Gilgit Baltistan, part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), has been subjected to political and constitutional exclusion. It remained disenfranchised and was denied representative governance for decades until the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Rule Order 2009 was introduced as an experiment in a quasi-democratic exercise. The region’s first ever elections were held in 2009 for the local legislative assembly, and a nominally elected government was put in place. After the completion of its five year tenure, elections were held in June 2015, which saw the incumbent PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) government being dislodged and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz) managing to secure a comfortable majority in the assembly.
The self-rule ordinance provided enfranchisement only in a limited measure. It did not grant Gilgit Baltistan the right to send representatives to Pakistan’s National Assembly. There has been a long pending debate on whether or not Gilgit Baltistan should be accorded constitutional status by merging it as the fifth province of Pakistan. In January 2014, media reports in Pakistan suggested that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan (KAGB) had been advised to set up an inter-provincial committee to explore options in this regard. The debate on granting provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan has gained traction in the aftermath of the recently concluded elections and elicited reactions from several quarters, including the so-called ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ (AJK).
Aided and abetted by the British, Pakistan took advantage of the outbreak of a rebellion in Gilgit against the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir to establish its control over the region. For a while, these areas were projected as part of the so-called ‘AJK’. However, as the Kashmir issue was taken up at the UN from January 1948 onwards and the UN mediated ceasefire came into effect in January 1949, the region was separated from ‘AJK’ under the Karachi Pact of April 28, 1949 (signed by Mustaq Gurmani, Minister without portfolio (office), Sardar Ibrahim Khan, President of ‘AJK’ (part of PoK) Government, and Chaudhury Ghulam Abbas, President Muslim Conference). Under the Karachi Agreement, the leadership of ‘AJK’ conceded administration of Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) to Pakistan. Subsequently, while ‘AJK’ was immediately provided the cosmetic trappings of a state, later supplemented by an Interim Constitution in 1974, Gilgit Baltistan remained in a state of political limbo for over half a century.
Apart from geographical proximity, ‘AJK’ shares with Gilgit Baltistan a common political origin. Article 257 of the Pakistan Constitution governs its ties with parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (read PoK) under its control. The article states: “When the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and the State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State.”11 Presently, both entities within PoK have models of interim governance pending the final solution of the Kashmir issue. It is in view of this bond that the idea of making Gilgit Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan has been rejected across the board in so-called ‘AJK’. Its Prime Minister, Chaudhry Abdul Majid, has categorically conveyed his apprehensions in this regard to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who also heads the Gilgit Baltistan Council – the virtual decision making body in the region that is dominated by representatives of the federal government in Islamabad. ‘AJK’s’ fears are based on the premise that Gilgit Baltistan’s exclusion from the Kashmir issue will “dent” their cause and erode existing hopes for a peaceful amicable solution.22
Gilgit Baltistan, the strategic ‘norther frontiers’, is located at the confluence of three geographical regions — southern, central and eastern Asia. It retains its geopolitical criticality, and growing Chinese interest in recent years has elevated the region’s import in the regional strategic landscape. As the territorial link between China and Pakistan, the Gilgit Baltistan region is pivotal in the scheme of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. The oft-debated question of granting a well-defined constitutional status for Gilgit Baltistan is significant in the wake of demands for absorption in Pakistan made by a section. However, besides political assuagement of local sentiment, the issue also appears set to impact a wider geopolitical calculus including China and India.
Gilgit Baltistan epitomises the gross contradiction in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy. Unlike the so-called ‘AJK’, Gilgit Baltistan was denied a political status for decades because of its disputed status. On the other hand, Pakistan has invariably altered the status quo there— first by transferring a significant chunk of territory to China; and secondly by revoking the State Subject rule to alter the region’s demography. Gilgit Baltistan has been at the receiving end due to its Kashmir link despite the fact that it has not figured substantively in most political debates on Kashmir.
Notwithstanding past precedents, ushering radical change in the status quo in Gilgit Baltistan may have political costs for Pakistan. As noted, there is strong opposition from certain sections, especially ‘AJK’, to such a move. Secondly, Pakistan is likely to face stiff resistance from nationalist groups who are opposed to Gilgit Baltistan’s absorption into Pakistan. Groups such as the Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM) have rejected the idea; they are instead demanding freedom from Pakistani control. Conceding a stronger political framework could transform local politics in Gilgit Baltistan from submissive to assertive, and this could possibly come in conflict with Pakistan’s wider strategic objectives vis-a-vis the region.
