At the outset, we must consider the statement made by a member of the action committee of the ongoing anti-taxation movement in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB):
“Why [we] are opposing the imposition of direct taxes is more [a matter that stems from] the accumulated anger of being left out for 70 years in critical decisions about the political future of Gilgit-Baltistan. We are not anti-taxation thugs as [the] government would like people to believe… [We] want development, investment and [a] share in the benefits of CPEC [just] like [the] other provinces of Pakistan.
“Gilgit-Baltistan is a ‘disputed territory’, which is the biggest hindrance in bringing international investment to the area. Before we are asked to pay additional taxes, we must be granted [the] political status of a province under the constitutional ambit of Pakistan. [The] government is trying to create [the] impression that [the] people of GB are regressive and anti-development while we [urge] the government to adopt a realistic and inclusive strategy. We want the government to address the root cause of all problems first. [These] include, but are not limited to, providing a well-defined legal status to GB. No one in their right mind would oppose the development but it must be well-grounded as a democratic process, not as a cosmetic political stunt.
“We also understand the fact that [the] Pakistani state is in a dilemma to choose between a development path and an outmoded national security strategy. Pakistan must make tough choices for the sake of its people… and [to] mainstream the marginalised regions. There are no military solutions if we are committed to [the] democratic transformation of our society, good governance and accountability through strong public institutions”.
As the anti-taxation campaign gains momentum, the government of GB has started to expedite the efforts to ring-fence the issue as an anti-taxation, anti-development conspiracy that has been hatched by the opposition parties. However, an optimistic and confident chief minister seems to be successful in engaging the leaders of the movement and a few senior leaders of his own ruling party. Traders, salaried people and the middle class have shown their resentment because the direct tax will hit them the most. Some of the MNAs of the ruling party are also not convinced with the idea of imposing income taxes owing to the tough opposition that they will face from the political constituencies.
Part one of this series (published last week) invited a mixed reaction from readers that ranged from an appreciation for objectivity to accusations that this writer is an agent of the sitting government. The article was neither purely objective nor an ode to the magnanimity of the government. It simply narrated the standpoints of both the government and the activists of the ongoing movement. In that heavily-quoted article, the performance of the incumbent government of GB was highlighted to compare it with the achievements of former governments in GB – and that too, on the basis of this writer’s experiences and interactions. Simply put, there was no objective assessment of the overall performance given the limited scope of the article.
Our national irony of seeing things through the prejudiced lenses of our immediate interest dislodges the pluralistic evolution of the institutional culture of debate. Instead of building a constructive political narrative, we usually jump to conclusions that perpetuate political nihilism that, in turn, breeds intolerance. There must be respect for what facts suggest rather than what our political allegiances dictate – at least for those self-proclaimed political analysts.
As facts suggest, during the last two years there has been an investment-friendly approach in the way that the government of GB has been engaging the private sector, though on a limited scale. With resource constraints, the lack of political power and the limited domain of legislation, there are serious issues of technical capacity and vision. An inefficient and superfluous bureaucratic setup consumes most of the development resources of the government of GB. Where there are 10 deputy commissioners who are assisted by an equal number of additional deputy commissioners and assistant commissioners for a population of 1.3 million, why should we expect efficiency?
Elsewhere in Pakistan, there is a single deputy commissioner to administer a district with an average population of more than 1.3 million people. In an under-resourced region like GB, it does not make much sense to have this large bureaucratic setup. This cumbersome bureaucratic mechanism confers more powers to the administration than the legislative assembly and tends to encourage procrastination in the delivery of public services.
It would have been far more sensible if the ongoing political movement could also question the ragtag army of the local administration that is dominated by incompetent secretaries who are sent to the area with heavy perks and privileges. The deployment of a huge army of secretaries in an underserved area like GB further obfuscates the maintainability of public order, inter-department coordination and, ultimately, delays the implementation of development plans. The overall structure of governance resembles a conventional Anglophone colonial setup of indirect rule through an inflated, non-representative and administrative mode of governance.
The leadership of the ongoing political movement must, therefore, demand institutional reforms, the rightsizing of the administrative structure, the mainstreaming of political representation. Building the capacity of public service agencies and empowering the local assembly to legislate on subjects that are of utmost importance to local development must also be demanded. This must be intertwined with financial autonomy, systemic transparency and investment to promote tourism, sustainable mineral extraction and auxiliary value-chain facilities. In addition, broadening the democratic choices of engaging citizens in regional and national politics should also be prioritised.
The bandwagon of political representation and sloganeering means little if the political movement does not come up with an inclusive, pragmatic, realistic and comprehensive charter of demand. There are serious power imbalances and the ongoing political movement may inadvertently reinforce this power imbalance if it persists in only bashing the weakest institution. This institution is built on a revocable presidential order of self-rule that was introduced 2009 and lacks any constitutional backing. This model of political representation is the most vulnerable function of the overall structure of governance in GB. The political protest must, therefore, widen its scope of campaign, with a critical reflection on the role of the administration and the establishment in keeping the GB in political limbo for 70 years.
The GB government has constituted a committee this week to consider the taxation matters. But this needs reciprocity from the leaders of anti-taxation movement who should propose viable recommendations for immediate action. There are political and economic matters that go beyond the capacity of the local government. It would be naïve to expect too much from the GB government without ensuring inter-institutional accountability. These institutions must also be held accountable in the political, financial and legal matters of GB.
It seems as though the geostrategic importance of GB is the most determining factor of the plight of its people. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been victims of a stringent and myopic national security policy that tends to exclude people from the national arena. There is an ‘accumulated anger’ of being excluded for seven decades from political and economic development because of an indifferent national security policy. What we have witnessed in Balochistan due to misplaced policy priorities is a lesson that our policymakers must learn before it’s too late to manage the impending conflicts in GB. In the wake of securing a peaceful corridor for the forthcoming economic opportunities, it’s vital to resolve the political and economic problems of GB.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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