By Sabena Siddiqi.
Gilgit-Baltistan is the sole route connecting Pakistan with China and the Central Asian states as the 1300 km Karakoram Highway runs through this sleepy, mountainous region. Recently, its geopolitical location has become intrinsic to the viability of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor as it is the entry point of the economic route, the mapping of the route is reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road which joined a myriad cultures and nations.
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor is a veritable bete noire for neighbouring country India, it wants to sabotage the project at any cost and claims that Gilgit -Baltistan is a disputed region with the mal intent to make the project impossible to continue. For this purpose, India unleashed a lot of fake news campaigns and rumours regarding Gilgit Baltistan, a lot of propaganda is done by Indian television and print media. There is no insurgency or rebellion in GB, in fact many Gilgitis join the Pakistan army.
Historically, Gilgit Baltistan was part of Kashmir up till 1947, it was merged with the princely state in 1846 by the Dogras of Kashmir after many bloody wars. This region was named ‘Gilgit Agency’ by the British and constituted mainly of the princely states of Hunza and Nagar, with various smaller regions of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, Yasin and Punial, and the Gilgit Wazarat. Only the ‘Gilgit Wazarat’ was administered by the Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir, the British leased it to them in 1935 for a period of 60 years, the rest of the regions remained British governed. Even after August 1947, the Dogras stayed in control of the ‘Gilgit Wazarat’, a local Gilgiti commander Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan overthrew the Kashmiri Dogra appointed Governor with the help of Major Brown, commandant of the Gilgit Scouts on 1st November, 1947. The news of the alleged accession of Kashmir to India had prompted this move, the entire local population was pro – Pakistan and had no wish to stay with Kashmir or be part of India. Some locals announced the Republic of Gilgit with Shah Saeed Khan as President, this arrangement only survived 16 days.
Finally, they approached Mohammad Ali Jinnah and requested his permission to join the Pakistan federation unconditionally, he accepted the offer and sent Sardar Alam Khan to manage the administration and the Frontier Crimes Regulation became the law for Gilgit ‘s various princely states. Ostensibly, since the founder and ruler of Pakistan had accepted the people of Gilgit Baltistan as Pakistani, the matter should have been closed.
Around this point in time, the Kashmir issue reached the boiling point and India took the matter to the United Nations, a plebiscite was ordained in a UN resolution. The Pakistani authorities felt that including Gilgit Baltistan with Azad Kashmir would swell up the numbers in the prospective plebiscite in favour of Pakistan as the Gilgitis had already thrown in their lot with Pakistan. This is how Gilgit Baltistan found itself back to the pavilion with Kashmir even after having joined the Pakistan federation, the plebiscite was delayed by India for decades as it did not feel brave enough to face a referendum in Kashmir.
Seventy years have passed and the situation in Kashmir is only worse, it is unfair to make Gilgit Baltistan wait for its constitutional status and make it dependent on the resolution of Kashmir. It wants to be declared a proper province and looks forward to having its representatives in Parliament, the government has been mulling over whether it should stay as a semi-autonomous region or be declared a full province. Azad Kashmir wants GB to stay as a part of it due to historical reasons, this endless debate has deepened the cracks between Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir.
The Pakistan government has tried to assimilate GB into the mainstream by making state employment available for its educated youth since a couple of decades, local entrepreneurs have also been facilitated and provided access to big investors, both locally and abroad. Recognising Gilgit – Baltistan as a province might be viewed as a major shift vis a vis Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, but the multi-billion dollar Chinese investment merits legal cover immediately for the greater long-term interests of this entire geopolitical region. A high level committee formed by PM Nawaz Sharif is said to be working on the proposal to mention Gilgit Baltistan formally in the Pakistan constitution and two of its representatives would sit in the National Assembly.
Pakistan China friendship rally.
Gilgit Baltistan will gain a lot from Chinese trade as well as tourism as it is home to some of the world’s highest mountain peaks, the addition of economic zones will enhance business opportunities. CPEC related projects will provide the local educated youth with employment and ultimately, a higher standard of living, the literacy rate in these regions is 95% which is extremely commendable. Right now, a massive fiber optic CPEC project is underway from Khunjerab to Rawalpindi at the cost of Rs. 4.4 billion, it would be completed in two years and provide an alternative telecommunication route between Pakistan and China. The Diamer-Bhasha dam is also being constructed in Gilgit-Baltistan, it would generate 4,500 MW of electricity and the energy shortfall would be covered. The China Pakistan Economic corridor would provide the option of exporting GB products by road, in fact, the region can become Pakistan’s ‘northern Gawadar.’
Every year, Gilgit-Baltistan observes two independence days, one is August 14th as part of Pakistan, the second is 1st November when it achieved freedom from the Kashmiri Dogra rulers. The demand of Gilgit Baltistan is to be recognised as Pakistan, not as India, this is something that the Indian government has to face sooner or later. The region should be made into a province at the earliest to put an end to the ill- founded controversy, for all intents and purposes it is a part of Pakistan so there is no plausible reason for it to remain in a constitutional limbo and made to wait for its due rights.
Writer hails from Karachi and is a Lawyer, Journalist writing on Geopolitics, Law-related topics and Pakistan-centric issues.