It is probably not going to be a happy new year for Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). That region, however, may well hold the key to the future in 2021 for Pakistan internally, for India-Pakistan relations, and certainly, for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that passes through it.
At present, neither part of Pakistan nor separate from it, given the iron grip of the military, its status as the last truly colonial set-up seems about to it change, as Pakistan readies itself to give the area a full provincial status, thus doing the very changing of borders that it accuses India of. There’s also more to come that threatens to overturn the fragile area into a legal minefield.
Recent reports indicate that Prime Minister Imran Khan has constituted a 12-member committee to make recommendations for turning GB into a province with federal secretaries of defence, foreign affairs, finance and others, including the Attorney-General, as part of it. The committee is chaired by Minister of Kashmir Affairs Amin Ali Gandapur, a rather colourful politician who once threatened a missile attack against any country that supports India. It is his task to allot Pakistan territory that at present lies wholly outside its constitutional ambit.
In simple words, turning Gilgit Baltistan into a province will require a constitutional amendment, which means agreement in two-thirds of both Houses in Parliament. The ruling party at present has a slender majority. The committee is to consider the issue through the lens of the UN Resolutions on Kashmir as well as a strange Supreme Court order that extended its jurisdiction to a territory that is not part of Pakistan. It’s all inextricably complicated.
Many wonder why Pakistan is considering this legally challenging task when it already has GB by the throat. Under the guise of giving it more powers, Islamabad had passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 which effectively reversed some marginal freedoms granted earlier by removing an entire tier of government and remanding the powers to the Prime Minister. This created protests across party lines, with this being called an ‘Emperor’s Ordinance’ and subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court.
The court on January 17 opined that the Pakistan government could not change the status of the area, harking back to the ‘principled position’ of the government on the Kashmir dispute. In another twist, the court then allowed Islamabad to hold General Elections in GB anyway, which led India to issue a demarche to a senior diplomat in Delhi, stating that GB was, in fact, a part of the Indian territory. It’s all a little like spaghetti, with a great many entangled strands. And in the middle of it all are the unfortunate people of GB.
Now it seems that the Centre has decided to move the Frontier Corps, Pakistan’s primary paramilitary force, to Gilgit-Baltistan to ‘protect the forests’. The Prime Minister is reportedly personally monitoring this move apparently against the timber mafia operating for decades in the area. Who is going to pay for this deployment is unclear, though it would seem that GB would have to dip into its pocket since the administration, which is remote-controlled from Islamabad, ‘sought help’ for the problem.
Social media is accusing Islamabad of turning the state into a garrison. That suspicion is not without basis. After all, this is a government which has decided to build a wall around Gwadar that will check its own population from going in. If it can do this on legitimate Pakistan territory, it can do almost anything else in its colony.
The reason for this hurrying is not hard to fathom. First, the announcement of making GB into a province happened just before elections. As veteran diplomat Sartaj Aziz observed recently, realisation dawned that the move would be a win-win for the ruling party. Expectedly, they turned to the Army Chief, who together with the ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, had the now famous secret meeting with major party leaders and persuaded them to come on board. Apparently, the leaders naively agreed, with the caveat — clearly an army idea — that the actual legislation should be after the elections.
Unsurprisingly, the PTI won the elections, which in any case shows little. As local reports indicate, despite the noisy electoral exercises, the people remain voiceless and powerless. Despite the mighty Indus flowing through their territory, electricity is a scarce commodity, as is the Internet.
There is a second and more important reason for all this activity. The all-important CPEC enters Pakistan in GB, and any serious trouble in this highly strategic area will hit the whole $60-billion CPEC. In addition, is the geographic importance of the area. There are plans to build connectivity to Tajikistan, while recently Pakistan announced the seeking of a loan of $4.8 billion for international financial institutions for setting up a railway track through Afghanistan to the Central Asian connectivity node in Uzbekistan.
This follows hard on the heels of India also courting Uzbekistan for connectivity through Chabahar. With Russia also apparently on board on this exercise, its academics have been roped in to sell Pakistan as a pivot to being the ‘Zipper of Eurasia’, a rather curious term, considering how quickly Pakistan tends to unravel. For CPEC to succeed, however, GB has to have a modicum of legal stability. No project that wants its bank guarantees will take off unless GB’s archaic laws are changed to match the mainland, that it is not yet a part of.
For CPEC to succeed, GB has to be a full-fledged province of Pakistan, subject to the same laws, and with at least three seats in each House of Parliament to reflect its three divisions of Gilgit, Diamer and Baltistan. Yet, if it does so, then Pakistan virtually ends the Kashmir dispute, by which it claims the whole of Kashmir as one entity that — according to its ‘principled position’ — should decide its own future. The probability is that GB will be given only a ‘provisional’ constitutional status, but that’s legally questionable. Will the votes of the three members be ‘provisional’?
Meanwhile, India is likely to be kept busy as Pakistan makes its way through this maze of legality to gulp up territory it never had or legally claimed in the first place. In comparison, the setting aside of Article 370 is a mere constitutional whisper.
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