After a humiliating set back in Doklam to disrupt One Belt One Road (OBOR), India has shifted its focus on impeding China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) by fermenting unrest in Gilgit-Baltistan(GB). Importance of GB territory shot up in 1984 with the opening of the Karakoram Highway and this region’s population came to be more connected with mainland Pakistan. With the improvement in connectivity, local population availed opportunities of getting educated in the rest of Pakistan. Improved connectivity also allowed broader socio-political development. Political parties of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir were able to setup local branches, and raise political awareness in the region. Root-taking by these political entities have played a laudable role in organizing a movement for democratic rights among the residents of GB.
In 2016, first trade convoy under the CPEC banner moved from Kashgar to Gwadar. The trade convoy departed from Kashgar on October 29, and reached Gwadar on November 12. The CPEC is helping in integrating South Asia with Central Asia and offers ample opportunities for the people in these regions and the investors from all over the world. The prosperity of the people of Pakistan in general and wellbeing of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir runs counter to the Indian strategy of keeping Indian occupied Kashmir (IoK) subjugated and underprivileged. Indian government is bent upon revocation of Article 370 of the Union Constitution, that grants minimum of rights to the people of Indian occupied Jammu and Kashmir.
To disrupt the process of wellbeing of people of GB, India is trying to create fissures by triggering local ethno-sectarian mosaic. India is trying her level best to exploit GB to sabotage CPEC. Pakistani media’s negligence and avoidance to underline genuine issues of GB has resulted in RAW’s enhanced subversive attempts against the region by twisting the routine political events negatively.
GB has an interesting history. After the defeat of the Sikhs in the first Anglo-Sikh War, the region became a part of the princely state Jammu and Kashmir. The region remained with the princely state, with temporary leases of some areas to the British, until November 01, 1947. After Pakistan’s independence, Gilgit’s population did not favour the State’s accession to India. The Muslims of the Frontier Districts Province (modern day Gilgit-Baltistan) had wanted to join Pakistan. Sensing their discontent, Major William Brown, the Maharaja’s commander of the Gilgit Scouts, began and led the war of independence, overthrowing the Governor Ghansara Singh. The bloodless coup d’état was also joined by a pro-Pakistan section of the Jammu and Kashmir 6th Infantry. According to various scholars, the people of Gilgit as well as those of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, Yasin, Punial, Hunza and Nagar joined Pakistan by choice.
In 1970, the two parts of the territory, viz., the Gilgit Agency and Baltistan, were merged into a single administrative unit, and given the name “Northern Areas”. While the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan expressed a desire to join Pakistan after gaining independence from Maharaja Hari Singh, Pakistan declined to merge the region into itself because of the territory’s link to Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, Gilgit-Baltistan was governed through the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA). However, under this arrangement, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan remained deprived of rights enjoyed by citizens of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir. Primary reason for this state of affairs was the remoteness of Gilgit-Baltistan. To address this issue, in 1994, a Legal Framework Order (LFO) was created by the KANA Ministry to serve as the de facto constitution for the region.
In the late 1990s, the President of Al-Jihad Trust filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Pakistan to determine the legal status of Gilgit-Baltistan region. In its judgement of 28 May 1999, the Court directed the Government of Pakistan to ensure the provision of equal rights to the people of GB, and gave it six months to do so. Following the Supreme Court decision, the government took several steps to devolve power to the local level. A position of ‘Deputy Chief Executive’ was created to act as the local administrator, but the real powers still rested with the ‘Chief Executive’, who was the Federal Minister of KANA. A compromise solution was attempted through 2009 reforms between Pakistan’s traditional stand on the Kashmir dispute and the demands of locals, most of whom have pro-Pakistan sentiments. On August 29, 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, was passed. The order granted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected GB Legislative Assembly and a Council. GB thus gained a de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. While the 2009 reforms have added to the self-identification of the region, they have not resolved the constitutional status of the region within Pakistan.
The people of GB want to be merged into Pakistan as a separate fifth province, however, leaders of Azad Kashmir are opposed to any step to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan. The people of GB oppose any integration with Kashmir and instead want Pakistani citizenship and constitutional status for their region. Currently Gilgit-Baltistan is neither a province nor a state. Gilgit-Baltistan is governed by a Governor and a Chief minister, it has a semi-provincial status. Pakistan government has rejected calls for integration of GB with Pakistan on the grounds that it would jeopardies its demands for the whole Kashmir issue to be resolved according to UN resolutions. Pakistan regards the entire area of Jammu and Kashmir as “territory in dispute” to be resolved by a UN supervised plebiscite to determine the area’s final accession to either India or merger with Pakistan.
While Pakistan has taken a series of steps for upbringing the GB region, a raging debate over autonomy for IoK is in progress in India. The BJP’s state unit has commented that revocation of Article 370, which grants special status to the IoK, is the only viable solution to the problem. “Removal of Article 370 and bringing Jammu and Kashmir on par with other states is the only viable solution to the issue,” BJP state spokesperson Professor Virender Gupta said. “This would be a befitting reply to separatists and Pakistan…”, Gupta said.
Interestingly, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram’s recent remark that “when the people of Jammu and Kashmir ask for “azadi”, most of them mean greater autonomy” had invited sharp criticism from the BJP. “It speaks of the mindset of the Congress from the very beginning,” Gupta said, he claimed that “it provided fuel to separatists who have waged a war against India at the behest of Pakistan and are threatening the unity and integrity of the country.”
For the last few months, palpable anger has been precipitating in IoK that defines a new phase of insecurity that has gripped people’s minds. Now the freedom fighters are fighting to protect Article 370 and resisting the moves that are aimed at changing the demography of Jammu and Kashmir. The perceived threat to change the political and social status has loomed large all through the period of nearly seven decades. The letdown, observed with contempt, has led to an acute disillusionment. India adopted double standards in treating Kashmir and Tamil Nadu as sub-national identities.
Rather than making efforts to have political engagement in Kashmir and truly follow the oft repeated assertion of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to emulate Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s doctrine based on “Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat”, all those forces who are promoted and patronized by New Delhi are adding fuel to the fire. Pakistan has set an example by following a principled approach towards managing its GB region politically, India could learn a lot from this model.