DO NOT USE, USE RESIZED VERSION -Gilgit-Baltistan occupies a strategic area of northern Pakistan. Image: iStock
DO NOT USE, USE RESIZED VERSION -Gilgit-Baltistan occupies a strategic area of northern Pakistan. Image: iStock

Connecting Pakistan with China and the Central Asian states, the Gilgit Baltistan (GB) region is the starting point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is also the “flagship corridor” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative mega-project.

Locked in by inaccessible terrain, the region was relatively unknown until it was opened up by the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1979. Constructed with great difficulty, it took Pakistani and Chinese engineers 20 years to complete the KKH due to the treacherous mountain ranges surrounding it. Apart from this, the region was famous for its heroic contribution to the Pakistani army – one of its most valiant units, the Northern Light Infantry, belongs to this region. Always considered a Pakistani region since the partition of the Indian sub-continent, it is surprising that the status of Gilgit Baltistan is being debated nowadays.

Historical background

One of the princely states comprising Gilgit Baltistan, namely the Gilgit Wazarat, had been leased in 1935 to Kashmir’s ruling Dogra family by the British for 60 years. In 1947, a local Gilgiti leader, Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan, overthrew the Kashmiri Dogra-appointed governor with the help of a British army officer, Major WA Brown, who was commandant of the Gilgit Scouts. As the entire local population was in favour of joining Pakistan, no other option was considered feasible and they approached Mohammad Ali Jinnah to request his permission to become part of Pakistan. Accepting their offer, Jinnah sent Sardar Alam Khan to set up the administration in Gilgit Baltistan and the Frontier Crimes Regulation became the law for Gilgit and its various princely states.

Notably, ever since its accession to Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan started celebrating two independence anniversaries, one being Pakistan’s Independence Day – August 14 – and the other being November 1, when Brown helped free the Gilgit Wazarat from the Kashmiri Dogra ruling family. Quite obviously, Gilgit Baltistan considers itself separate from Kashmir but India insists on counting it as a part of Kashmir. Sooner or later, India has to face the harsh reality that the people of Gilgit Baltistan will only demand more rights in the federation of Pakistan and have never wished to be part of India.

Strategic importance

Having grown in strategic importance since the geo-economic realignment between China and Pakistan, the sovereignty of this region has been made controversial by India as it feels threatened by the Chinese presence in its proximity. Staking claims over Gilgit Baltistan, the intention is to turn it into a disputed region and sabotage the project. Interestingly, India not referred to Gilgit Baltistan as “disputed territory” for many decades; the matter arose only after its two neighbours started their joint development projects there. Claiming it for the very first time in 2009, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said, “India believes that Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of parts of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947.

The Chinese side is fully aware of India’s position and our concerns about Chinese activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” Following it up a few years later in 2015, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval described Gilgit-Baltistan’s Afghan frontier while addressing Border Security Force officers, saying, “We also have a 106-km-long non-contiguous border with Afghanistan [the Wakhan corridor] that we need to factor in.” Notwithstanding the fact that when the Dixon proposals were offered by the British in 1950, Gilgit Baltistan was one of those areas where there was no apparent doubt about the wish of the locals to align with Pakistan, and India had chosen to accept the proposal for allotment to Pakistan of these areas.

Even though Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan were totally separate areas, both got to be connected matters as India could not handle the Kashmir Valley and took the matter to the United Nations. However, the people of Kashmir refused to accept Indian occupation even though the ruling Dogra family agreed to the annexation of Jammu and Kashmir by India under a temporary law, Article 370, which would be effective till the plebiscite was held. As luck would have it, that plebiscite remains pending to this day as India backtracked from participating in the mechanism as it had no support in Kashmir.

Unfortunately, GB suffered as it became classified along with Kashmir by the Pakistani government of that time to increase the vote count in the impending referendum. At that time, no one knew that India would keep the matter perpetually held up even though the referendum was to be held within the year and a plebiscite administrator was appointed by the UN.

The region of Gilgit Baltistan could not be formalised as a proper province because of Indian shenanigans in Kashmir and its after-effects on GB even though it was part of the Pakistan federation and not a disputed territory

Pending to this day, the region of Gilgit Baltistan could not be formalised as a proper province because of Indian shenanigans in Kashmir and its after-effects on GB even though it was part of the Pakistan federation and not a disputed territory. Wishing to become a province of Pakistan immediately, Gilgit Baltistan finds itself in the midst of baseless controversies generated by India which increase frustration among the locals.

Being highly educated with a 95% youth literacy rate, they wish to play an active part in the construction of CPEC and want special economic zones and development projects to be initiated in their area. Avoiding any constitutional limbo, it is time that the government of Pakistan accords the Gilgitis their formal constitutional, parliamentary and budgetary rights to bring them into the national mainstream. This would be extremely advantageous from an administrative point of view as well, as nowadays dividing the present four provinces on an administrative basis is already being mulled over.

Not only that, making GB a province of Pakistan would not affect the issue of Kashmir, which needs a referendum to resolve its constitutional status as ordered by the United Nations. Since GB has never been a disputed area under UN resolutions, it should not suffer from such a specification and it should be removed from disputed territory status. Very much an internal matter for Pakistan, giving GB provincial status would be advisable as Gilgit Baltistanis are as much Pakistani as Punjabis, Sindhis, Pathans and Balochis from the other provinces of Pakistan. Even the CPEC mega-project requires this legal cover for the long-term interests of this region to materialise.

Understandably, the people of GB feel the wait has become interminably long, as a young engineer, Yawar Abbas, from the Gilgit Baltistan Awareness Forum, said, “All Pakistanis are requested to listen to the patriotic people of Gilgit Baltistan and ask the state to give us the same rights as they are enjoying. We are struggling to completely merge Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan constitutionally and hope to contribute in the development of Pakistan with a sense of pride.”

Set to benefit even more after the four-track CPEC is completed, the region is bound to become a favourite tourist destination just like neighbouring Nepal, which thrives on tourism. Home to some of the world’s highest mountains, its three longest glaciers and 16 famous lakes, Gilgit Baltistan has a lot to gain from the ongoing upgrade in infrastructure.

Providing employment and business opportunities, CPEC projects would not only improve the standard of living in the region, it would also contribute to regional integration as GB is the gateway to Pakistan, China, India, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Foreign Affairs Journalist, Lawyer and geopolitical analyst.
Writing about modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia.
Bylines in Al-Monitor, The Diplomat, South China Morning Post and Asia Research Institute's Asia Dialogue
Twitter @sabena_siddiqi

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