A package of measures aimed at giving the Northern Areas of Gilgit-Baltistan a measure of administrative and political autonomy has opened up a domestic box of suspicions about the government's stand on Kashmir.
The Cabinet approved the measures, known as the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, at a special meeting on Saturday. The order now awaits the approval of President Asif Ali Zardari.
Under the new system, the Northern Areas will have a province-like status without actually being conferred such a status constitutionally.
The region is to be renamed Gilgit-Baltistan, and will vote for a legislative assembly. A Chief Minister will govern the region, replacing direct rule by Islamabad.
It is to have a "supreme appellate court" to be headed by a chief judge, a public service commission, a chief election commissioner, and an auditor-general. Kashmir and Northern Affairs Minister Qamaruzzaman Kaira will function as the Governor.
The Northern Areas, seen by both India and Pakistan as part of the larger Jammu & Kashmir issue, have so far been ruled by fiat from Islamabad, with the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Affairs its main link with Pakistan. The military has a big say in the governance of the region. Parliamentary elections do not extend to the Northern Areas. Its people are not citizens of Pakistan.
For the people of the region, it has been a bone of contention that Pakistan has treated them in a step-motherly way while according special status to "Azad Jammu and Kashmir," as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is known here.
The PPP counts many supporters in the Shia-majority region, and both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto tried to address the grievances of the region in limited ways. In his twilight days as ruler of Pakistan, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf also ushered in some reforms. The present package, which goes further, has also received the support of the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (N).
But it falls short of the main demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for a constitutional status to the region as a fifth province and for Pakistani citizenship to its people.