India, Pakistan & The ‘Gilgit’ Politics

Pakistan has triggered a fresh tension in South Asia by announcing that it will soon declare the Gilgit-Baltistan region as its fifth province. Pakistani Inter-provincial Co-ordination Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada’s recent announcement in this regard raised concerns in neighbouring India, as the region borders the disputed Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK).
The 72,971sqkm area is strategically important for both Pakistan and India due to its geographical location. More than two million people (majority of them is Shia Muslims) are living in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the literacy rate is 72%. The area generates revenues mainly from tourism, trekking and mountaineering.
Speaking at a press conference in Islamabad on March 15, Pirzada said that a committee, headed by Adviser of Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz, urged the Nawaz Sharif government in Islamabad to give the status of a Province to Gilgit-Baltistan and the Sharif administration accepted the proposal. As Pakistan does not include Gilgit-Baltistan in its Constitution, the government will have to make a constitutional amendment to change the status of the region.
Currently, Gilgit-Baltistan is treated as a separate geographical entity by Pakistan, and has a regional Assembly and an elected chief minister. At present, the region has little to say in its own affairs and is directly ruled from Islamabad, despite a pretence of autonomy. As a ‘province’, Gilgit-Baltistan will have greater legislative powers and control over its revenues. The status will also help the region get two seats in the Pakistani Parliament, though of ‘observer’ status.
As expected, India has opposed Pakistan’s move, saying that Islamabad is planning to formally absorb the ‘disputed’ territory that (according to India) is an integral part of undivided Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) described Pakistan’s move as “illegal” and “completely unacceptable”.
Manoj Joshi, a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, said that “it would be difficult to fault the official stand taken by the Government of India on Pakistan’s decision to create a new province of Gilgit-Baltistan”. Joshi explained: “The legal position is that India holds the sovereignty over the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, though according to the UN, it needs to be ratified by a plebiscite. For a variety of reasons, that plebiscite has not taken place for 70 years, and despite many twists and turns, the Jammu and Kashmir issue has not been resolved. However, that does not negate the fact that as of this moment, sovereignty of all of the state rests with India.”
India raised questions about the timing of the announcement, stressing that the move triggered over alarm raised by China about spending USD 46 billion on a road (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – CPEC) that passes through this disputed territory. However, Beijing has kept mum on the proposal to make Gilgit-Baltistan a province. Pakistani experts, too, believe that China’s concerns about Gilgit-Baltistan’s unsettled status prompted the move. Pakistan’s influential ‘Dawn’ daily recently quoted experts as saying that the proposed move could signal a historic shift in Islamabad’s position on the future of the wider Kashmir region.
Interestingly, Pakistan’s proposed move is also facing local resistance. The Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance says that Islamabad is trying to pass legislation that would allow it to plunder the region’s resources. Chairperson of the Alliance Amanullah Khan insisted: “The real motive behind the move is to provide a legal cover to the Pakistani plans to lease out the region to China and sell its natural resources, like gold and uranium.” He told the local media in Gilgit that Pakistan’s move would ultimately help China uplift the economy of its Xinjiang Province – home to more than 10 million Uighurs. That is why Beijing has allowed 8,000 Chinese workers to work in 210 Pakistani projects and deployed 7,000 additional workers to execute other CPEC projects, said Khan.
However, Aziz rejected Khan’s claim that the proposed move would be beneficial only for China. He argued that if all projects were implemented, their value would exceed all foreign direct investment (FDI) in Pakistan since 1970. The Pakistani premier’s foreign affairs adviser claimed that the CPEC could create more than 700,000 direct jobs in the next 13 years and add up to 2.5 percentage points to its growth rate. Aziz assured his countrymen that China would be compelled by economic circumstances to support Pakistan’s security. He further claimed that China would never create troubles for Pakistan as the Gwadar Port would offer the Asian giant a strategic advantage. Once the Gwadar port is made functional, the Chinese ships will reach Europe in 10 days instead of 45 days they now take via Strait of Malacca, said Aziz.

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