Pakistan is mulling to elevate the constitutional status of northern Gilgit-Baltistan region in a bid to provide legal cover to the multi-billion-dollar Chinese investment plan, officials said on Thursday.
The move could signal a historic shift in the country’s position on the future of the wider Kashmir region, observers have said.
The proposal would see the mountainous region mentioned by name for the first time in the country’s Constitution, bringing it one step closer to being fully absorbed as an additional province.
Islamabad has historically insisted the parts of Kashmir it controls are semi-autonomous and has not formally integrated them into the country, in line with its position that a referendum should be carried out across the whole of the region.
Sajjad-ul-Haq, spokesman for the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Hafiz Hafeez ur Rehman, told AFP: “A high level committee formed by the prime minister is working on the issue, you will hear good news soon.”
Rehman, who arrived in Islamabad on Thursday, was working on the finishing touches to the agreement, a senior official said, adding the document could be unveiled “in a few days”.
In addition to being named in the Constitution, Gilgit-Baltistan would also send two lawmakers to sit in the federal parliament — though they would be given observer status only.
A third top government official from Gilgit-Baltistan said the move was in response to concerns raised by Beijing about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the $46 billion infrastructure plan set to link China’s western city of Kashgar to the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea.
“China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory claimed both by India and Pakistan,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
The corridor plans have been strongly criticised by New Delhi, with India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj in June calling the project “unacceptable” for crossing through Indian-claimed territory.
India and Pakistan have fought two full-scale wars over Kashmir, and any changes to the status quo could prove a further setback to hopes for dialogue that were revived after Modi made the historic Lahore visit.
Those efforts were already seen as fragile following a deadly attack on an Indian air base near the Pakistan border Saturday that was followed by a 25-hour siege on an Indian consulate in Afghanistan on Monday.
But according to Pakistani strategic analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the move could also signal Islamabad’s desire to end the Kashmir conflict by formally absorbing the territory it controls — and, by extension, recognising New Delhi’s claims to parts of the region it controls, such as the Kashmir valley.
“If we begin to absorb it so can India. It legitimises their absorption of the Valley,” she said.
GB’s modern history can be traced back to the 19th century. In 1846, after many wars and much bloodshed, GB was incorporated in the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir by the Dogras. GB comprised several independent princely states, and all of them now started paying revenue and taxes to the Dogra Raj. The Dogras had an army for the region too, called the Gilgit Scouts.
The Dogra Raj continued for a century, but 1947 spelled upheaval in South Asia and GB was not spared either. With two sovereign states being carved out of united India, GB found itself neither part of India nor part of Pakistan. Even though the Dogras still maintained control over GB after August 1947, their influence was on the wane.
The Dogras were dealt a final blow when a local commander of the Gilgit Scouts, a man named Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan, led a successful rebellion against the Dogra Raj. A government was formed thereafter, for the new Republic of Gilgit, whose president was Shah Raees Khan. Colonel Khan meanwhile became the chief of the Gilgit Scouts.
The new republic could only maintain itself for 16 days. Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of Pakistan, was then approached and requested permission for Gilgit to join the Pakistan federation. This was an unconditional offer, which was duly accepted by Jinnah.
Ever since its accession to Pakistan, Gilgit’s fortunes became intertwined with those of Kashmir.
As the matter of Kashmir went to the United Nations in 1948 for resolution, so did the matter of Gilgit.
It was claimed by Pakistani authorities at the time that Gilgit, like Kashmir, was a disputed territory. Since both India and Pakistan were asking for a UN-conducted plebiscite in disputed areas, their calculation was that Gilgit’s people would vote in support of Pakistan and thus, swell the vote in favour of Pakistan. In one move, therefore, Kashmir and Gilgit would officially be part of Pakistan.
The UN advised both India and Pakistan to remove their armies from all disputed territories, so that a UN-supervised referendum could take place. Neither country was prepared to let go of territories under their control, and the matter went into cold storage.
In 1988, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made changes to the laws governing the Northern Areas. A new body, called the Northern Areas Council, was duly formed. In her second tenure, Benazir introduced the Legal Framework Order (LFO)-1994, which turned the Northern Areas Council into the Northern Areas Legislative Council. The leader of the house of this body was the deputy chief executive, while the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas served as chief executive.
The most significant change made by Gen Musharraf was granting the Northern Areas Legislative Assembly the right to amend the LFO but the PPP government that came after the General unveiled a reforms package on September 8, 2009.
The then Prime Minister Gilani did away with the term “Northern Areas” and replaced it with “Gilgit-Baltistan”, a long-standing demand of the people of the area.
Under the new law, the chief executive was now the chief minister, while there was also provision for a federally-appointed governor. Advisors in the legislative assembly were now ministers.
The GB Council was now comprised 15 members, six of whom were elected from the GB Legislative Assembly while the rest were elected members from Pakistani assemblies. The prime minister was the council chairman, while the minister of Kashmir Affairs was the deputy chairman. Meetings of this body were to be mostly held in Islamabad.
The GB Council was to serve as the upper house of parliament; legislation pertaining to tourism, minerals, forests, as well as water and power all rested with the Council.
In unveiling the new laws, PM Gilani had used the word “autonomy” for GB, but in truth, GB is still a disputed territory.