Provincial status for Gilgit Baltistan

Pakistan’s proposed  move to grant provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan has got Kashmiri on both sides of Line of Control up in arms with Hurriyat leaders .leading the charge. Hurriyat G chairman Syed Ali Shah Geelani has termed the move unacceptable, even going to the point of stating that Islamabad lacked “constitutional and moral justification” to merge  Gilgit Baltistan. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said that making Gilgit-Baltistan fifth province of Pakistan will provide India an excuse to take over Ladakh. Both are part of one geo-graphical unit within the undivided J&K. JKLF chief wrote a letter to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif urging him not to alter the status of the J&K territory as it would tell upon the nature of Kashmir dispute.

“Apprehensions have been raised in various quarters that your government may reach a consensus to merge Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan. This will have implications on the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir,” Malik wrote to Sharif. “If Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over Gilgit Baltistan, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it”.

The move has also been opposed by the government of Pakistan Administered Kashmir. On January 13,  PaK Legislative Assembly unanimously passed two resolutions against the proposed action. One of the resolutions said that “making Gilgit-Baltistan a fifth province will weaken Pakistan’s national stand on Jammu and Kashmir at the international level”. Further, PaK resolution termed Gilgit-Baltistan a part of the J&K. “Whenever a plebiscite is conducted the people of G-B (Gilgit Baltistan) will also have the right to decide their future with the people of other parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir,” the resolution said.

New Delhi has not been too far behind. External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup  said the entire J&K including Gilgit Baltistan and and PaK were an integral part of India. “We are concerned at the continued efforts by Pakistan to deny the people of the region their political rights, and the efforts being made to absorb these territories,” he said.

Apparently persuaded by the need to facilitate the China Pakistan Economic Corridor by addressing the contentious status of Gilgit Baltistan, Islamabad  seeks to further upgrade the constitutional status of the region. A federally administered area since 1947,  Pakistan through the Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 had granted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating an elected Legislative Assembly and a Council.  The province thus acquired de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming a part of Pakistan. The region’s  1.5 million people were  able to elect their chief minister and the governor for the first time.

The new devolution package will allegedly make Gilgit-Baltistan the provisional constitutional province of Pakistan. Besides being named in the Constitution, the strategically important region will send two lawmakers to sit in the Pakistan Parliament.

But the fears expressed by the separatist groups in Kashmir as also by the PaK government are valid. If Gilgit Baltistan becomes a part of Pakistan, it will alter the nature of Kashmir issue as it is understood in Islamabad, India and Srinagar. It will also go against Pakistan’s own Kashmir narrative where it considers all parts of Kashmir disputed to be resolved through a UN supervised plebiscite. New Delhi, on the contrary, sees parts of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control as an integral part. Separatists largely back Pakistan stand while some of them champion an independent Kashmir free of the control of India and Pakistan. In this context, any move by Islamabad to unilaterally change the constitutional status of Gilgit Baltistan will further complicate the situation. Best course for Islamabad is to wait till the final settlement of Kashmir issue, something that the country also champions.

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