Gilgit Baltistan & the Silence of Pro-Azadi Camp

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For representational purposes

Niloofar Qureshi

THREE years ago, when there was a talk that Islamabad was considering making Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) its fifth province, All Parties Hurriyat Conference vociferously condemned this move because of the extremely negative consequences it would have on the ‘self-determination’ movement.

In its joint statement of March 17, 2017, APHC made it clear to Islamabad that “Political destiny of Jammu and Kashmir is yet to be decided and any proposal to declare GB as the fifth province of Pakistan is unacceptable” and  “Any such move tantamount to changing the disputed nature of Kashmir.”  It also warned Islamabad that “… any deviation in its stance about Kashmir and its geographical entity is improper and will prove detrimental for Kashmir cause.” Besides the joint statement, senior APHC leaders also went on record to publicly express their personal concerns on this issue.

Jammu and Kashmir Democratic Freedom Party (JKDFP) president Shabbir Ahmed Shah disapproved of this move on the grounds that “it will have an adverse impact on the entire Kashmir dispute’, and because “This will also give India a chance to make a stronger claim for this side of Kashmir and also weaken our case at the UN.” He further maintained that “the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan will also have a significant implication on the demand for implementation of the United Nations resolutions which call for referendum in the state as it existed prior to the division in 1947.”

In his letter to the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) chairman Muhammad Yasin Malik mentioned that “If Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over GB, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it,” adding that “With one stroke, Pakistan will be helping India to consolidate its writ on Kashmir”. In his reply, Sharif told Malik that news of GB being made a province of Pakistan was due to “misperceptions and misinterpretation” and went on to say that “I would like to make it unambiguously clear that Pakistan is fully aware of the sensitivities attached to Gilgit Baltistan with regard to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”

Even UJC chief and Hizbul Mujahideen supremo Syed Salahuddin who prefers not to talk on political issues lashed out at Islamabad, pointing out that “Such a step would impact the Kashmir dispute at the United Nations and give India a legal and moral pretext to lay claim on Kashmir”.Noting that “Such an act on part of Pakistan will have serious ramifications on Kashmir issue as well as Kashmir centric UN resolutions (as) Pakistan’s move will give India justification in taking over parts of Kashmir”, the UJC chief suggested that “Instead of making Gilgit-Baltistan a province, the problems of the people there should be addressed on priority basis and corruption free administration should be given to people there.”

In his written reply to the JKLF chief, Sharif also reaffirmed Islamabad’s traditional stand on Kashmir by saying, “I would like to assure you that Pakistan will never compromise on its principled stance on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, which is based on the UN Security Council resolutions.” And the very fact that the GB integration proposal fizzled out proves that Islamabad realised that the views being expressed by APHC and UJC chief regarding the irreversible damage this decision would cause to the ‘self-determination’ movement were hard facts that couldn’t be overlooked.

This is why Islamabad’s recent decision to revive the GB merger doesn’t make any sense at all. When this issue was being discussed in 2017, former Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Kashmir and senior fellow at Center for Research and Policy Dr Siddiq Wahid had mentioned that making GB a province of Pakistan would only “further complicate the conflicted dispute,” which he had rightly pointed out “is already wracked by, among other things, legal ambiguities.”

Dr Wahid also raised two very important questions- one, “Can Islamabad act unilaterally over a region whose sovereignty is disputed?” And two, “If so, does this allow New Delhi to act unilaterally on issues concerning its half of the erstwhile ceasefire line that is now called the Line of Control?” He rightly summarised that “These questions, in effect, translate into creating yet another layer in the political debris of this complex conundrum.”

What’s surprising this time is that unlike 2017 when both the APHC and UJC leadership unanimously spoke up against the GB merger issue, the current announcement has evoked an unbelievingly poor response. This makes one wonder as to what has changed so much in the last three years that GB’s merger with Pakistan will not have an adverse impact on the self-determination movement? While Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Yasin Malik, Shabir Shah and other separatist leaders appear to have gone into hibernation, former APHC leader Syed Ali Geelani is the only voice that’s spoken out against this move.

Geelani sahib’s special representative Sayyid Abdullah Gilani has in a statement brought out three “disastrous consequences” of granting GB provincial province status; firstly, it represents “a major shift” in Pakistan’s Kashmir policy and secondly, by going ahead with this proposal, “Pakistan risks not only weakening its position and losing moral high ground but also demoralising Kashmiri people.”The third and most serious fallout is that “This unfortunate and unwise move is particularly more detrimental in the context of India’s 5 August 2019 aggression” as Islamabad will no longer be able to term this move “illegal.”

There’s a lot of weight in Gilani’s view that by granting provincial province status to GB, “Pakistan is handing India a baton to beat it with,” as “India would welcome this opportunity as a blessing in disguise and use it to justify its 5 August 2019 decision of revoking Kashmir’s special status and its merger.”As it is, Pakistan has already weakened its own stand that Kashmir is “disputed territory” ever since it ceded a portion of GB to China and this is why the UN and international community aren’t taking Islamabad’s repeated complaints calling New Delhi’s August 5, 2019 move “illegal” seriously.

The saddest part is that even though Islamabad knows that its decision to grant provincial province to GB would harm the movement for self-determination, it’s still going ahead with this proposal. Is it moving ahead just to please its “all weather friend” Beijing which doesn’t want its ambitious CPEC project run into legal hurdles on account of it running through “disputed territory”. Once GB becomes a province of Pakistan, Beijing has nothing to worry about and so its insistence that Islamabad goes ahead with this plan despite its negative fallout on the ‘K’ issue.

Thus, while Islamabad may keep talking about Kashmir being “disputed territory” and on its ‘right to self-determination’, but the reality is that the decision to make GB its province will legitimise New Delhi’s August 5, 2019 action in J&K and so this move will have far reaching consequences  for Kashmir’s  ‘self-determination’ movement. The silence of APHC leaders reflects complete absence of independent thinking.

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