Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir dispute

Abdul Basit

Addressing an election rally in Gilgit on November 1 Prime Minister Imran Khan officially declared his government’s decision to give Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) the status of a province of Pakistan on a provisional basis.

This, according to him, was being done in tune with the aspirations of the people of GB and the status would be kept provisional keeping in view Pakistan’s principled position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

As expected, India has reacted quickly and sharply to Pakistan’s intentions, emphasizing that the region belonged to India and that Pakistan has “no locus standi” to change the status of GB or any other part of the disputed area presently under Pakistan control.

Pakistan has been mulling over this idea for years, for there has been enormous pressure from the people of GB, who consider themselves separate from Kashmiris.

However, at the time of independence, present-day GB was a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir though the region was leased out to the British Empire by Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler of the princely state in 1935 for the period of 60 years.

GB declared its accession to Pakistan on Nov. 1, 1947, that is, a few days after the singing of the so-called Instrument of Accession by Hari Singh in favor of India.

The Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K) government, based in Muzaffarabad, ceded the control of GB, formerly known as “Northern Areas” to Pakistan in terms of the Karachi Agreement signed on April 28,1949.
Since the agreement did not give any time period for control, it was assumed that Pakistan would continue to administer the area till the Jammu and Kashmir dispute was settled in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
In 1972 however, the AJ&K legislative assembly passed a resolution reclaiming GB. The Interim Constitution of AJ&K of 1974 lists GB as part of Kashmir.

In 1992, the AJ&K High Court, going a step further, directed the AJ&K government to take physical control of the region, which was subsequently overruled by the AJ&K Supreme Court while reaffirming that the Northern Areas were an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir. All these moves were, however, vehemently rejected by the people of GB.
Whereas the proposed step does not in any way compromise Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, there would be no harm in delaying the move.

Consisting of the former Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan District of the Ladakh Wazarat and the hill states of Hunza and Nagar, GB is a vast region of close to 74, 000 square km with a population of around 1.8 million.

A Pakistan parliamentary committee, headed by Senator Sartaj Aziz, submitted its report to the then government in Islamabad on 10 March 2017, recommending, inter alia, the provisional provincial status for GB. There is thus general consensus in Pakistan on the provisional status, though the AJ&K government and people continue to be averse to the idea.
However, some in Pakistan are concerned that the timing of the move might not be propitious as it would be seen as in reaction to what India did in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir on Aug. 5 last year.

Accordingly, Pakistan should not be taking any steps in haste to weaken its principled stance on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. At one point, Islamabad was throwing feelers that the government had decided to merge GB as the fifth province of Pakistan permanently.

Indeed, the people of GB would not be happy with the provisional status as they were expecting Prime Minister Imran Khan to bring an end to their “second-class status” within Pakistan. However, Pakistan can ill-afford to go beyond the provisional status at this stage.

On the first anniversary of India’s illegal and unconstitutional action, the government of Pakistan issued a new political map on Aug. 4 this year, showing the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, including GB, as a disputed region awaiting settlement through a UN-supervised plebiscite. Doing anything contrary to the new political map would have been self-contradictory, to say the least.

Whereas the proposed step does not in any way compromise Pakistan’s position on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, there would be no harm in delaying the move.

The 2009 Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order is good enough to address the socio-economic grievances of the people of GB. This was the time to focus more on India’s illegal action rather than engendering a controversy on GB. However, there are elections taking place in GB on Nov. 15, and unfortunately, the issue has become part of usual electoral politics.

I am also not convinced by the argument that there is pressure from China on Pakistan in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor– as making GB a provisional province would not end its disputed character.

Moreover, according to Article 16 of the China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement of March 2, 1963, China would renegotiate the territory ceded by Pakistan to China should the people of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to India.
Even for conferring provisional provincial status, an amendment would be required in the Pakistan constitution. It remains to be seen how political parties in parliament react to the government proposal as and when it is tabled. It is important retain national consensus on this very sensitive matter.

The writer is the president of Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He was previously Pakistan’s ambassador to Germany and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India.