FOR decades, the territories comprising Gilgit-Baltistan have remained under the administrative control of the Pakistan government. Its political destiny has been linked to the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. Pending a final settlement of the dispute, successive Pakistani governments have focused on granting maximum possible administrative autonomy to GB, whereas the people of GB have consistently expressed their desire to join Pakistan as a regular province.
Three developments in recent years kindled a ray of hope for the people of GB. First, the GB committee set up by prime minister Nawaz Sharif recommended in March 2017 that GB be accorded a status akin to a Pakistani province. The provincial status was to be provisional so that Pakistan’s principled position on the Kashmir dispute was not undermined.
Second, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in its judgement of January 2019, ordered conferral of constitutional status and rights to GB residents at par with other citizens of Pakistan.
Third, the government of prime minister Imran Khan announced in 2020 its decision to grant provisional provincial status to GB. The people of GB were excited at the prospect of finally fulfilling their aspirations of joining Pakistan as a province of the country. However, despite the best of intentions, the status quo could not be broken.
We shouldn’t adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to GB.
The Kashmir dispute is an unfinished agenda of the partition of British India. As per the provisions of the Independence Act, the Muslim majority state of Jammu and Kashmir should have been a part of Pakistan. However, India occupied the state pursuant to a controversial instrument of accession. Pakistan does not regard that accession to be legal and insists that the matter should have been referred to the people of Jammu and Kashmir to decide if they wished to join Pakistan or India.
The second legal basis for Pakistan’s stance is that under the UNSC resolutions, there should be a plebiscite administered under UN auspices to ascertain the wish of the Kashmiris. Regrettably, India has refused to accord the people of occupied Kashmir their inalienable right to self-determination provided for in the UNSC resolutions.
Meanwhile, the constitutional status of GB as a part of Pakistan has remained in limbo. The prospects of India implementing the UNSC resolutions are slim because it has leveraged its size, military muscle, and economic weight to resist pressures from the international community to grant Kashmiris the right to self-determine their destiny. The emboldened Indian leadership has gone a step further and embarked on demographic and electoral engineering to modify the very identity of Kashmir. Under these circumstances, it is worth pondering whether the status of GB should remain a victim of India’s intransigence and unwillingness to follow international law.
Those arguing for integrating GB with Pakistan contend that the suzerainty of the maharaja of Kashmir over the territories of GB was at best notional. Further, the people of these territories had never accepted Dogra rule, and in 1947, they wasted no time in pronouncing their verdict to join Pakistan. The then Gilgit Agency, for instance, formally acceded to Pakistan in November 1947, and the government of Pakistan even appointed a political agent to take over in Gilgit.
Yet, it can be argued that integrating GB could have implications for Pakistan’s legal position on the Kashmir dispute. So, it would be prudent to keep the integration of GB with Pakistan provisional and subject to a final settlement of the dispute. The moot point here is that the people of GB have been living practically as Pakistanis for seven decades and justifiably expect their rights as citizens of Pakistan formally recognised. Further, to avert any misunderstanding, Pakistan would need to assure the Kashmiri leadership on both sides of the LoC that granting full rights of citizenship to the people of GB is an interim measure and without prejudice to the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute.
What we cannot and should not do is to adopt a ‘wait and see approach’. In the evolving regional geopolitics, GB not only provides the vital geographical link to China but is also central to the implementation of CPEC. Formal integration of GB into Pakistan will not only give full constitutional protection to CPEC-related investments in GB but also attract other international investments to GB, especially in the hydropower sector. Lest we forget, there are forces at play to disrupt China’s link with Pakistan through GB. It is, therefore, a strategic imperative that GB be integrated with Pakistan as a provisional province without further delay and its people be recognised as citizens of Pakistan with full rights admissible under the Constitution of Pakistan.
The writer, a former foreign secretary, is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and the author of Diplomatic Footprints.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2022