How the region’s complicated history is getting in the way of its peoples' long-standing aspiration to merge with Pakistan.

ISLAMABAD — As legislative elections in Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) are likely to be held in November, Islamabad has intensified its efforts to recognise the northern region as the country’s fifth province. 

China has also been pressing Islamabad to grant GB a constitutional status since the region happens to be the starting point of the ambitious China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a key component of the neighbouring country's flagship Belt and Road Initiative.

“China does not want to risk its investment in a disputed territory and has prompted Islamabad to fix the legal status of the GB,” said a senior foreign ministry official, who requested anonymity because of the government’s ban placed on communication with the media.

The common consensus in Pakistan is that GB residents have been wanting to merge with Pakistan for several decades, but the move has faced pushback from others: the Indian government, politicians from Pakistan-administered Kashmir and the leadership from its divided part administered by India across the Line of Control (LoC). 

While India sees GB as a region that is "illegally occupied" by Pakistan, some voices within Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir have invoked the larger Kashmir dispute as a main deterrent to Islamabad's move. 

The debate gained momentum last week, when Pakistani minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Ali Amin Gandapur, said that the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf-led federal government has decided to elevate Gilgit-Baltistan to a fully-fledged province with all constitutional rights, including representation in the upper and lower houses of the Pakistani parliament.

Elections for the region's legislative assembly were postponed earlier in August because of the coronavirus pandemic and opposition lawmakers speaking against the constitutional change. But according to Pakistan's leading newspaper Dawn, the government and opposition legislators of Gilgit-Baltistan are reportedly near a consensus on elevating it from being an autonomous region to a full-fledged province of Pakistan.  

After becoming Prime Minister in 2018, Imran Khan, in principle, approved changing the status of Gilgit-Baltistan by accepting the recommendations of a reforms committee that was formed by the previous Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government. 

Last year, the country’s top court also ordered the government to grant fundamental rights to residents of GB and ruled that the powers of this judiciary also extended to the region. The court decision was slammed by the Indian government, arguing that the region was a matter of dispute between the two countries. 

A territory without a status 

Pakistan’s sparsely populated GB borders China on one side and the predominantly Buddhist Indian region of Ladakh on the other. 

The area that today forms GB was a portion of the pre-partition princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. In 1935, the British had leased the area from the state's autocratic Maharaja, the ruler, for a period of 60 years.

On 1 August 1947, the last British Viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, prematurely terminated the lease, effectively returning the region to Maharaja Hari Singh, ruler of Jammu and Kashmir at the time of partition.

When the rulers of the princely states of India were given a choice to accede to either Pakistan or India, Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir signed a controversial Instrument of Accession with India on 26 October 1947. The predominantly Muslim population of the Gilgit region opposed the accession of their land to India by an oppressive Hindu Maharaja, and local paramilitary forces on 31 October 1947 initiated a revolt against them and liberated the area. 

On November 1 1947, local military and political leaders declared a new independent state centred in Gilgit. This independence was short-lived, however. The leaders of the rebellion and members of local ruling families realised that the region’s security, as well as their personal interest, would be better served with Pakistan - they acceded to Pakistan within two weeks.

In the beginning, Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known as Azad Jammu Kashmir, became a single territorial unit. The Karachi Agreement inked in 1949, between Pakistan and AJK’s state, gave administrative control of the then Northern Areas (renamed to GB in 2009 after Pakistan awarded limited autonomy to the region), giving it a distinct identity from AJK until a final decision was made about the accession of the former J&K state.

Now, there is clearly no mention of GB and AJK as official parts of the country according to the constitution. Yet, the two regions are entirely dependent on Islamabad for all their financial and development activities, as well as in matters of defence, economy, and foreign policy. 

Unlike AJK, which has a modicum of self-governance, Islamabad had governed Gilgit Baltistan directly through the “federal ministry of the Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas” until 1970. 

In 1970, the Northern Areas were separated from AJK, and since then, had passed through several reforms. Under the last bout of them in 2009, the term ‘Northern Areas’ was replaced with GB, and the local legislative assembly was empowered.

