In late March 2017, a motion tabled in the British Parliament titled “Annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan by Pakistan as its fifth frontier” stridently condemned Pakistan for attempting to arbitrarily incorporate Gilgit Baltistan as a province despite its disputed status. Amongst other things, the motion censured the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) because it “aggravates and interferes with the disputed territory.”1 The motion introduced by Bob Blackman, member of the Conservative Party, has added a rare dimension to the debate on Gilgit Baltistan’s proposed provincial status. Till now, the debate was more or less localised, being discussed mainly in the realm of geopolitical equations between India, Pakistan and, at best, China.
The current spell of political tumult surrounding the conversion of Gilgit Baltistan, part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), into Pakistan’s fifth province has gained traction due to CPEC. As the crucial land link connecting CPEC from Kashgar to Gwadar, Gilgit Baltistan is of unequivocal salience to the project. Hence, while CPEC is gradually unfolding in select sectors, a significant proportion of the existing debate on Gilgit Baltistan’s provincial status is dedicated to speculating whether China is pressing Pakistan to formalise the region’s political status. Based on its territorial claim to PoK, which was an integral part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, India is contesting Pakistan’s consideration of granting provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan. That, in turn, is adding further bitterness to the frosty India-Pakistan ties.
Geographically, Gilgit Baltistan comprises the larger portion of PoK which has been under Pakistan’s illegitimate control since 1947. Politically deprived for decades, the region remained disenfranchised until 2009 when quasi-political reforms in the form of an Empowerment and Self-rule Order was enacted essentially to contain simmering popular unrest. The provisional act intended to add a semblance of enfranchisement yet without conceding Gilgit Baltistan representation in the National Assembly and Senate of Pakistan.
Elevating Gilgit Baltistan as a province is likely to be a tough call for Pakistan since it could be construed as severing its Kashmir link. All along, the region had been designated as disputed citing its Kashmir connection. Since 1947, based on this construct, Gilgit Baltistan has been perpetually reeling in a state of political deprivation and disempowerment. Further, a provision in Pakistan’s Constitution binds the region to the future of the Kashmir issue. The link is enshrined in Article 257 of Pakistan’s Constitution, which defines the country’s equation with those parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir it continues to hold. The article posits: “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.”2
Thus, apart from significant constitutional amendments, the formalisation of Gilgit Baltistan’s political status may necessitate re-formulating the fundamental contours of Pakistan’s Kashmir strategy. Pakistan would need to contend with how India would perceive as well as respond to this change. It is believed that Pakistan subsuming a part of PoK may “set a steady precedent” for India and bestow a “viable fall back option” if it decides to think in terms of the full integration of the state of J&K.3 Gilgit Baltistan’s integration into Pakistan is bound to strengthen constituencies within India that advocate J&K’s full integration with the Indian Union. Kashmir is the lifeblood of Pakistan’s India project. It is the focus of Pakistan’s proxies against India – a justification for committing aggression and an excuse to interfere. Pakistan’s long drawn contemplation and purported hesitations on Gilgit Baltistan’s provincial status is rooted in such contending realties. Pakistan may be looking for a middle path solution, one that does not essentially alter its stated positon on Kashmir. Given that Pakistan is politically and strategically invested in the Kashmir issue, it is difficult to outright fathom whether the country is preparing to forego its perennial stand of enmity with India and instead totally adhere to the Chinese economic agenda. Besides, the move to integrate Gilgit Baltistan may cost Pakistan in terms of the overwhelming support it enjoys among Kashmiri separatists in India. The separatist leadership in J&K, which Pakistan has nurtured for decades, has firmly resisted the idea of granting provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan and conveyed its stern objections in this regard to the political leadership in Islamabad.4
Cognisant of constitutional constraints and fearing a massive political fallout, the Pakistan government constituted a high-level committee headed by Sartaj Aziz to address the statutory ambiguity of the region. After due deliberations, the committee submitted its report, the specific contents of which have not yet been made public. Rightly so, as within Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan’s provincial status is being primarily viewed through the wider prism of the implications and fallout on the country’s larger Kashmir stratagem.
