On the 21st of December 2017, a large number of traders, transporters and thousands of common residents of Gilgit-Baltistan launched protests, demanding the withdrawal of imposition of taxes by the federal Government under the Tax Adaption Act 2012. The imposition of taxes was also opposed by the Bar Associations of the Supreme Court and High Court. After 7 days of shutter-strikes and two-month long protests, the Government bowed down and withdrew all impositions of taxes in the region. As agreed, the protesters will end their march toward Gilgit after being presented with a notification concerning the withdrawal of taxes from the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, the Governing body tasked with implementing taxes in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan was granted limited autonomy in 2009, and the imposition of these taxes on residents by the Government was opposed as Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional status has not yet be determined within Pakistan. It remains a disputed territory under administration of Pakistan, while simultaneously claimed by India. Effectively, the indigenous people of Gilgit-Baltistan have little power or control over their region, as majority of the decision-making powers are under the direct control of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council, which is headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan, thus in 2009, gained a de-facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan Administration Action Committee leader Maulana Sultan Raees said: “Gilgit-Baltistan was a disputed territory and imposition of taxes on its citizens was unlawful and unconstitutional. When the government wants to collect taxes from GB people they are declared citizens of the country and when they demand equal rights it is said that the region is a disputed territory. The government is trying to blackout media coverage of the protest”.`
Discrimination and violation of basic rights is not new to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan; While the megaproject China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) goes through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Federal Government of Pakistan has never invited officials of Gilgit to any national meeting regarding the construction of this corridor. Dissenting voices are harshly choked as in the case of Baba Jan, who along with 11 other political activists, was sentenced to a 40-year prison-term in a case based on fabricated charges of terrorism last year by the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan, as he demanded impartial investigations into the killings of Afzal Baig and his father, Sher Ullah Baig during peaceful protests in 2011, to demand compensation and rehabilitation for the victims of the landslide in 2010, which created the Attabad Lake in Hunza area of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pertinent to mention that the Anti-Terrorism Act, under which Baba Jan and his associates were sentenced, has no jurisdiction in Gilgit-Baltistan according to Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Gilgit-Baltistan has never been formally and legally integrated into the Pakistani State and does not participate in Pakistan's constitutional political affairs as subsequent Pakistani administrations have argued that the Pakistani State cannot officially integrate Gilgit-Baltistan in line with its claimed position that a referendum should be carried out across the whole of the region and any such step would prejudice its international obligations with regard to the Jammu & Kashmir conflict. Internationally, Pakistan has always insisted, yet not practiced, as is evident from its attempts of imposing federal taxes in Gilgit-Baltistan, that the parts of Jammu & Kashmir (including Gilgit-Baltistan) it controls, are semi-autonomous.
Article 257 of Pakistan’s Constitution, a provision related to the State of Jammu & Kashmir defining the relation between the State of Jammu & Kashmir and Pakistan states: “When, the people of the State of Jammu & Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and the State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State”.
Any unilateral alteration, without that possible accession, has to be examined in the backdrop of this constitutional provision stated in Pakistan’s own Constitution, which by definition makes the abrogation of the State Subject Rule in Gilgit-Baltistan in 1974, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order in 2009, endeavours by the Pakistani Government of transforming Gilgit-Baltistan into a province of Pakistan – in order to provide legal cover to the construction of the CPEC – and the latest attempts of imposing federal taxes, illegal.
Paradoxically, the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are declared ‘Pakistanis’ whenever the region proves to be useful for Islamabad, yet when the people of Gilgit-Baltistan ask for equal rights and shares, it is bestowed the epithet of a ‘disputed territory’.
The Pakistani Government has its hands full in the restive province of Balochistan while Gilgit-Baltistan is witnessing a prolonged period of protests in which residents have raised demands for basic human rights and civil liberties. Whereas, considerable portions of the CPEC pass through these two resource-rich territories, such protests and unrest could prove to be detrimental to the friendship of China and Pakistan.
Neither the Civil and nor the Military Administrations are in a position to upset China. The decision to succumb to protests in Gilgit-Baltistan is not born from magnanimity or realization; It is a purely strategic one