On 1 Nov 2020 Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would give the territory of Gilgit Baltistan provisional provincial status, a far cry from the indifferent status enjoyed over 70 years.
Gilgit Baltistan has been in the news over the last few years mainly because of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a low level local agitational movement for better rights, and recently also because of India's avowed intent to integrate that territory after the Constitutional decisions taken on J&K by the Indian Government on August 5, 2020.
Unfortunately not much attention has been paid towards understanding some of the complexities about this territory which is currently under Pakistan's control but otherwise forms a part of the territory of J&K which was under Maharaja Hari Singh's control, pre-Partition.
It essentially forms a part of J&K to which India lays full claim, but over which it currently does not exercise physical control. Under India's Joint Parliamentary Resolution of February 22, 1994, the entire territory of J&K belongs to India and that is what Gilgit Baltistan's status should actually be; a territory in waiting, to integrate with the mainland.
The map of J&K published by India on October 1, 2019 shows GB merged with Ladakh. There are a few questions which arise while looking towards untangling some of the knots of complexity regarding Gilgit Baltistan's status.
"Unfortunately, not much attention has been paid towards understanding some of the complexities about this territory which is currently under Pakistan's control."
First, why did Pakistan not merge Gilgit Baltistan with PoK to create a province and thus project that it had a full claim over J&K, but was administrating only the rump territory under its control? Second, what is the geostrategic importance of Gilgit Baltistan which makes it such a highly contentious and sought-after territory? Third, why is Pakistan now attempting to change the status of the territory by giving it provisional provincial status?
Each of these needs a brief explanation before we can ascertain what India can do to ensure the persistence of its narrative on this issue.
It needs to be known that Pakistan's administrative units consist of four provinces (Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh), two autonomous territories (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK, Gilgit Baltistan) and one federal territory (Islamabad Capital Territory). Also well-known is the fact that J&K's status was temporarily set on basis of the areas under physical control at the time of the ceasefire brokered by the United Nations on December 31, 1948 after the India-Pakistan War of 1947-1948.
The UN resolution for resolving the dispute called for a plebiscite once the forces of Pakistan (as the invader) had vacated the territories of J&K.
That was never to be because Pakistan never withdrew its forces from the areas under its control. It remained hopeful of being able to either diplomatically, politically, or militarily coerce India to accept a final plebiscite.
It perceives that if it had declared Gilgit Baltistan, PoK or both, which are only a part of the territories of J&K, as legitimate provinces of Pakistan it would weaken its case for the entire J&K and lead to legal complications.
Pakistan strangely has its administrative arrangements for PoK and Gilgit Baltistan different from each other. While PoK has its own constitution that sets out its powers and their limits vis-a-vis Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan has been ruled without any local empowerment and almost directly from Islamabad. Until 2009, the region was simply called Northern Areas.
The Northern Areas Legislative Council was an elected body, but it existed in advisory capacity to the minister for Kashmir affairs and northern areas, government of Pakistan, who ruled from Islamabad.
In 2009, Gilgit Baltistan was granted limited autonomy and renamed as Gilgit Baltistan via the self-governance order signed by the president of Pakistan and aimed to empower the people. No one was consulted in Gilgit Baltistan, no representatives were called to Islamabad to discuss the package.
In 2018, the Pakistan government passed an order centralising even the limited powers granted to the assembly in 2009. Under this order greater control was established by the central government over land and other resources for the infrastructure projects of the CPEC.
"The UN resolution for resolving the dispute called for a plebiscite once the forces of Pakistan had vacated the territories of J&K. That was never to be because Pakistan never withdrew its forces from the areas under its control."
Land had become a major issue in Gilgit Baltistan with the requirements of the CPEC and now especially after vast tracts being sunk due to the Daimer Bhasha dam to be constructed on the River Indus.
The belief with which Pakistan has lived has led it to frequently experiment with the constitutional status of both PoK and Gilgit Baltistan in an attempt to project righteousness in attitude and grant of people's rights; the reality is otherwise.
