The Complex Calculus Behind Gilgit-Baltistan’s Provincial Upgrade

On November 1, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced his government’s decision to grant Gilgit-Baltistan “provisional provincial status.”

In the far north of Pakistan-controlled territory, Gilgit Baltistan is strategically located. It shares boundaries with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, India’s Jammu and Kashmir, and Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, as well as a Pakistan-controlled swathe of territory in western Kashmir that Islamabad refers to as “Azad Kashmir.”

The Pakistani decision will impact the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan significantly. They will now become Pakistani citizens. Provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan will also have implications for Kashmiris as well as for India and China.

Khan’s announcement evoked a swift response from India, which claims the region as part of greater Kashmir. “Firmly” rejecting Pakistan’s attempt “to alter the status of these Indian territories,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs called on Pakistan “to immediately vacate all areas under its illegal occupation.”

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Pakistan is scheduled to hold elections to the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly on November 15. India has strongly objected to this on the grounds that Pakistan has “no locus standi on territories illegally and forcibly occupied by it.”

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India regards Gilgit-Baltistan as Indian territory. A part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan comprises a major chunk of the territory Pakistan occupied during its war with India that year. Gilgit-Baltistan together with Azad Kashmir is referred to by New Delhi as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK).

According to the Indian argument, since Gilgit-Baltistan was a part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, whose Maharaja acceded to India, it is legally India’s.

However, it appears that the hold of the Maharaja over Gilgit-Baltistan, and especially Gilgit, was at best notional as he had leased the area to the British. When the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession with India in October 1947 to defend his territory from a Pakistan-backed tribal invasion, the Gilgit Scouts, a local military force headed by the British, mutinied and demanded accession to Pakistan.

Pakistani analysts argue that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan therefore joined Pakistan of their own free will.

India has a different perception of Gilgit-Baltistan’s relationship with Jammu and Kashmir. It argues that even if Gilgit-Baltistan was on lease to the British, with the lapse of British paramountcy, Gilgit came under the Maharaja’s rule again. And since the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession with India, Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of the Indian Union.

In the seven decades since Gilgit-Baltistan came under Pakistani occupation, it has remained under Islamabad’s control, while India continues to lay claim to it.

Interestingly, not only is Gilgit-Baltistan disputed territory but also its status in Pakistan has remained fuzzy. Official maps of Pakistan include this region but it finds no mention in the Pakistani constitution. Residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are not citizens of Pakistan but they pay taxes to the Pakistan government. And although a 2009 ordinance provided for self-rule in Gilgit-Baltistan, this is in name only as the region is tightly controlled by Islamabad, with few powers vested in the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly.

Pakistan chose to keep Gilgit-Baltistan in a state of limbo all these years because it feared that annexing Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir would formalize the de facto division of Jammu and Kashmir and weaken Islamabad’s claims to territory under New Delhi’s control. Furthermore, it was keen to project an image to the international community and Kashmiris in particular that it was committed to their independence.

So what lies beneath Islamabad to make Gilgit-Baltistan a Pakistani province now?

Chinese pressure appears to have prompted Islamabad’s decision.

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Gilgit-Baltistan is the only overland link between China and Pakistan and is key to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. All of CPEC’s roads, railway lines, and oil and gas pipelines linking Pakistan with China have to go through the territory. Without Gilgit-Baltistan, CPEC would not be possible. Having made multi-billion dollar investments in CPEC projects, China is keen to ensure that its projects have legal and constitutional validity. It has therefore been pushing Pakistan since 2015 to confer constitutional status on Gilgit-Baltistan.

In addition to Chinese pressure, the Imran Khan government’s decision appears to be a response to India’s decision in August last year to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and to integrate it more closely into the Indian Union by bringing it under New Delhi’s direct rule. Drawing Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan as a province is Islamabad’s rejoinder to New Delhi’s decision.

Both the Pakistani and Chinese governments have been watching with apprehension the growing muscularity of the present Indian government. Since 2014 when it came to power, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which takes a hard line on Jammu and Kashmir, has issued statements that have rattled Islamabad and Beijing. Some of these were a reassertion of India’s interest and claims over Gilgit-Baltistan.

In August 2016, for instance, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised an all-party delegation that he would take up the issue of the Pakistan government’s atrocities in Balochistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir at various international forums. In his Independence Day speech two days later, he said that the people of these regions and Gilgit had written to him expressing gratitude to him for raising his voice against Pakistan’s atrocities against them.

Modi’s reference to the human rights situation in these regions, especially at a time when Gilgit was roiled in unrest over Pakistan’s crackdown on local activists protesting CPEC, set alarm bells ringing in Islamabad and Beijing. Would India’s expression of sympathy for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan groups provide a shot in the arm to anti-Pakistan activists and organizations there? Would it worsen the security situation, putting at risk CPEC projects?

Even more worrying to China and Pakistan was the statement India’s Home Minister Amit Shah made a day after Kashmir’s autonomy was revoked in 2019. Declaring that the “entire Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India,” Shah clarified in his speech to Parliament that Jammu and Kashmir included territories under Pakistani occupation including Gilgit-Baltistan as well as Aksai Chin (which is under Chinese occupation).

And Army Chief General Bipin Rawat, who is currently India’s chief of defense staff, had said in September 2018 that the army is prepared for “an operation to retrieve Pakistan-occupied Kashmir from the clutches of Pakistan, if the government wants so.”

It is likely that India’s robust reiteration of its claims over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in recent years and its stated willingness to wrest back control over territories under Pakistani occupation speeded up Pakistan’s decision to bestow provincial status on Gilgit-Baltistan.

Islamabad’s announcement on Gilgit-Baltistan being bestowed with provincial status has been opposed by Kashmiri separatists, who are calling on Pakistan to rethink its decision as it is “demoralizing Kashmiri people and debilitating their ongoing struggle for the right to self-determination.”

By conferring provincial status on Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan will be strengthening India’s long-standing argument that Islamabad’s so-called support to the Kashmiri cause is not so much about supporting their right to self-determination and independence but a bid to annex the territory of all of Kashmir.

In that context, will its extension of provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, pending final settlement of the dispute with India over Kashmir, work to convince Kashmiris that Islamabad is still espousing their cause for independence?