Pakistan's slow assimilation of Gilgit-Baltistan: A strategic challenge for India

Pakistan so far has given limited autonomy to the local population after having wrested G-B after the accession. But it now wants to declare it as a provisional province of the country, writes Pushp Saraf for South Asia Monitor

Pushp Saraf Jan 23, 2021

Pakistan is gearing up to pose a serious question to India on Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) by absorbing the highly picturesque region of undivided Jammu and Kashmir as it had existed in 1947 in its constitutional framework. Gilgit-Baltistan, which appears as the northernmost part of Pakistan in its official map, is part of India by virtue of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to India on October 27, 1947. 

A 12-member committee appointed by the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan is currently giving finishing touches to recommendations in this regard. The committee headed by Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan Ali Amin Gandapur includes G-B Chief Minister Mohammad Khalid Khurshid, the Attorney General of Pakistan, key government functionaries of Pakistan, G-B, apart from representatives of key security agencies.

Gilgit-Baltistan: Provisional province

From all indications, the committee will make recommendations for a constitutional amendment bill to be tabled in the National Assembly for declaring G-B a provisional province of the country. The theory of provisional provincial status is based on two grounds: (a) the final status is linked to the resolution of the Kashmir issue under the United Nations resolutions providing for a plebiscite;  and (b) the citizens of G-B need to be treated on par with their counterparts in four provinces of Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the intervening period by extending to them constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights including representation in the elected and other national and constitutional bodies like parliament. 

The hypothesis is based on a report prepared by a committee headed by veteran diplomat Sartaj Aziz, adviser to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in 2017 and its endorsement along with other observations by a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court in a detailed judgment announced by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar on the day of his retirement on January 17, 2019. The apex court has observed: “As and when the promised plebiscite is organised by the parties to the dispute, it will be up to the people of all of Jammu and Kashmir, and of G-B, to make their choice...Therefore, till such time that the plebiscite is held, a proper arrangement must be provided for by Pakistan for the people of G-B for purposes of governance within a framework of a constitutional nature, including most importantly the enjoyment of fundamental rights.”

These developments along with the unanimous support of political parties, whatever their other differences, executive, judiciary, military, and the media have helped Pakistan overcome its dilemma. In fact, the voices for "decisive action" have become strident especially after August 5, 2019, when India downgraded J&K and split it into two union territories abrogating Articles 370 and 35-A which guaranteed its special status and protected the special privileges of its citizens. Pakistan so far has given limited autonomy to the local population after having wrested G-B after the accession. But it now wants to declare it as a provisional province of the country.

Assured of consensus the task of the Gandapur panel is simpler than it may appear. PM Khan himself promised a provisional status for the region before the last assembly elections held on November 15, 2020. His party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won the polls and formed the government for the first time in G-B. Its two main rivals - Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) - have cried foul alleging rigging. Neither of them, however, has disputed the necessity of giving a constitutional position to G-B. Instead, they have recalled their own role in empowering the local people when they were in power at the centre.

China: An all-weather friend 

In an allied major development, Pakistan has since long thrown open the doors of G-B for its "all-weather friend" China. Beijing has actually used it as a gateway for its ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and already created infrastructure.

The grapevine has it that a special economic zone may be set up in the region sooner rather than later. According to reports, China is also behind the pressure to expedite an end to the constitutional ambiguity of G-B.

India’s stance

For its part India has strongly protested at every move made by Pakistan and China for fiddling with the status quo, be it their written agreement of 1963 under which Islamabad has gifted a part of Kashmir to China, projects in the name of the CPEC or otherwise, Supreme Court’s intervention, assembly polls, or the talk of the provincial status. Its consistent assertion is that the entire J&K and Ladakh, including G-B, are “integral part by the prudence of legal, complete, and irrevocable accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India in the year 1947.” 

It has assailed Pakistan’s move to name G-B as its fifth province as intended “to camouflage its illegal occupation of the area” asking it to vacate “all areas under its illegal occupation.” 

India’s response has mostly been rhetorical. Pakistan and China’s rising concrete structures, on the other hand, show that words alone can’t dissuade them. What are the other options for India? There seems no easy answer.

(The writer is a veteran journalist and strategic analyst. The views are personal)