The multiplayer game of Gilgit-Baltistan

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Kashmiri separatists are up in arms again and this time against Pakistan: The reason is Islamabad’s proposed move to give provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. On 12 January, Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) supremo Yasin Malik wrote a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging him not to change the status of the occupied J&K territory as it would adversely affect the nature of Kashmir dispute.

“Apprehensions have been raised in various quarters that your government may reach a consensus to merge Gilgit- Baltistan with Pakistan. This will have implications on the dispute over J&K,” Malik wrote to Sharif. “If Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over Gilgit-Baltistan, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it.”

Hurriyat(G) chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani was even more blunt. He said Islamabad had no “constitutional or moral justification” to merge Gilgit Baltistan and that such a move would be betrayal of Kashmiris.

“It is also clear violation of the UN resolutions on Kashmir,” the staunchly pro- Pakistan separatist leader said.

Moderate Hurriyat chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that making Gilgit-Baltistan the fifth province of Pakistan will provide India an excuse to merge Ladakh. Both are part of one geographical region within the undivided J&K.

The uproar started following establishment of a reforms committee by Sharif to devise a roadmap for the region. Adviser to Sharif on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz heads the committee which has met thrice in Islamabad in recent months and discussed ways to address the issue in a manner that does not affect Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue.

Islamabad’s urgency to recast the region’s constitutional relationship with the country is traced to the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project and China’s alleged insistence for a legal cover to its investment through a disputed region.

More so, when Gilgit-Baltistan has to serve as the gateway for the multi-billion dollar project. China is building industrial parks, hydropower projects, railway lines and roads in the region. Besides, the project also involves the expansion of the Karakoram Highway connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with Gilgit–Baltistan.

This gives Beijing unfettered and fast road and rail access to the Gulf region. Once the railway line and the motorway passing through Gilgit Baltistan and the other Pakistan provinces are completed, Chinese cargo which takes 16-25 days to reach Gulf will take just 48 hours after being transported through Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara.

But the scene is complicated since the region is part of the undivided J&K and hence an inextricable part of the state’s disputed legacy. The region’s convoluted constitutional relationship with Islamabad hasn’t helped matters either. Nor has India’s objection to the passage of economic corridor through Gilgit Baltistan.

In a recent statement, foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said entire J&K which includes areas currently under Pakistan occupation was an integral part of India.

He said New Delhi was in the know of the reports stating that various options are under consideration regarding the political status of Gilgit-Baltistan. “India’s position is crystal clear on this,” Swarup told the media.

What Pakistan seeks to do is to further upgrade the Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 which granted “self-rule” to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit- Baltistan Council. The province thus acquired de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan.