Gilgit Baltistan (GB) region has always remained strategically important to Pakistan as it is a gateway to Central Asian republics through Wakhan corridor on its north side. Secondly, it is the only passage to Pakistan’s most important strategic and economic ally, China. It is also home to highest battlefield in the world, Siachen. Moreover, it shares its territorial link with Ladakh, and Kashmir region, being occupied by India. The fact that it is also a host to world’s most significant mountain ranges i.e. Hindukush and Himalaya also signify its position. Now, being the initial point of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), even makes it more crucial and strategically important to the powers in the region i.e. India, China and Russia.
Given the context, recently the status of Gilgit Baltistan region has been debated as currently it has limited autonomous structure of governance and is not constituently integrated in the state of Pakistan. After the initiation of CPEC it has been highlighted in media that China wants Pakistan to integrate the region in its state constitutionally, as it does not want to invest in the region with disputed status. The policymakers in Islamabad have however denied such claims but are in an intricate situation as far as the status of the disputed region is concerned.
Historically, GB was (and is) a part and parcel of the larger state of disputed Jammu and Kashmir in pre-partition era and was liberated by the locals on November 01, 1947 from Dogra rule declaring a revolutionary government. Nevertheless, the self-rule lasted only for 16 days and in mid-November of 1947 the president of acclaimed GB government surrendered its right to govern to Pakistani administration by asking for unconditional accession to the state. Due to Jammu and Kashmir’s disputed nature and the issue being debated at the UN, the region of GB was never made as a constitutional province of the state else its status remained as part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The other part liberated by the locals from the occupation of Dogra also formed a provisional revolutionary government which is still in place in the sub-autonomous area called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), commonly referred as “basecamp” for the liberation struggle of occupied part by India.
It is on record that maximum people of GB have always demanded to be integrated into the state of Pakistan constitutionally but the policymakers in Islamabad throughout the history have always feared its dire consequences effecting the Kashmir cause internationally. Pakistan has always maintained a high moral ground on Kashmir dispute internationally which is also reflected into the article 257 of the constitution of Pakistan which says that, “When the people of state of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan , the relationship between Pakistan and that state shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of the state.” This is in context to the UN resolution of 1948 and 1949 which guarantees the people of the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir (including GB) the right to self-determination.
The security council resolutions number 91 of 1951 and 122 of 1957 also state that none of the regions of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir can make decision of its own until plebiscite is exercised under the UN auspices.
Furthermore, the government of Pakistan, while defining the rules of business with the sub-autonomous region AJK, has come into an accord called “Karachi agreement” which mentions that GB area is given under temporary administrative control to Pakistan until plebiscite is exercised in whole state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Now, given the scenario, if GB is given a provincial status, then Pakistan not only loses its moral and legal ground on Kashmir in international forum but will also give a reason to India for justifying its illegal move of Aug. 5, 2019 making two union territories of the occupied region by abolishing article 370 of the constitution of India. Secondly, by making GB as its constitutional province it will also violate its own agreement with the government of AJK as mentioned above. It is also not out of question that if Karachi agreement is violated by Pakistan, then government of AJK, as its legislative assembly already has passed a resolution against the said announcement of Prime Minister Imran Khan of making GB as its 5th province, also has the right to disown the said arrangement which may bring an awkward constitutional situation in the region.
The situation has become more complex for Pakistan as the senior “Hurriyat” leadership has also criticized the decision and has labelled it as the same move that was done by India last year by unilaterally abolishing article 370 from its constitution. The locals of Azad Jammu and Kashmir area have also shown strong resentment against the decision and are openly protesting it. The faction of people in GB is also opposing it. Further, to change the constitution of Pakistan, Imran Khan’s government will need two third majority in both houses, which at the present it is lacking, so this could also be a technical loophole in the announcement made in haste in the wake of GB elections by him.
Pakistan must play wisely in such a situation. The recent decision by Modi has already hurt the Kashmiris and now in such circumstances if any of such decision of making GB as a province is taken by Pakistan, it will only fuel the sentiments of hate within the Kashmiris and will be seen as the same act of tarnishing the identity of Kashmir by both India and Pakistan. Pakistan will also lose its popularity not only in Indian occupied Kashmir but in AJK as well. The security aspect of the CPEC and overall region must not be neglected as well. The will of India and other actors to interfere in the sensitive area is also well known. No chance should be given to the exploiters to exploit the grievances of the people.
Finally, having mentioned the legal and political hurdles, majority of the people of GB have always considered themselves as the part and parcel of Pakistan. Their reservations regarding their constitutional status are genuine and they must be given due constitutional rights but not on the cost of the Kashmir movement. A lot of improvement in the constitutional status of GB has been seen in recent years through Empowerment and Self-Governance order 2009 and more recently a new Gilgit Baltistan order passed in July 2018, but they must be given more autonomy. A sub-autonomous governing structure like AJK can be granted to them or a joint upper house can be formed of both the disputed regions i.e. AJK and GB having a common supreme court and president for that matter. Anyhow, the policymakers must understand that any deviation from the policy that was laid by the forefathers of Pakistan regarding Kashmir will not only be considered as a betrayal to the cause but will also shake the foundations of the basis of Pakistan.
Umair Pervez Khan is an MPhil graduate in International Relations who is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from Turkey.
This article was originally published on The Geopolitics. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.