ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Tuesday wondered why the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan could not be accorded the same constitutional guarantees and protection as enjoyed by the people of Pakistan.

“We don’t understand why the people of GB cannot enjoy similar protection as guaranteed by the Constitution of Pakistan when they are totally connected with Pakistan as they carry the same passport and use the same currency?” asked Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed.

The chief justice was heading a seven-judge SC bench that had taken up a federal government application seeking to amend the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 to conduct the upcoming general elections by adopting the Elections Act 2017 as well as setting up a caretaker government during the interregnum period.

The five-year term of the present GB government is due to expire in the last week of June this year and the next general elections will be held within 60 days.

The apex court, however, issued a notice to the advocate general and the government of Gilgit-Baltistan for Thursday when it was told that the advocate general could not make it and was still stuck up at the airport.

Issues notice to GB government on Centre’s application seeking amendments to region’s laws

Attorney General Khalid Jawed Khan assured the apex court that in view of the changed scenario, the federal government’s intention was to ensure provision of all rights to the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan who had always stood by Pakistan and for which they even had to sacrifice and suffered.

The federal government had twice sought time from the Supreme Court for implementing its Jan 17, 2019 verdict asking for the rights of the citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan. The SC judgement required the federal government to enact the Gilgit-Baltistan Governance Reforms 2019 by tabling a bill in parliament for bringing necessary amendments.

In its fresh application, the federal government pleaded before the Supreme Court that it would be in the interest of justice that till the promulgation of the proposed reforms in GB, the federal government might be allowed to make necessary amendments to the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 for setting up a caretaker government and conducting elections for the GB Assembly. Permission was also sought to adopt the Elections Act, 2017, Rules/Regulations thereunder and to do all that was necessary to continue the democratic electoral process in the region.

The application explained that different options for meeting the desire of the people of GB were being carefully examined by the government and discussed with the stakeholders which required deliberations at greater length. While the prevailing pandemic may take some time, the term of the present GB government is due to expire in June this year; hence there is urgency to provide legal mechanism for setting up a caretaker government and holding elections in the region, it added.

The application said the elections in GB were not clearly enumerated in the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 and in the Gilgit-Baltistan Reforms 2019, which needed to be rectified. The non-adoption of the Elections Act 2017 and Election Rules 2017 in GB might delay the preparation of fresh computerised electoral rolls and election process of the GB Assembly, pleaded the federal government.

The application said there was no provision in the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 for appointment mechanism of the caretaker government, which was against the spirit of transparency as well as the Constitution of Pakistan.

During the hearing, Justice Umar Ata Bandial recalled that the Supreme Court had determined the status and rights of the people of GB in the Al-Jehad Trust case two decades ago in which the federal government was directed to give them the status of citizens of Pakistan.

In the changed international circumstances, the governance in GB should be perfect and excellent that should inculcate confidence in people even across the border, Justice Bandial observed, adding that GB signified an important part but for some political as well as international reasons, it had not been made “part of the structure we have”.

Justice Bandial asked the attorney general to share with the Supreme Court if any interest was blocking the initiative taken by the court in the interest of the GB people.

Ground realities, Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan observed, demanded that the people of GB be given all rights like Pakistanis by assuring them complete independence of judiciary, enforcement of the fundamental rights, as well as replicating the legislative powers to the GB Assembly. “But what is preventing the government to take these steps?” he wondered, adding that the federal government should have taken all these measures by now like it used to do earlier through presidential orders.

“Issues like these are political and strategic and, therefore, the government is in the best position to decide these matters,” Justice Ahsan observed.