However, the question regarding whether this region is officially part of Pakistan, and whether its residents are legitimate Pakistani residents, remains unsolved.

Varied opinions about GB’s future

Political analysts believe there are various schools of thought regarding the future of the territory.

Abdul Jabbar Nasir, a political analyst from GB, said that a section of residents and political groups believe that GB’s integration with Pakistan will spoil Kashmir's genuine cause.

“Therefore they demand to upgrade the territory’s status with alternative options, such as give equal status to AJK and GB under the AJK government or shift further and give administrative and financial powers to GB from Islamabad-run ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan,” Nasir told TRT World. 

But many also believe that demand to make the region the country's fifth province has also strengthened in GB. 

In the recent past, the Gilgit-Baltistan’s Legislative Assembly has also adopted a unanimous resolution demanding the federal government to declare GB as a constitutional province of Pakistan.

The proponents of the merger with Pakistan argue that at the time of partition in 1947, the residents of the region had struggled against the regular Kashmir state army and, says Nasir, announced their accession to Pakistan.

Since then, however, the territory’s fortunes became knitted with Pakistan-administered Kashmir and its constitutional status has been kept in limbo due to ongoing tensions with India over India-administered Kashmir. 

The UN called for a referendum in 1949, asking both India and Pakistan to allow the people of divided Kashmir to choose their final destiny - whether to merge with either of the two countries. The referendum was never held, leaving the entire region, including Gilgit-Baltistan, in the lurch. 

“Our elders have liberated the region from Dogra rulers in 1947 and joined Pakistan without any condition in 1948,” said Shabbir Hussain, a student leader from Hunza and a proponent of the merger. “In GB, no one is ready to accept India's claim over the region.”

"After granting the status of a fully-fledged province, GB’s provincial government will gain all of its powers, similar to the country’s other four provinces, and people can send their representatives to Pakistan parliament,” Hussain told TRT World. 

Also, a small number of pro-independence groups, such as the  Balawaristan National Front (BNF), demand a separate and sovereign state and also argue that GB has no historical links with Kashmir and has remained an independent state three times. 

The BNF has two factions and one of them led by a nationalist leader named Abdul Hameed Khan was banned by the Pakistani government. The other faction led by Nawaz Khan Naji participated in elections and has representation in GB's legislative assembly. Even Khan-led BNF came around eventually. In early September this year, Khan announced abandoning his movement, seeking apology from Pakistan. He also accused India's intelligence agency RAW of funding him to sow chaos in Gilgit-Baltistan. 

Kashmir conflict  

In a public gathering last week, the Prime Minister of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Raja Farooq Haider, said that any attempt to merge Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan will deal a fatal blow to Kashmir's cause in light of the UN resolutions envisaging the right to self-determination for the people of the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. 

“Giving provincial status to GB will serve the interests of the enemies of Jammu and Kashmir and will therefore be counterproductive,” he said. 

Even powerful pro-independence leaders from the Kashmir valley, including Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, and Muhammad Yasin Malik, cautioned Islamabad in a joint statement in 2017, saying that “any proposal to declare GB as the fifth province of Pakistan is unacceptable as it is tantamount to changing the disputed nature of Kashmir.”

To hold an internationally monitored plebiscite and oversee developments in the Jammu and Kashmir territory, the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) has been deployed on both sides of the disputed region. The UNMOGIP came into existence in March 1951 through a resolution of the UN Security Council, to supervise the ceasefire in the Kashmir territory.

A section of Pakistani analysts also believe that the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan gained momentum after India unilaterally revoked nominal autonomy of India-administered Kashmir in August last year, which preserved the demographic balance of the region between 1947 and 2019. 

Soon after India's controversial move, the political groups of GB began clamouring for the region to become the country's fifth province.

“After India violated the United Nations resolution on Kashmir dispute, it is high time for Pakistan to decide the constitutional status of GB,” said Hussain. “So that the region would have the right to demand financial resources as a matter of right, similar to the other four provinces." 

Source: TRT World