IN a major development, all political parties have agreed to accord Gilgit-Baltistan the status of a province. According to this understanding, the parties have decided they will take this significant step after the elections in GB that are due shortly. The opposition had demanded that integrating GB into the federation should not be treated as a partisan issue and therefore should wait so electioneering does not impact the debate adversely. It will require a constitutional amendment which will pass smoothly once the parties have agreed on the exact parameters of this step. This has been a long-standing demand of the people of GB because they have been in a constitutional limbo for decades. This has led to deep grievances and political unrest that have continued to fester in the absence of any serious attempt by Islamabad to address them. In this sense, the decision to make GB a province is a welcome step. However, there are caveats. The final status of GB is connected to the ultimate resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The main reason that Pakistan had not integrated GB into the federation was to ensure that such a step should not impact the disputed status of Kashmir as per the resolutions of the United Nations. In August last year, the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi annexed India-held Kashmir by revoking its special status. There is concern that by integrating GB as a province, Pakistan may weaken its case in the way that India has. However, the problem may be addressed if Pakistan can say GB’s status as a province will be a provisional one and the final status will depend on the resolution of the Kashmir issue. It could keep our legal position on Kashmir intact while providing the people of GB the full constitutional status they have always deserved.

The political leadership should tackle this issue with maturity and adopt an approach that is non-partisan. There should be a full debate in parliament and all legal and international aspects of the matter should be discussed in detail. The final amendment should have a watertight text that is vetted by experts of international law keeping in mind the requirements of the UN resolutions on Kashmir. Once done, the amendment should enjoy unanimous support to announce to the world that Pakistan stands firmly behind this decision. This is a momentous step and should be accorded the attention it deserves.

Published in Dawn, September 23rd, 2020

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