Kashmir: Pakistan Abolishing Twin Bridging Councils To Empower GB, Muzaffarabad Assemblies

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SRINAGAR: Apparently following the Delhi model, Pakistan government is contemplating abolishing the authoritative “bridging” councils between Islamabad and Muzaffarabad and Islamabad and Gilgit, Pakistani media reported. After the structures are done away with, the entire powers would be vested either with the local assemblies.

A December 2017, photograph showing Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (second from right) with PaK Prime Minister Farooq Haiden Khana and PaK president Masood Khan and Pakistan’s Kashmir Affairs Minister Chaudhry Barjees Tahir (left)

Pakistan Prime Minister had prolonged meetings with the leaders of the government’s of PaK and Gilgit Baltistan on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. The fast pace developments are taking place at a time when Delhi is offering its ears to loud voices for integrating Jammu and Kashmir and undoing the special status that has already been hallowed in last many decades. The right-wing ideas, if implemented, would reduce the stature of the Jammu and Kashmir assembly.

Pakistani move, reports said, is aimed at “empowering” the “elected governments” in Muzaffarabad and Gilgit. Both the regions, separated by Pakistan but part of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state and disputed by international standards had a bridging council in between the federal and the state governments.

Dawn newspaper reported last week that Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has “agreed in principle” to abolish the ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Council’ in order to “empower the elected government” in Muzaffarabad. The decision has been reportedly conveyed to the high-level delegation led by PaK Premier Raja Farooq Haider Khan.

The Council operating under the “AJK Interim Constitution Act 1974” is mandated to “serve as a bridge” between the governments in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad. Headquartered in Islamabad, Pakistani Prime Minister and federal minister for Kashmir affairs have historically remained its chairperson and in-charge minister, respectively.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi presiding over a meeting from Gilgit-Baltistan leaders led by Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehamn, the GB Chief Minister. Tariq Aziz, who authored the report on constitutional reforms is also in the meeting.

The council currently has powers to legislate about 52 subjects concerning the PaK: Inland Revenue, AG Office and the Directorate General of Audit fall under the administrative control of Council. “It enjoys an authoritative role in the appointment of the judges of AJK high and supreme courts and the chief election commissioner,” the newspaper said.

Since, neither the chairperson nor the in-charge minister was answerable to the  PaK assembly, there have been demands for abolishing the structure soothe the two governments interact without a bridge. There has been an impression in Muzaffarabad’s political circles for a long time that the Council has divested the Muzaffarabad assembly “of many of its powers which it enjoyed under the previous interim constitution, Act 1970”.

In June 2015, Tariq Naqash reported from Muzaffarabad, that during Pakistan Peoples’ Party government, the Assembly had unanimously approved recommendations for constitutional reforms, which were prepared by a special eight-member parliamentary committee. “The recommendations, which envisaged curtailment of the powers of council among other things, were sent to the Muzaffarabad law department, with a direction to table them in the Assembly in shape of a bill,” the report said. “However, the matter failed to see any progress in the following months, notwithstanding the change of government in Muzaffarabad in 2016, mainly because of restrictions in the interim constitution on unilateral amendments about the issues related to the central government.”

Gilgit Baltistan assembly

In the meeting between Hiader and Khaqan that has taken place on Wednesday, the media reported the PaK leader sought “outright abolition of the council” and termed it as “root of all problems” and source of his government’s powerlessness.

“The abolition of the council will empower the government in Muzaffarabad and will also do away with the impression among the younger generation that all powers were wielded by Islamabad,” Haider is reported to have conveyed to the Pakistan leader. Pakistan’s federal Kashmir Affairs minister has not objected t the move to which Khaqan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharief was personally committed to, the report added. However, he had a rider suggesting that there must be some mechanism for control from the centre in a territory widely alleged to be driven by “tribal considerations”.

Dawn indicated that the move may eventually lead the Muzaffarabad government to move a formal bill in this regard.

A day after the meeting with PaK delegation, Dawn’s Jamil Nagri reported that another similar meeting took place in the Prime Minister’s House which was attended by GB Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman, Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and GB, Chaudhry Barjees Tahir, Planning Deputy Chairman Sartaj Aziz and senior government officials attended the meeting. The only thing on the table was the abolishing of GB Council.

Muzaffarabad assembly house

The Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan would prepare a draft which would be sent to the law ministry for approval,” the newspaper said. “After approval from the law ministry, the summary would be presented in the cabinet session for final approval after which a notification would be issued to discontinue functioning of the GB Councils.”

The meeting was followed up to a report that Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan had submitted to the federal cabinet, seeking its approval to bring political reforms in GB. The report was drafted by a nine-member constitutional committee headed by Sartaj Aziz — the then adviser to the PM on foreign affairs, which was set up on October 29, 2015.

The committee recommended de-facto integration of GB with Pakistan but not a de-jure change since that would affect Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. The committee also advised to bring the GB Legislative Assembly on a par with other provincial assemblies, all legislative subjects, other than those enumerated in Article 142 of the Constitution and that its fourth schedule might be devolved from the GB Council to GBLA.

Special arrangements should be made, said the report, for setting up one or more special industrial zones in GB under CPEC to provide larger employment opportunities for its people. It also recommended that GB people should be given special representation in the parliament.

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