Alok Bansal in his essay, 'Gilgit-Baltistan: The Roots of Political Alienation' writes, 'Though many analysts have viewed the often-violent assertions by otherwise peaceful residents of this remote and mountainous region as occasional eruptions of the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide, a careful examination will indicate the deeper roots of alienation of the population in this long-neglected region.'
‘Almost total absence of democratic rights, lack of participation in the government and economic exploitation of the region coupled with ethnic, cultural and linguistic marginalisation appear to be the main factors that have led to this alienation.'
In 2015 a proposal to give Gilgit Baltistan provincial status based on public demands and human rights was opposed by the PoK assembly through resolutions.
Across the LoC in Srinagar the separatists also spoke against this. Yasin Malik's view was 'This will have implications on the dispute over J&K, if Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over Gilgit Baltistan, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it.'
Thus, over a period councils and assemblies were created and representation accorded to the people in sham efforts but with simply no empowerment, all because of the perceived wait for the improbable moment of the plebiscite.
Besides this, all the policies and decisions made by federal institutions apply to these areas, which have no representation in Pakistan's electoral system.
Pakistan could have been more prudent in handling this issue knowing fully well the geo-strategic significance of the region but the ideologically Gilgit Baltistan being predominantly Shia has come in the way of better empowerment of the people.
"India does not seek military solutions to its problems as a policy. However, a strong military deterrence is necessary and readiness for unpredictable circumstances which may demand military intervention should never be ruled out."
As long as some more sincerity had been displayed towards the opinion and voice of the people through partial empowerment the sentiments could have been better handled.
Before attempting to understand what has altered in recent times to bring about a change in Pakistani thinking with the current government and the deep state contemplating giving Gilgit Baltistan the status of fifth province of Pakistan, it may be important to briefly examine Gilgit Baltistan's geo-strategic significance.
A huge extension of the territory of Ladakh and with a sparse population of just 1.5 million GB has a border with Afghanistan and with China. It affords Pakistan a regional frontier and a land route with China, where it meets the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
It is separated from Tajikistan by the narrow Wakhan Corridor, a legacy of the British empire designed to separate Central Asia from J&K due to Russian expansionist ambitions.
Gilgit Baltistan offers great advantage to China to secure overland access to the Indian Ocean (the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, preceded by the Karakoram Highway) and thus partially overcome the Malacca Syndrome. It is, in fact, the flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Given Gilgit Baltistan's proximity to China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region and the current problems of China with its Islamic Uyghur populace, it is a region with which China would always like to have deep affinity. Cooperation and surveillance would ensure that Gilgit Baltistan's vastness and remoteness are not used for activities by the Uyghur against China.
It is also the territory through which China and Pakistan have a common boundary; the scope for broadening this lies in the Sino-Pak aspiration of the capture of territories in the Ladakh region under India's control. Gilgit Baltistan's large frontage with Kashmir and Ladakh across Kargil and the Siachen Glacier gives Pakistan and China the perceived scope for conduct of collusive operations against India and wrest control of the major course of the rivers Indus and Shyok; water lifelines for Pakistan.
For China the existence of the Indian presence in Ladakh, especially north of the Ladakh range, is a real danger to Highway 219 which connects Tibet with the restive region of Xinjiang, hence its objection to the publication of the Indian map displaying Gilgit Baltistan and Aksai Chin as parts of the Ladakh Union Territory.
Ideally China would strategically favour its control from Tibet to Ladakh (ideally north of the Ladakh Range), Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Progressively over the last few years Gilgit Baltistan's strategic importance has only enhanced. It had started with the handover of the Shaqsgam Valley to China in 1963, an action as illegal as can be.
That was to facilitate the construction of the Karakoram Highway the alignment of which was used to expand the scope to convert it to the CPEC giving China access to the Pakistani port of Gwadar. The CPEC, on which China has invested $62 billion (and rumoured to be much more than that), is the flagship project of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Besides road infrastructure, there is projection of laying of optical fibre cable, railway and energy pipelines in the future; and the construction of the Daimer Bhasha dam on the river Indus (approximately, a $10 billion investment) for production of 4800 MW of power.
