Tuesday, 2 January 2018

Taxation without representation, Afzal Ali Shigri

Afzal Ali Shigri The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

THE Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Council has tried to implement another federal tax under the income tax law it adopted through Act-IX of 2012. This was approved in January 2013 by the government of GB that also established the inland revenue department for implementation of this law.
The impact of the new tax laws became apparent when various government departments started withholding advance income tax against payments made to its employees and contractors involved in development projects. Once it was expanded to banking transactions and mobile phone usage, the commercial sector too felt the effect of this taxation and its financial implications for the local economy and commodities’ prices.
With the GB Council being largely distrusted by the local populace, the people were not ready to accept a tax imposed by this institution. It would appear that the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009, has created an artificial legislative structure based in the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs & Gilgit-Baltistan in Islamabad, without a credible link to the local population.
This body is empowered to legislate on 55 key subjects that cover all kinds of federal taxes and duties. However, the tax is not accepted by the people of GB as the constitutional status of this region remains unsettled despite repeated demands of residents and the elected local legislative assembly, leading to the rejection of the newly imposed taxation by a non-representative body. The government of Pakistan has persistently refused to address this vital issue because this region is theoretically part of Jammu & Kashmir and its status has to be determined through a plebiscite according to a UN resolution
The Gilgit-Baltistan Council is a typical creation of a colonised mindset.
Due to the conundrum regarding the status of GB at the policy level, the federal government has de facto control of the area and has been legislating for GB through presidential decrees that are now being questioned by residents irked at the inattention to their demands for a resolution to the problem of GB’s status being hobbled by a notional linkage to the Kashmir issue.
Despite a very rational demand for an interim merger by the local elected assembly until the resolution of the Kashmir dispute, the federal government has refused to accept even this plausible out-of-the-box solution. Resultantly, flawed institutions designed by bureaucrats incapable of appreciating the political nuances of their decisions have been established. The GB Council is a typical creation of a colonised mindset imposing imperialist solutions on the natives.
The tendency to control and administer is apparent in the structuring of the GB Council that has the following membership: i) the Pakistani prime minister; ii) the GB governor; iii) six members nominated by the Pakistani prime minister, including the minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan; iv) the GB chief minister; and v) six members elected by the local Legislative Assembly.
Of the 15 members of this council, nine are Pakistan government nominees, while only six are elected indirectly by the local Legislative Assembly, which, too, is under the strong influence of the federal government. The legislative process by this compromised body takes the form of enactment of laws essentially drafted by babus and rubber-stamped by the federal government.
The people of GB who fought a year-long bloody battle to join Pakistan resent and resist lawmaking by a body that has no legal or moral authority to legislate on their behalf. To make matters worse, this body has no interest in the affairs of the region as the prime minister has no time and the other members lack interest, thereby leading to practically making it dysfunctional with rare meetings and rubber-stamping of agendas prepared by the babus of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and GB.
The council is not a representative institution and its composition negates the internationally recognised principles/norms of a legislature; therefore the demand of the people for the repeal of all taxation laws is fully justified. The gist is that while there is no objection to taxation, it must be done by the elected representatives of an area. The people of GB understand that empowerment also entails responsibility, but unilateral taxation cannot be accepted by an institution that enjoys no credibility.
This neglect and ignoring the demand of the people have been accentuated as the new taxes recently triggered a protest by civil society and the business community and was supported by the political parties. There was a complete shutdown of all markets for five days that was followed by a big dharna in Gilgit city. The protest for the first time was widely covered in the local and international media. A high level team led by the GB senior minister and members of the local assembly held a meeting with the Awami Action Committee that was leading the protest and an agreement was reached for revisiting the Adaptation of Income Tax Act by the GB Council.
The Pakistani government has formed a committee headed by MNA Malik Ahmed Khan to negotiate with the Awami Action Committee. The dharna ended but a token protest continues till a final decision is taken. Their most significant demand is the transfer of taxation and mineral policy to the local assembly. It is obviously a precursor for subsequent demands for a constitutional status of a province.
The principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ was established in 1775 when the British tried to tax America without representation and triggered the American bid for independence. Even the British Empire collapsed when they failed to address the genuine aspirations of the people of the subcontinent through artificial governance structures created by the India Act of 1909, 1919 and 1935 that partly included the elected representatives in new institutions to prolong Britain’s own hold on the people. As the writer and philosopher George Santayana has wisely noted “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. It is time to act sagaciously instead of repeating historical errors.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

Published in Dawn, January 2nd, 2018

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