In principle, Pakistan’s bid to alter the status quo regarding Gilgit Baltistan is not new. Be it the revocation of the State Subject Rule, ceding a significant chunk of territory to China in 1963 or transforming the demography of the region in order to dilute its Shia majority – the region has undergone significant changes since 1947. The region had remained administratively conjoined with the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) till the 1949 Karachi Agreement (without Gilgit Baltistan being represented) bifurcated them.5 This was understandably done to siphon off the larger chunk of territory from the then impending UN-mediated negotiations with India. Despite the bifurcation, the region, along with ‘AJK’, is considered part of the Kashmir dispute. The umbilical link between the two entities has persisted nonetheless due to the political deprivation of Gilgit Baltistan. While ‘AJK’ was compensated with an interim constitution in 1974, Gilgit Baltistan’s political status continued to be contingent upon the final resolution of the Kashmir issue.
With a predominant Muslim population, the region was once critical for Pakistan’s plebiscite calculus. Over a period of time, however, the region was reduced to the status of a mere pawn for furthering Pakistan’s strategic objectives. Being handed transient structures of governance for decades, the region later became a commodity of tussle between ‘AJK’ and Islamabad.6 Besides squarely resisting the proposed provincial status, ‘AJK’ has jostled to regain its link with and control over Gilgit Baltistan, hoping that this would bolster its Kashmir politics by bringing in a critical mass of support. Hence, the proposal to accord provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan will only conform to a long-sustained pattern of Pakistan’s political experiments in the region. Without affording it constitutional status, Pakistan has linked and de-linked Gilgit Baltistan from the Kashmir issue only to fulfil narrow strategic purposes.
Away from the media frenzied interpretations and diplomatic rancour, one must realise that the current debate on provincial status for Gilgit Baltistan is only a facsimile of what transpired not long ago. In late 2015 and early 2016, the debate on provincial status was similar to the current discourse.7 The context and contours in that phase were not materially different and conjectural estimates concerning a possible Chinese angle existed then as well. If we go back to the mid-1980s, the Gilgit Baltistan Bar Association demanded that the region be made a province of Pakistan.8 This makes it amply clear that the demand of provincial status existed well before the Chinese stakes became deep seated. And it has been estimated that the popularity of such a demand is quite high.9 Despite this, it is hard to discount a possible Chinese dimension based on CPEC prospects as a driving force in the current spate of deliberations. The China factor has added energy and speculation at least in the present leg when a renewed effort to constitutionally empower Gilgit Baltistan is being made.
The complete absorption of the region into Pakistan would favour China. Controlling a significant portion of the region, i.e., the Trans Karakoram Tract, the Chinese strategy and objectives are best served with Gilgit Baltistan under Pakistan’s control.10 Secondly, China’s conservative risk-averse model of investment conflicts with imperilling billions in a disputed territory with a provisional status and the future of which is slated to be re-negotiated (by China’s own admission) as per Article 6 of the Sino-Pakistan Border Agreement 1963.11
While some would argue that Gilgit Baltistan’s assimilation may undermine India’s claim on the region, it cannot altogether dissolve it. Irrespective of the unlawful incorporation, India will continue to uphold its claim on both parts of PoK as it has since 1947. Domestically for years, India’s policy on PoK has been dismissed as being inert and least assertive. However, under a new political dispensation, a concerted effort is being made to alter previously held perception – that PoK is a peripheral issue on the list of India’s strategic priorities. Raising issues concerning PoK, be it compensation for refugees, Prime Minister Modi’s reference to it in his Independence Day address, and the frequency of official public statements on the territory indicate that India could well be thinking in terms of re-drawing the rules of engagement. Lately, Gilgit Baltistan in particular has ascended in India’s strategic calculations due to the Chinese foray into the region. Besides, the extant territorial claim on the region provides validity and strength to India’s objections on CPEC.
The idea of incorporating Gilgit Baltistan reflects Pakistan’s and China’s wish to prioritise shared economic ambitions over territorial interests. However, even as the two countries are seen to be progressing towards mutual accommodation of their interests, India may opt not to complement their approach this time. A standing territorial claim is India’s potential strategic ammunition against China-Pakistan nexus in PoK and India cannot afford to forgo it at the moment.
India-Pakistan bilateral experiments in the past, especially those that, amongst other things, contemplated permanently retaining the status quo, have clearly not worked. India’s fundamental thrust needs to diverge from pre-existing notions and this is possible only once it re-draws its overall strategy and particularly reinforces its policy on PoK. In times of a perceptible qualitative shift in policy formulation and posturing, Gilgit Baltistan’s absorption will yield India an opportunity to re-explore its options in terms of stabilizing J&K. India could choose to engage more with views that advocate J&K’s complete and final integration.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.