"Gilgit Baltistan offers great advantage to China to secure overland access to the Indian Ocean (the CPEC, preceded by the Karakoram Highway) and thus partially overcome the Malacca Syndrome."
With so much at stake for Pakistan and China any potential threat to the status of Gilgit Baltistan would be a major strategic dampener. Internal unrest due to mismanagement of local sentiment, insufficiency of rights and low scale economic development are all potential issues which can become millstones.
To top that, India's steadily gaining strategic confidence over the last six years culminating in the abrogation of Article 370 and administrative reorganization of JK&L appears to have unnerved Pakistan and to some extent China. Such heavy investments made in CPEC infrastructure in territory strongly claimed by India would not be giving the Chinese any confidence.
To add to it, there are frequent references in the Indian media by politicians and military leaders about the intent to integrate Gilgit Baltistan with Ladakh. In the light of this, a change in attitude and strategy over Gilgit Baltistan is evident in Pakistan. The Chinese have given their nod too.
There seems more confidence in Pakistan that with India making irreversible changes to Jammu and Kashmir's Constitutional status for better integration and implementation of its historical claim, Pakistan too can afford to use some discretion to appease the local populace through a higher degree of self-rule and rights without compromising its case for a plebiscite.
Of course, it needs to be recalled that the issue of plebiscite is dead and buried, overtaken by the passage of historic events and the signing of the Shimla Agreement. However, for Pakistan it is an issue which needs to be kept alive for a variety of reasons, not the least being the provision of hope to see J&K a part of Pakistan; reason enough to pursue the 'war by a thousand cuts' against India.
Pakistan has cleverly used the term 'provisional' in its announcement of the provincial status, projecting that it is reversible and therefore no attempt to permanently alter the status quo which could affect its argument towards implementation of UN resolutions and plebiscite.
How must India respond?
Firstly, it must reiterate its J&K narrative in no uncertain terms and focus on the Instrument of Accession which Pakistan challenges as having been signed under duress by the maharaja.
The approval of then governor general Lord Louis Mountbatten needs reiteration; we have been reticent in pushing this although with current efforts of the Government of India narratives are being revisited. Secondly, India is aware that the strategic status of Gilgit Baltistan has drastically altered bringing China into the fray. However, that should not deter pressing our legitimate claim internationally.
The illegality of ceding of the Shaqsgam Valley by Pakistan to China, the construction of CPEC through a territory claimed by India and now the change of status through creation of a province need to be adequately and repeatedly placed before the international community even though India adheres to the Shimla Agreement which dwells on bilateralism and no internationalisation.
We cannot allow Pakistan to pursue internationalisation while we follow bilateralism; the latter must be applied for resolution and not prevent the cultivation of influence in a more globalised world. Third, Indian political leaders and senior government functionaries must continue their utterances towards the commitment to integrate GB and PoK with J&K and Ladakh, as done in 2019. A consensus communication strategy towards this will be helpful.
Fourthly, the strong Indian response to Chinese coercion in Ladakh this year which was a test of our commitment must not be diluted in any way. There is no way that collusive Sino Pakistan military coercion against India can be accepted. Strong strategic partnerships must be pursued, and the support of Russia too should be garnered.
Fifthly, India must continue reminding the people of GB of their plight under Pakistan's rule where they could not even get their basic rights and how their land and resources are being bartered away for Chinese support to Pakistan.
Lastly, it is well known that GB's population is Shia and does not have any close affinity for Pakistan. We must continue playing on this sentiment and cultivate goodwill among the people of Gilgit Baltistan who must look towards integration with territories with friendlier disposition towards them and with far better economic prospects.
India does not seek military solutions to its problems as a policy. However, a strong military deterrence is necessary and readiness for unpredictable circumstances which may demand military intervention should never be ruled out.
(Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM is one of India's most respected commentators on national security and a notable member at 'Mission Victory India' The general commanded the Indian Army's 15 Army Corps in Kashmir and was known as the 'People's General' in the Kashmir Valley. Views expressed are the authors own, and do not reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India')
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