details of the meeting of the leaders of key political parties with the army chief, said Gen Bajwa had left it on the country’s political leadership to decide the timing of the implementation of the decision about change in the GB’s constitutional status.
“It is up to you to decide whether you want to make it (GB) a province after the elections or before the elections,” the railways minister quoted the army chief as telling the political leadership including those of the major opposition parties.
A senior opposition member, while talking to Dawn on condition of anonymity, said the opposition had categorically told the government and the army chief that any such move before the elections would be considered a ‘pre-poll rigging’ and that they would also have to look into its ramifications as it should not disturb the country’s stance on the Kashmir dispute.
PPP vice president Sherry Rehman talking to a private TV channel said changing the constitutional status of GB was a “sensitive matter” as India always made Pakistan a target of criticism on the issue. She said that in the meeting with the army chief, she had expressed her regret that the meeting was not taking place at the Prime Minister House or his chamber.
She recalled that Prime Minister Imran Khan had not even bothered to attend a briefing on the Kashmir issue last year and the army chief had himself then briefed them on the situation when the premier preferred to stay in his adjacent chamber in the Parliament House instead of attending the briefing that had been convened after the India’s controversial act of changing the constitutional status of the Occupied Kashmir through an amendment to their constitution in August last year.
Ms Rehman said she had heard it on media that there was a move to grant a provincial status to GB, which was wrong, as they had only talked about granting it “provisional provincial status”.
Another key government minister, who is privy to the development, told Dawn that it was on the request of the opposition parties that the government had agreed to initiate the process of consultations on the proposal to convert the GB into a province after the elections in the area, as the opposition believed that if such a move was initiated now then the PTI could take political advantage of it in the upcoming elections.
“We could have taken advantage in the elections but this is not an issue to do politics. This is a big decision having international ramifications and we do not want to send a message that the nation is divided on it,” the minister said, terming the opposition’s request “fair enough”.