Politics over geography of Gilgit-Baltistan

A fresh war of words between India and Pak has begun over the Pakistani Prime Minister’s promise of providing Gilgit-Baltistan a “provisional provincial status.”

While everybody’s news feeds are buzzing with Trump or Biden debate, the Pakistani Prime Minister here in South Asia has promised his countrymen that Gilgit-Baltistan will provisionally become Pakistan’s fifth province. India on the other hand showcased its obvious reaction and criticised the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Imran Khan on November 1, vowed to his people that his government would provide Gilgit-Baltistan its “provisional provincial status.”

It is true to say that Pakistan since shortly after the country’s birth in 1947, has administered the northern area known as Gilgit-Baltistan. But, according to India, the mountainous territory bordering China and Afghanistan is an integral part of India’s Kashmir. India claims the region as part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir as it existed in 1947 at the time of its accession to India.

“We have decided to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, which was a long-standing demand here,” Khan said in a speech in Gilgit city on November 1, which is observed as “Independence Day” in G-B.

Gilgit-Baltistan is the northernmost region administered by Pakistan and shares its west border with Afghanistan. To its south is Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and to the east, the region shares its borders with Jammu and Kashmir. While the region holds strategic geopolitical importance, it is the only land route that connects Pakistan with China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region, and therefore G-B becomes highly important to Pakistan.

With the arrival of China Pakistan Economic Corridor, the region not only becomes important to China but for Pakistan also in a way can afford to lose the area as it holds a vital location that can be helpful for the country in near future. This quite explains the strategic interests of Pakistan and the reason why more often our neighbour releases controversial statements about the disputed land territory and its possession over it.

Why provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan?

Amid the economic crisis of Pakistan, the Imran Khan government is trying to shift the attention of its people towards a long-standing issue of Gilgit-Baltistan and its ownership. This provincial status for G-B is being considered as Pakistan’s new attempt to camouflage its illegal occupations in the region.

To understand the issue, let’s have a look into history. It was on November 1, 1947, after Jammu and Kashmir ruler Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession with India. After the agreement was signed, the Indian Army landed in the Valley to drive out the presence of tribal invaders there who belongs to Pakistan. Also, it is important to note that during all this, there was a rebellion going on against Hari Singh in the Gilgit region.

Earlier, Gilgit had been leased to the Britishers by the Maharaja of Kashmir in 1935, but the British returned the region in August 1947. Pakistan never since 1947 accepted G-B’s accession, however, it took administrative control of the territory. 

There was a time when India went to the United Nations (UN) and a series of resolutions were passed in the Security Council on the situation in Kashmir. Pakistan believed that neither G-B nor Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) should be annexed to Pakistan, as this could weaken the international case for a plebiscite in Kashmir. It also reckons that if a plebiscite ever takes place in Kashmir, the votes of the people of G-B will also be important.

And, this is the reason behind Pakistan wanting to provide a “provisional provincial status” to Gilgit-Baltistan.

Has Pakistan absorbed the revocation of Article 370?

Let’s start with a Pakistani argument that says: If India can rip the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two and bring it under the direct control of Delhi, why can Pakistan announce Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory?

Since August 2019, when the Indian government decided to revoke Article 370 that provided J&K with special status and Carved the state into two centrally administered Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the Imran Khan government of Pakistan has been very defensive of the move.

This recent announcement by Pakistan’s government is pointing towards the idea that Pakistan somewhere has started believing in the fact that Delhi holds direct control over Jammu and Kashmir region and it is now not possible for them to claim the region as their territory.

Pakistani government through this move of declaring G-B as their fifth province is being considered as retaliation over the new land laws changed by the Indian government last week in J&K that allows non-residents to buy land in the union territory, something that was previously prohibited under Article 35A of the Indian constitution, which was scrapped last August along with Article 370. 

China’s significant stakes in the future of G-B:

China also has significant stakes in the future of Gilgit-Baltistan, in the form of infrastructure investments through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. G-B really holds a critical position in China and Xi Jinping’s plan of development.

Pakistan’s Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea will be linked to Kashgar in Xinjiang through a set of interlocking infrastructure projects that goes through Gilgit-Baltistan, making it a vital strategic location for China’s development and Pakistan’s survival.

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