NEW DELHI: Pakistan is all set to make the Gilgit-Baltistan region, a part of its illegally occupied portion of J&K, the fifth province of the country.
The move is well calculated, with political, economic and security aspects in mind, and designed to serve the interests of Islamabad as well as China, that has made huge investments in Pakistan. It will also have ramifications for the larger geo-political contours of the region.
The history & the legacy
It is to be noted, that the Imran Khan government has announced only a ‘provisional province’ status for Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). This is linked to the Kashmir question.
The region, as part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, was under the rule of Maharaja Hari Singh when he signed the Instrument of Accession with India in October, 1947. However Pakistan occupied parts of the state through covert warfare in 1947-48. The fronts solidified gradually along what has come to be known as the Line of Control.
Pakistan regularly cites the 1948 UN resolution for plebiscite to rake up the Kashmir issue on international fora. Incorporating GB as a regular, full-fledged state will indispose Islamabad of its locus standi vis-à-vis the plebiscite issue.
The administrative changes
Pakistan has administered PoK as two autonomous regions- Gilgit-Baltistan and “Azad Jammu and Kashmir.” GB was granted autonomy and a legislature only in 2009, and the first “elections” were held in 2015 the next in November 2020.
Once made a “provisional province,” GB will also have representation in Pakistan’s Parliament- a privilege it does not enjoy as an autonomous region.
Making GB a province will require an amendment to the Pakistan constitution. According to a report in the Dawn, the law ministry has already finalised the draft of the bill titled 26th Constitutional Amendment Bill and submitted to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Under the proposed amendments, the jurisdiction of Supreme Court of Pakistan may be extended to GB and the region’s Election Commission is likely to be merged with the Election Commission of Pakistan.
In the dragon’s shadow
GB is the only region under Pakistan rule that shares a land border with China. For Beijing, this is a benefit to leverage, and also a potential security concern.
The region borders China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, where anti-Beijing sentiments run high among the Uighur Muslim population. China has been accused of gross human rights violations and persecution of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang.
GB also shares a border with Afghanistan, a country with a fluid security scenario and home to several militant groups with arguable loyalties. The situation is even more volatile now, after US pulled out its troops.
Militant groups sympathetic to Uighur Muslims, setting up base or infiltrating into Xinjiang from GB (and Afghanistan), is a possibility Beijing will be wary of.
Then, there is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to worry about.
There are reasons to believe that Pakistan’s move to make GB a province has Beijing’s backing. A provincial status for GB helps China bypass any issue of investment in a disputed region, and also eases roadblocks to buying land for its projects.
Several big-ticket investments like dams and power stations, all part of the CPEC, are at various stages of completion in GB.
Locals allege, the projects are designed to benefit Chinese and Pakistani corporations, with scant regard for the region’s environment and the native population.
There are reports of huge influx of Chinese workers into GB, and of Pakistan favouring Chinese mining companies over local ones. There have also been allegations of forceful acquisition of land for CPEC projects, without proper rehabilitation for the displaced. These have further fuelled anti-China sentiments in the region.
The CPEC projects therefore face a two-pronged threat- from locals and armed militias keen to harm Chinese interests.
India to watch developments
By some reports, PLA soldiers have been stationed in GB in good numbers, on pretext of protecting Chinese projects.
This is something India will keep a close eye on, especially in the context of the military stand-off with China in eastern Ladakh.
New Delhi has termed the “elections” in GB, and the move to make it a province as Pakistan’s “cosmetic exercises intended to camouflage its illegal occupation” of the region.
India has also disapproved of the CPEC, as projects have been undertaken in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, a part of J&K.