Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan game plan: Playing out the Chinese script

September 26, 2020 7:07 PM

Besides facilitating the connectivity through the implementation of road projects in CPEC, the change of political status as territory of Pakistan will help in setting up of Moqpondass Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Most importantly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the main underlying reason for Pakistan’s attempts to bring about political changes to the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.Most importantly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the main underlying reason for Pakistan’s attempts to bring about political changes to the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.

BRIG N K BHATIA

Pakistani minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Ali Amin Gandapur, reignited the contentious issue of grant of provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan by stating in mid-September that the region would be elevated as the fifth province of Pakistan with all constitutional rights, including representation in the upper and lower houses of the Pakistani parliament.

Alongside the above statement he also made a significant statement on commencement of work on Moqpondass Special Economic Zone under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan had earlier decided to hold elections in Gilgit-Baltistan consequent to directions of Pakistan Supreme Court order, which had been protested to by India through issue of a ‘demarche’ in early May 2020 as India has always considered complete Jammu and Kashmir including Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir as an integral part of India.

Also Read| India ratcheting up claims over PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan not without basis

The Gilgit-Baltistan region, earlier known as Northern Areas has been governed by “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009”, that established an electoral framework. Elections have been held in the region under the Order that provides for only limited autonomy.

The sudden announcement of the inclusion of Gilgit-Baltistan as the fifth province of Pakistan and underlying reasons for the same are much wider and its implications are bound to set the tone for exacerbating tensions, that are already being played out in the east along the LAC on Indo China border.

Gilgit-Baltistan has a large landmass and covers an area of 72,496 km2 (27,99 miles). It has a population of 1.9 million. Its geographical location provides it with a strategic advantage, being at the confluence of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and India. The Area has been under illegal occupation of Pakistan along with a part of Kashmir that lies to its South. But the most important geographical aspect of the region is the Shaksgam tract, a small region along the northeastern border of Gilgit–Baltistan that has been provisionally ceded by Pakistan to the People’s Republic of China in 1963 and now forms part of China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The people of the region have been protesting against the denial of fundamental rights and policies of successive Pakistani governments. They see an onslaught of Pakistani cultural practices, erosion of their cultural values and loss of their land due to Pakistan’s plans to build five mega-dams with Chinese assistance, in the hydrographically rich area, which the locals assert is in violation of the resolutions adopted by the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP).

The holding of elections in Gilgit-Baltistan is also being protested by the locals as it would pave the way for mainstream political parties of Pakistan to foray into the region at cost of indigenous political groups now operating under the umbrella of Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance (GBDA) which represents fringe groups such as the Balawaristan National Front, Karakoram National Movement, Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, the Bolor Research Forum and the GilgitBaltistanLaddakh Democratic Movement.

Most importantly, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is the main underlying reason for Pakistan’s attempts to bring about political changes to the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.

As is well known the China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) comprising the Pakistan Economic Corridor cuts through Gilgit-Baltistan. China has been wary of political instability in the region where locals have opposed its implementation due to their land being acquired and the onslaught of Chinese nationals and their culture in their pristine paradise. Another major issue has been the introduction of Mandarin in the local schools at cost of indigenous languages leading to unrest. Indian protests to the implementation of CEPC through the disputed territory which it claims as its own is another underlying reason for Pakistan to undertake political recalibration of Gilgit-Baltistan; to amalgamate it within itself by extending to it the status of a fifth Pakistani province.

Besides facilitating the connectivity through the implementation of road projects in CPEC, the change of political status as territory of Pakistan will help in setting up of Moqpondass Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The SEZ is proposed to spread over 250 acres and planned for trade-in marble/granite, fruit, mineral and leather processing. It is located on SakarduGilgit highway, 35 km from Gilgit and 160 km from Skardu airports. The Sust dry port is 200 km.

The statement of Pakistan’s Minister on commencement of work on SEZ in GilgitBaltistanalongwith changing the constitutional status of the region thus meshes with the overall change of narrative being undertaken in the region.

However, there are bigger challenges that would emerge once the planned changes in the political amalgamation of Gilgit-Baltistan is undertaken. The people of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, an area almost one-sixth in comparison to Gilgit-Baltistan but with a population of 4 million, twice that of Gilgit-Baltistan, and a with a greater say both politically and vocally are likely to protest for grant of a similar political status, leading to more problems for Pakistan.

According to the Pakistani constitution, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir lack legal sanctity for being part of Pakistan although Pakistan has exercised control over the region since 1947. Under what constitutional provision it subsumes GilgitBaltistan into itself would be another interesting aspect of the creation of its fifth province. This has also led to protests from local leaders of the two regions who consider it as an attack on their identity.

The growing chemistry between Pakistan and China and their end game to change the geostrategic landscape by effecting changes in the geographical and political landscape for furthering Chinese expansionist designs is a direct threat to India and the region.

Having usurped Tibet and culturally annihilated Xinjiang, it may next be the turn of Gilgit-Baltistan to face Chinese decimation with help of its ‘Iron Brother’ Pakistan.

For India the development poses a formidable challenge to its long-standing claim to the whole of Kashmir. How it tackles the developments besides diplomatic responses will be keenly watched.

(The author is an Indian Army Veteran. Views expressed are personal.)

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