Gilgit Baltistan, with its huge landmass, constitutes more than 80 per cent of the portions of the former princely state of J&K controlled by Pakistan. Even though Gilgit Baltistan’s population is much lower than of the so-called ‘AJK’, the sheer size of the region could be an asset in the territorial contestation and negotiation matrix between India and Pakistan. By politically assimilating Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan runs the risk of compromising its broader Kashmir agenda. This would also require amending the Pakistan Constitution (Article 258) – which is difficult without a decisive political mandate and the endorsement and concurrence of the all-powerful army. Therefore, the road towards making Gilgit Baltistan a province – provisional or permanent – is not going to be easy.
There is already a huge geopolitical debate on the magnitude of the proposed Chinese investment in the CPEC, its network potential and the projects to be taken up within the framework. The CPEC will cut through Gilgit Baltistan before unfurling the string of mega projects in Pakistan. Simultaneously, India’s rather muted reservation on the CPEC surfaced clearly after it was taken up at the highest level during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s May 2015 visit to China.
Despite mounting challenges, China and Pakistan appear determined to realize the CPEC. Pakistan has raised a strong force for the CPEC to tide over Chinese concerns on security. Showing enormous receptivity and sincerity, Pakistan is striving to weed out China’s reservations.
The timing behind, and the real impetus for, a renewed consideration to make Gilgit Baltistan a province, therefore, needs to be analysed by factoring in China’s long term strategy in Pakistan. In the emerging context, the renewed consideration on Gilgit Baltistan’s provincial status is not simply a function of Pakistan’s efforts to redress long pending popular grievances or neutralise nationalist aspirations. China’s stakes in Gilgit Baltistan is also a factor propelling Pakistan to introduce a stop gap provincial arrangement — a measure contrived to contain popular resistance and apprehensions amongst locals, promote greater stability, and more significantly, deflate India’s objections to the corridor being built in disputed territory.
Pakistan’s bid to amalgamate Gilgit Baltistan promises huge strategic dividends for China. China is in possession of the Trans-Karakorum Tract by virtue of the provisional Sino-Pak Boundary Agreement of 1963. With a change in the political status of Gilgit Baltistan as Pakistan’s fifth province, China would make significant gains – territorially and strategically. But at the same time, such a development would have severe repercussions on India and Pakistan and their bilateral equation.
Consistently maintaining that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, China has controlled the Trans Karakoram Tract since 1963. Meanwhile, the Chinese role in Gilgit Baltistan is on a solid footing with several ongoing development projects. Therefore, in Gilgit Baltistan, a status upgradation with constitutional ratification would best serve China’s interests. Irrespective of its official stance on the pending final resolution of Kashmir, it is unlikely that China would desire a situation that compels re-negotiation of the Trans Karakorum Tract or winding up its activities in and via Gilgit Baltistan. Instead, the presence of PLA soldiers in the region, speculations about Pakistan leasing Gilgit Baltistan to China and the establishment of a Chinese Consulate, and the region’s criticality in China’s endeavour to insulate its periphery from fundamentalist forces, all indicate heightened Chinese stakes in Gilgit Baltistan.
India’s official position is opposed to a change in the status quo in both parts of PoK. India lodged its emphatic protest against the Sino-Pak Border Agreement of 1963. More recently, it opposed the introduction of the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Rule package in 2009. Apart from this, India has expressed reservations on the phenomenal growth in Chinese-aided infrastructure building and flow of developmental investments in the region, including the much anticipated CPEC. Moreover, the entire spectrum of political groups in J&K, including the All-Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC), is against Pakistan’s move to make Gilgit Baltistan a province. According to the APHC’s Syed Ali Shah Geelani, the areas cannot be integrated with Pakistan unless the Kashmir issue is resolved.3
The incorporation of Gilgit Baltistan into Pakistan will further undermine India’s long standing claim to the region. Yet, the move may also have beneficial consequences. It would offer an opportunity to highlight the contradictions in Pakistan’s approach to the Kashmir issue and at the same time fully integrate J&K into the Indian Union.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India