Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has been in the news recently due to the March 14 revelation of a Pakistani minister that the government was considering making it the fifth province of Pakistan. This was pursuant to the recommendations of a committee headed by the adviser on foreign affairs, Sartaj Aziz.
GB is one of the two parts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), the other being the so-called “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (“AJK”), both of which formed part of the territory of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). GB has an area of 72,000 sq km and comprises about 85 per cent of the total area of PoK. Despite its strategic location — providing land access to China, containing vast reservoirs of fresh water and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through it, GB does not form part of the territory of Pakistan.
The territory was handed over on a platter to the newly created state of Pakistan in November 1947 by the action of a British officer of the Gilgit Scouts. Despite being in the service of the Maharaja of Kashmir, he revolted and joined Pakistan. Instead of being court-martialled, he was rewarded by the British with an MBE in 1948, quite possibly because he was working on their instructions rather than those of the Maharaja. Posthumously, the Pakistan government also decorated him with the Sitara-e-Pakistan.
The proposition of making GB a fifth province is not new. It has been examined several times in the past. Each time, the conclusion has been that GB is part of J&K and any such move would seriously damage Pakistan’s Kashmir case. Additionally, Pakistan was also hedging its bets in case it needed the Muslim-majority population of the area to vote for it in a plebiscite. The impediments Pakistan faces in making GB its fifth province are many. Two UN resolutions of August 13, 1948 and January 5, 1949 clearly established a link between GB and the Kashmir issue. Pakistan was faced with two issues in the UN resolutions: First, the August 13 resolution mentioned that “pending a final solution, territory evacuated by the Pakistan troops will be administered by the ‘local authorities’.”
Second, GB was Shia-dominated and Pakistan was apprehensive of setting up a Shia state in its north. The Shia Political Conference had opposed Jinnah’s two-nation theory and saw few opportunities for themselves in an overwhelmingly Sunni Pakistan. Not surprisingly, Pakistan has been deliberately altering the ethnic and religious balance in the region.
To circumvent these issues, Pakistan arranged to have the Karachi Agreement of April 28, 1949, signed by Mushtaq Gurmani, Pakistan’s “minister without portfolio”, Sardar Ibrahim Khan, the president of “Azad Kashmir” and Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, head of the Muslim Conference. There was no representative from GB. With this agreement, the administration of GB was handed over to Pakistan by those who had no locus standi on the issue. The agreement was kept secret and its existence revealed for the first time in a judgment of the “AJK” High Court in 1993.
Making GB its fifth province would thus violate the Karachi Agreement — perhaps the only instrument that provides doubtful legal authority to Pakistan’s administration of GB — as well as the UN resolutions that would damage its position on the Kashmir issue.
Any such move would also be violative of the 1963 Pak-China Boundary Agreement that calls for the sovereign authority to reopen negotiations with China “after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India” and of the 1972 Simla Agreement that mentions that “neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation”.
Several court verdicts have averred that GB is a part of J&K. The most notable is the 1993 “AJK” High Court verdict. The order was set aside in 1994 by the “AJK” Supreme Court that held that GB was a part of J&K state as it existed until 1948.
Pakistan would also have to overcome the adverse reaction of Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC. While it can manage the reaction of people in “AJK”, its constituency in J&K would be seriously damaged. Hurriyat leaders have already made this known.
Given these serious impediments, why has Pakistan chosen to raise the issue?
The elephant in the room is, of course, China. With a $50 billion investment in the CPEC, China would hardly want the territory through which the route passes to have a dubious status. India has made its concerns over the CPEC clear to China at the highest levels since the area belongs to India.
Quite possibly, Pakistan has raised the controversy for one of two reasons. First, to tell the Chinese how difficult it is to make GB its fifth province and how this would compromise its long-standing position on the Kashmir issue. China is unlikely to buy into this argument, given that $50 billion is at stake.
The other possibility is that Pakistan wants to give the impression of freezing its territorial ambitions in J&K in order to concentrate on the CPEC and remove any misgivings that the Chinese may have on the status of GB. This, however, would be a feint to lull India into complacence. In effect, Pakistan would end up absorbing GB while continuing to finance and materially support the violence and unrest in Kashmir.
India’s statement opposing the move was timely. India has to ensure that it does not fall into a Pak-China trap to take GB off the table by making it the fifth province in the hope that Pakistan will curb its ambitions. It is unlikely that Pakistan will ever relent on the Kashmir issue.