The educated youth and the pro-active civil society of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B)—a region claimed by Pakistan as its own—along with the political class there are protesting the levying of “illegal” taxes on them by the Pakistani authorities, apart from demanding constitutional rights at par with the rest of Pakistan. The region has been witnessing large-scale protests, with complete shutters-down in marketplaces for the past one month.
Dr Muhammad Zaman, who is a prominent voice of the Awami Action Committee (AAC), an alliance of 23 religious, progressive and nationalistic political groups with considerable influence in all of Gilgit-Baltistan’s 10 districts told The Sunday Guardian, “We are simply saying ‘no taxation without representation’. Why should we pay tax when we are not getting any facilities from the government? Pakistan is acting like a parasite, exploiting our region but not extending any facilities. Those who protest are put in prison. Pakistan has neither accepted us, nor rejected us, unlike India, which has given Jammu and Kashmir special status under Article 370. I was put in prison and I had to leave the country after being released. But we are not going to bow down in front of the government. Unless and until we are treated as equal and are extended facilities like all other regions, we are not going to pay taxes,” Zaman said.
According to him, to paint a rosy picture to the international media, the Pakistan government has made Barjees Tahir as the federal minister responsible for the people of G-B. “However, he is a puppet and is least concerned about what we need and what the people are going through,” he said.
After the protests, the Gilgit-Baltistan government announced the withdrawal of the local taxes. However, the protesters stated that they were still sceptical of the government unless it amended the income tax adaptation act 2012, under which the taxes were imposed. One of the ACC leaders told this newspaper that since Prince Agha Karim Khan, the 49th Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims is currently touring Gilgit-Baltistan, the protests have been scaled down but will resume soon.
The vice president of ACC, Fida Hussain, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian said that the protests would resume from 12 December. “The people will not accept this taxation system. We are not scared of going to prison. We are fighting for the common people. The Pakistani government cannot just pass an order saying that we will have to pay the same tax, which is applicable to the entire country. We cannot be bought or made to bend,” he said.
Fida Balghari, who heads the ACC in Ganache district of Baltistan, told The Sunday Guardian that the news of the dispute being “resolved” was wrong: “The protests will go on as we have only been given a lollipop by the Pakistan government and no concrete assurance has been given that they will reconsider their decision to impose the tax on us.”
With an estimated population of 2 million across 72,000 square km of territory, Gilgit-Baltistan’s legal identity and constitutional status have been disputed ever since the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. The area is currently under the occupation of Pakistan, in violation of the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) resolution of 28 April 1949. Treating Gilgit-Baltistan as its annexed territory, Pakistan has introduced several administrative reforms packages in the territory over the last seven decades, among which the most recent is the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009.
The 2009 order has established two organs, namely, Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) and Gilgit-Baltistan Council. However, the Legislative Assembly is restricted to subjects like foreign affairs, defence, internal security and fiscal plans of the government of Pakistan. But superseding the Assembly is the Council, which has the Prime Minister as its chairman. It controls subjects like minerals, water and power, tourism, forests, customs and excise duties, and also has the power to impose taxes on means of production, corporations, agriculture, sale and purchase of goods, capital value of assets and terminal taxes on carriages and passengers.
At present, the protesters are demanding the federal government of Pakistan to amend the Tax Adaptation Act 2012 and impose taxes only on non-local companies and contractors and, thus, exclude the people of Gilgit-Baltistan from the tax net.
However, explaining why annulment of the tax regime will hurt the region, the Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan, Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehman, while speaking to the local media, said, “Gilgit-Baltistan receives Rs 100 billion from Federation while the volume of direct and indirect taxes has touched about Rs 5 billion mark. Compulsory documentation done under the Act controlled the corruption. Telecom companies were collecting taxes from people and spending it on people’s welfare due to this important Act. Megaprojects of PSDP and CPEC have been started, in which national and multinational companies were taking part. These companies are paying taxes in other provinces and would have to pay taxes here at Gilgit Baltistan too.”
More Than Just Tax Protests
Amidst the lack of free press and negligent coverage in mainstream Pakistani media, Seth Oldmixon, strategic expert and founder of Liberty South Asia, an independent, privately funded campaign dedicated to support religious freedom and political pluralism in South Asia, said that it was difficult to accurately judge the scale and frequency of the protests: “But from what we are seeing, suggests that these have become more than mere tax protests.”
“Whatever sparked these protests originally, they have since been co-opted by Pakistani political parties and Islamist groups looking to use the protests as a mechanism to accelerate the full provincial accession of Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan. Incidentally, (this is) a move opposed by the Hurriyat Conference, which views resolving G-B’s status separately as undermining the larger Kashmiri movement. This is how the protests are being framed in Pakistan—as something of a ‘pro-Pakistan’ movement—which is an important context,” said Oldmixon.
The locals have also protested against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), highlighting its impact on climate and the indigenous people who form a significant part of the population in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Prateek Joshi of the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analysis, while commenting on the protests said, “In 2014-15, when Islamabad announced the withdrawal of wheat and sulphur subsidies, protests took place. ACC’s charter of demands goes beyond addressing the tax issue. Their major demands include Gilgit-Baltistan should get its share of CPEC income, it should be declared a tax free zone, power projects in the region should be controlled by Gilgit-Baltistan, and not Islamabad, subsidies that have been stopped should be restored and historical trade routes leading from Gilgit-Baltistan to Ladakh and Tajikistan should be reopened.”
On whether these protests will have any bearing on Pakistani policy, Oldmixon said, “If one hopes the protests to deliver greater autonomy/independence from the Pakistani state, I expect they will be disappointed with the ultimate outcome. If one is simply looking for some amount of tax relief, that is more plausible but is likely to come with some counter-concessions, such as a demonstration of the desire to be more permanently integrated into Pakistan.”
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