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Posted at: Jan 19, 2016, 12:54 AM; last updated: Jan 18, 2016, 11:09 PM (IST)

Move on autonomy for Gilgit-Baltistan in India’s interest

China plans a major expansion of the Karakoram Highway, and Pakistan has proposed raising a new force to protect Chinese interests. This would be a concern for India.
Move on autonomy for Gilgit-Baltistan in India’s interest
The Karakoram Highway that provides China an overland link to Pakistan.

In 1963, under the Sino-Pakistan ‘boundary agreement’, Pakistan unilaterally and illegally ceded a sizeable chunk of Gilgit and Baltistan (5,180 sq km) to China, which had laid territorial claims in the area. This facilitated China to build the Karakoram Highway, providing overland link to Pakistan via the Kunjerab Pass, which raises security concerns for India. 

China has recently invested $28 billion in the much-touted Silk Route ‘one route, one belt’ project. And Pakistan has reportedly decided to raise a special security division, specially trained for counter-terrorism (against Muslim Uighurs finding safe sanctuaries) and security, to protect Chinese workers and interests in Pakistan. This lends credibility to the seriousness of the Chinese project. The impact of the proposed project on our defence would also have been considered by our defence planners in the light of India’s overall stance on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the Gilgit-Baltistan area.

In this federally administered territory, called the Northern Areas, 1.5 million people of varied ethnic groups live. They do not enjoy the same status as other citizens of Pakistan with regard to fundamental, legal, political or civil rights as guaranteed by their Constitution. The region is also off limit to foreigners and journalists, except with permits. The Northern Areas have thus been under complete martial law for over five decades, being governed by the Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR) framed during British rule. When the rest of Pakistan voted for a new civilian government in October 2002, the Northern Areas remained outside the political process, and even today functions under Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs. The Northern Areas Legislative Council is the only elected authority with powers to legislate on local subjects and impose taxes.

The Northern Areas remain one of the most neglected and poorest parts of Pakistan with virtually no development. Rampant illiteracy, frequent sectarian violence, demonstrations against unpopular anti-Shia programmes and inter-tribal rivalries act as severe deterrents. Being disowned by their own army after the Kargil intrusions, the locally recruited predominantly Shia Northern Light Infantry is still peeved about its second-rate status.

It is well known that China has invested in the past in infrastructure and hydropower projects in PoK and the Gilgit-Baltistan region. What is planned is a major expansion of the Karakoram Highway, establishment of industrial parks in special economic zones, construction of new hydropower projects, and the laying of railway lines and road building. A proposal to grant autonomy to the region has been doing the rounds recently. Both Pakistan and China have disregarded India’s objections to the alteration of the status of Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK, these being disputed territories.

At present, rather than being autonomous regions, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) in Pakistan are represented in the National Assembly and the Senate but remain under the direct executive authority of the President. Development, therefore, tends to lag, as is typical in states under President’s rule. However, here, a need exists for a separate force for the economic corridor’s security, when operating in the tribal areas of Pakistan which have been sanctuaries for terrorists.

Therefore, the grant of autonomy to Gilgit-Baltistan by Pakistan is guided more by economic compulsions than responses to India’s objections. Whatever be Pakistan’s motives, if this does take place, we should welcome it, being to India’s advantage in the long run, particularly in the settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

The writer is visiting Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies and the Indian Council for World Affairs.

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