The multiplayer game of Gilgit-Baltistan

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This enabled nearly 1.5 million people to elect their chief minister and governor for the first time. The region’s first ever election was held in 2009 and the Pakistan People’s Party was voted to power. After the completion of five year tenure, election was again held in June 2015, which saw Sherif’s Pakistan Muslim League (N) secure a comfortable majority.

However, real power has continued to be vested in the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas which has traditionally administered the area, which has only reinforced the disaffection.

The proposed new package will allegedly make Gilgit-Baltistan the provisional constitutional province of Pakistan. Besides being named in the Constitution, the province will send two lawmakers to sit in the Pakistan Parliament — though they are liklely to be given observer status, reports in Pakistani newspapers say.

Gilgit-Baltistan’s relationship with Pakistan has evolved little since the region’s occupation in 1947. It was a 24-year-old British Major Brown who overthrew Governor brigadier Ghansara Singh appointed by J&K Maharaja Hari Singh and later handed over the control to Pakistan. Pakistan, however, did not accept the offer of accession from the local chieftains, lest it dilute its case over entire J&K. Islamabad also wanted the largely pro-Pakistan people of the area to participate in the then proposed UN-supervised plebiscite in the state to bolster its chances of winning it.

The region’s area covered 85,793 sq km. But in 1970, Islamabad divided the area into “Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK)” and the Northern Areas. However unlike AJK which has functioned as a semi State, supplemented also by an Interim Constitution in 1974, Northern Areas remained in a constitutional limbo.

The 2009 Empowerment and Self Governance Order changed that. It not only granted Northern Areas a form of local governance but the region was also renamed as Gilgit Baltistan, which gave its people an identity.

But now the demand from the people of the region for a more authentic constitutional identity in Pakistan has run up against stiff opposition from India as also from the Kashmiris across the LOC.

In September 2012, the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly approved a resolution demanding provincial status for the region, which was immediately opposed by POK government. Again on 13 January, with Islamabad appearing serious about granting provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan, POK Legislative Assembly unanimously passed two resolutions against the proposed move.

“Making Gilgit-Baltistan a fifth province will weaken Pakistan’s national stand on J&K at the international level,” one of the resolutions said. “Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the state of J&K and whenever a plebiscite is conducted the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will also have the right to decide their future with the people of other parts of the state of J&K”.

The state’s rehabilitation minister, Abdul Majid Khan said that it was “our collective responsibility to stand against every move that paves the way for the division of the state of J&K”.

Gilgit-Baltistan is thus precariously caught up in the new geopolitical game in the region with China using it as an economic corridor to break free of its geographical limitations and assert itself in its neighbourhood, a move that is a source of deep concern for the US and India.

Holding the region back also is its geographical connection to the once undivided J&K which has made it an inheritor of the state’s contentious status between India and Pakistan.

Alarm by Kashmiri separatists over the proposed provincial status to the region has only come as a reminder of this reality.

“If your government incorporates Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan, and if as a consequence, India consolidates its hold in Kashmir, this would amount to bartering of people’s aspirations,” Malik wrote in his letter to Sharif. “Kashmir is not about territory. It is about rights of people. Bartering these rights for land means killing the aspirations of the people”.

riyaz@tehelka.com