On November 1, observed every year in Gilgit-Baltistan as “Independence Day”, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his government would give the region “provisional provincial status”. When that happens, G-B will become the fifth province of Pakistan, although the region is claimed by India as part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir as it existed in 1947 at its accession to India.
Gilgit-Baltistan is the northernmost territory administered by Pakistan, providing the country’s only territorial frontier, and thus a land route, with China, where it meets the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor has made the region vital for both countries. In a recent analysis by Andrew Small (Returning to the Shadow: China, Pakistan and the Fate of CPEC), this ambitious project is seen to have been going slow for a combination of reasons. But given the strategic interests of both countries, CPEC will continue.
To G-B’s west is Afghanistan, to its south is Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and to the east J&K. The plan to grant G-B provincial status gathered speed over the last one year. While some commentary links it to CPEC and Chinese interest, others in Pakistan say the push might have well come from India’s reassertion of its claims after the August 5, 2019 reorgansiation of Jammu & Kashmir.
Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported in September that the government and the opposition had “almost reached a consensus” on granting ‘provisional provincial status’ to the region. The paper reported that the Pakistan Army is also interested, and that Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa discussed the matter with the political leadership.
Though Pakistan, like India, links G-B’s fate to that of Kashmir, its administrative arrangements are different from those in PoK. While PoK has its own Constitution that sets out its powers and their limits vis-à-vis Pakistan, G-B has been ruled mostly by executive fiat. Until 2009, the region was simply called Northern Areas.
It got its present name only with the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, which replaced the Northern Areas Legislative Council with the Legislative Assembly. The NALC was an elected body, but had no more than an advisory role to the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, who ruled from Islamabad. The Legislative Assembly is only a slight improvement. It has 24 directly elected members and nine nominated ones. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram
In 2018, the then PML(N) government passed an order centralising even the limited powers granted to the Assembly, a move linked to the need for greater control over land and other resources for the infrastructure projects then being planned under CPEC. The order was challenged, and in 2019, the Pakistan Supreme Court repealed it and asked the Imran Khan government to replace it with governance reforms. This was not done. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court extended it jurisdiction to G-B, and made arrangements for a caretaker government until the next Legislative Assembly elections.
The last polls were held in July 2015, and the Assembly’s five-term ended in July this year. Fresh elections could not be held because of the pandemic. It is not clear if the provincial status will come before or after the polls.
Pakistan’s separate arrangement with G-B go back to the circumstances under which it came to administer it7. On November 1 1947, after J&K ruler Hari Singh had signed the Instrument of Accession with India, and the Indian Army had landed in the Valley to drive out tribal invaders from Pakistan, there was a rebellion against Hari Singh in Gilgit.
A small force raised by the British to guard Gilgit, ostensibly on behalf of the Kashmir ruler but in fact to serve its administration of the Gilgit Agency, on the frontiers of what was then the Soviet-British Great Game territory, mutinied under the leadership of its commander, Major William Alexander Brown. Gilgit had been leased to the British by Hari Singh in 1935. The British returned it in August 1947. Hari Singh sent his representative, Brigadier Ghansar Singh, as Governor, and Brown to take charge of the Gilgit Scouts. But after taking protective custody of the Governor on November 1, Brown would raise the Pakistani flag at his headquarters. Later the Gilgit Scouts managed to bring Baltistan under their control.
Pakistan did not accept G-B’s accession although it took administrative control of the territory. After India went to the UN and a series of resolutions were passed in the Security Council on the situation in Kashmir, Pakistan believed that neither G-B nor PoK should be annexed to Pakistan, as this could undermine the international case for a plebiscite in Kashmir. It also reckons that in the event a plebiscite ever takes place in Kashmir, votes in G-B will be important too.
This is why it is only being called “provisional” provincial status.
While India has objected to the plan to make G-B a province of Pakistan and in the recent past asserted that it will take control of G-B, there is a realisation that it is impossible to change the map now. In this sense, it can argued that the merger of G-B with Pakistan is a move that could help both countries put the past behind and move forward on the Kashmir issue, sometime in the future.
The people of G-B have been demanding for years that it be made a part of Pakistan, they do not have the same constitutional rights Pakistanis have.
There is virtually no connect with India. Some have in the past demanded a merger with PoK, but the people of G-B have no real connect with Kashmir either. They belong to several non-Kashmiri ethnicities, and speak various languages, none of these Kashmiri.
A majority of the estimated 1.5 million G-B residents are Shias. There is anger against Pakistan for unleashing extremist sectarian militant groups that target Shias, and for dictating over the use of their natural resources, but the predominant sentiment is that all this will improve once they are part of the Pakistani federation. There is a small movement for independence, but it has very little traction.
Inputs from Adrija Roychowdhury in New Delhi