Great Game, Provincial Status to Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kashmir Issue    

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As China Pakistan Economic Corridor shapes the new geo-politics in South Asia, and Pakistan mulls grant of provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, Kashmir is acquiring a geo-political interest over and above the long running conflict over the state between India and Pakistan. Hurriyat and Hizbul Mujahideen have taken a serious exception to Islamabad’s proposed move to make Gilgit-Baltistan its 5th province, terming it “unacceptable”, a response that has interestingly brought them on the same page with New Delhi.   
 

But the statements from both the parties are underpinned by a diametrically opposite political position on Kashmir. Pro-freedom leadership is alarmed that a provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan will impact Kashmir’s “disputed status” and encourage New Delhi to change political status of its part of the state. And New Delhi objects to such a status as it considers Gilgit-Baltistan a part of its territory as per the instrument of accession signed with the country by Maharaja Hari Singh who controlled the entire state. 

 
The New Delhi and Hurriyat reactions have followed in the wake of the Pakistan minister for inter-provincial coordination Riaz Hussain Pirzada telling Geo TV that a committee headed by Advisor of Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had proposed giving the status of a province to Gilgit-Baltistan.
 

 
The urgent need to make Gilgit-Baltistan a province has arisen from the requirement to provide legal cover to the Chinese investment in a region which is the entry point for the USD 54 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As of now the unsettled political status of the province which was once a part of the undivided J&K is complicating the work on the mega project.
 

What Pakistan seeks to do is to further upgrade the Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 which granted “self-rule” to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council.  The province thus acquired de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. This enabled nearly 1.5 million people to elect their chief minister and governor for the first time. The region’s first ever elections were held in 2009 and the Pakistan People’s Party was voted to power. After the completion of five year tenure, elections were again held in June 2015, which saw the PML-N secure a comfortable majority. However, real power has continued to be vested in the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas which has traditionally administered the area. This has only reinforced the public disaffection in the region.
 

But as Hurriyat and New Delhi reactions underline, Pakistan is caught in a difficult situation. It can’t ignore prodding from China to formalise the legal status of Gilgit-Baltistan and at the same time, it can’t also allow this change to dilute the contested status of J&K.  However, things are unlikely to remain static. The very nature of CPEC, a mega-infrastructure project, entails a profound geo-strategic shift. And this shift sooner or later will leave little option for India and Pakistan but to get together to sort out the festering irritant Kashmir once and for all. 
 

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