The undefined status of Gilgit-Baltistan has always unnerved Islamabad. The recently concluded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) offers the possibility to absorb Gilgit-Baltistan in the larger national polity by making it a formal province of Pakistan. A committee led by prime minister’s adviser, Sartaj Aziz, has conducted several rounds of consultations with major stakeholders, including Hafizur Rehman, the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan.
However, it is largely believed the leadership of Kashmir has been intentionally kept out of the entire consultative process.
This move has generated anxiety and reaction across the Line of Control (LoC). Even political actors who champion the cause of Pakistan in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad have warned the Centre against separating Gilgit-Baltistan from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Azad Jammu and Kashmir Assembly passed a unanimous resolution, demanding all constitutional and economic rights to Gilgit-Baltistan without declaring it a formal province.
Historically, Pakistan has consistently maintained that Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, the strategic location of this region, particularly the 1300-km long Karakoram Highway (KKH), does not only run through the Gilgit region but also happens to be the sole land route connecting Pakistan with China and Central Asian states.
The upcoming news of the huge Chinese investment in infrastructure development projects through the CPEC has stirred a new debate among policy-making circles. A section of the government is of the view that Gilgit-Baltistan can be made a ‘formal-province’ in the guise of legal jargon, in such a way GB’s future will be re-decided once plebiscite is held in Jammu and Kashmir for the final settlement of the dispute. Hence, China could invest its resources without any fear. It is also stated that Chinese also want us to do so.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan and their leadership are anxiously weighing the proposal to become a formal province of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly has clearly demonstrated people’s will through various resolutions. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan want representation in the National Assembly, Senate, and other policy-making institutions.
A parallel and separate socio-political development has taken root in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. Both the regions have not been able to develop shared interests and common democratic institutions, which unite people and leadership. Gradually, Gilgit-Baltistan has developed more stakes in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) instead of Azad Kashmir due to proximity and direct access through KKH. State Subject Law, which bars non-locals’ right to the acquisitions of land ensuring demographic balance, was abolished in mid 1970s. It paved way to mass migration from across the country. Now, over 50,000 Pashtuns and Punjabis own land properties and are running huge businesses in Gilgit-Baltistan. Their number is consistently growing.
It is a hard reality that the government of Pakistan has discouraged social and political linkages between the two regions. Gradually, communication gap turned into trust deficit and finally generated deep-seated mutual suspicions and hatred leading to wrangling at public forums. The on-going debate about the future of Gilgit-Baltistan has further deepened the gulf between the two regions.
In March 1949, the federal government took charge and assumed control of these areas which was formerly owned by the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It ran the administration directly from Islamabad through the Ministry of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs. Consequently, up till now, all the key officers who run different spheres of the government, including administration, economic affairs, law and order and even local development are appointed directly from Islamabad. Although elected governments call the shots since 2009, it lacks legal and constitutional cover.
Successive federal governments have pledged to empower the Gilgit-Baltistan government but never lived up to their promise and are yet not willing to think out-of-the-box innovative solutions for empowerment of the local people.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are made to think that their deprivation of constitutional and political rights is rooted in the Kashmir problem. Therefore, they believe that the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir are against their political empowerment and always acted as a spoiler to block whenever the federal government plans to give them a provincial status. Instead of granting due rights and empowering the government of Gilgit-Baltistan, the federal bureaucracy has directed its anger towards Kashmir. A section of the establishment sided with the Kashmiri leadership while others favoured the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan. The resulting chaos is deplorable.
Conversely, there is consensus across Azad Jammu and Kashmir and even in the Indian-held Kashmir that Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which existed on August 14, 1947, the day when British India was partitioned into two independent states. The entire Kashmiri leadership is of the view that Gilgit-Baltistan should not be made a formal province of Pakistan.
Recently, several Kashmiri leaders, including Syed Ali Gilani, Mir Waiz Umer Farooq and Yasin Malik, stated that the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan will provide a justification to India to revoke the special status of the Indian-held Kashmir and it would weaken Pakistan’s stance over Kashmir at the international and bilateral forums.
The public opinion in Kashmir has witnessed many ups and downs in recent decades and has graduated into making mature judgments. The exhaustive conflict in and around the Kashmir Valley makes them hypersensitive about their identity and political rights. The media revolution and improved connectivity across LoC has fashioned a diverse Jammu and Kashmir, which is detached by the Line of Control but people on the two sides of the border share aspirations and concerns of mutual interest. The way the political leadership of Kashmir has resisted the move in Islamabad aimed at mainstreaming of Gilgit-Baltistan, is a classic example of the growing Kashmiri influence in the policy-making process of Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan is caught in a catch-22 situation. A cursory look at the vernacular press of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir shows that an intense zero-sum game is on. Islamabad understands that if it grants provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, it would lose credibility and trust among the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It may emerge as a country that preferred to relentlessly chase its own national interests rather than caring about principles. It would be a sheer loss of high moral ground that Islamabad has been espousing since the late 1940s.
Islamabad needs to initiate a broader consultative process among all stakeholders instead of taking unilateral policy-decisions. A middle ground can be found. For example, a setup like the one in Azad Kashmir can be introduced in Gilgit-Baltistan that may address its people’s aspirations for empowerment. Additionally, Islamabad’s administrative powers can be gradually reduced so that the government in Gilgit may function properly.
No one is against the empowerment of Gilgit-Baltistan but the procedure which has been laid down by the federal government undermines its own stance over Kashmir and gives people of Kashmir a sense of betrayal. It would be wise to find alternative ways and means to empower Gilgit-Baltistan and even Azad Jammu and Kashmir without endangering the sanctity of oneness of Jammu and Kashmir.