Gilgit Games

Perhaps for the first time after partition, Kashmir dispute is emerging as a major issue for Pakistan. Beijing is seeking guarantees for making substantial investments in an area that is disputed, a position Delhi is supportive of. Is the new situation paving way for an ‘out of box’ thinking for India, Pakistan and China on Kashmir, asks Sara Wani

Chinese working on the Karokaran Highway in Gilgit Baltisatn

(Chinese working on the Karokaran Highway in Gilgit Baltisatn)

Shrill objections from either side of the LoC occupied a considerable media space over Islamabad’s loud-thinking on elevating Gilgit- Baltistan (GB) constitutional status. Kashmir separatists apart, the Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) assembly passed a resolution condemning the reports of altering the status quo as GB is “an integral part of the disputed land”. Lawmakers later came out in protest.

“GB is part and parcel of the state of J&K. Any attempt to merge it into Pakistan will deal a fatal blow to our stance in the light of the UN resolutions envisaging the right to self-determination for the Kashmiris,” PaK’s Rehabilitation Minister Abdul Majid Khan was quoted saying. “Making it the fifth province of Pakistan will dent the Kashmir cause and would serve the interests of J&K’s enemies”.

The “good news” about GB ‘elevation’, interestingly, came from Gilgit, the GB capital, and not Islamabad. “A high level committee formed by the Prime Minister is working on the issue,” GB Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehman’s spokesman Sajjadul Haq revealed to global news-gatherer AFP. “The document could be unveiled in a few days.” Apart from being named in Pakistan Constitution, the plan envisages sending two GB lawmakers to Pakistan Parliament as “observers”.

Islamabad’s reported move, GB officials indicated is in response to Beijing’s concerns about China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). An ambitious US $ 46 billion infrastructure project, CPEC links Chinese Kashgar with Gwadar port. Delhi had termed the project “unacceptable” because the corridor crosses GB, which is part of disputed territory of Kashmir. Now Beijing says it cannot invest hugely in a project “that passes through a disputed territory.”

Pakistan has historically claimed to have retained parts of disputed Kashmir (GB and PaK) as semi-autonomous regions without integrating them into the mainland. If, in wake of Chinese concerns, Pakistan alters its historic position, it will be the first major shift spelling a definite change in wider Kashmir region.

Anticipated to be a game-changer, CPEC is extension of 1300 km Kashgar-Abbotabad Karakorum Highway (KKH) that is operational since 1986. The highway is the only all-weather road linking GB with Pakistan. The project is a natural sequel to Sino-Pak Border Agreement of 1963 under which more than 5180 sq miles on trans-Karakorum track was ceded to China.

China is investing heavily in the region. Apart from six mega power projects in GB, there are various communication and water projects in other provinces. Investments are coming as Joint Ventures between Chinese and Pakistani companies. Of late, Pakistan has raised a 10,000-member special security force to protect Chinese workers and interests in Pakistan. For the first time now, the project is being seen through the prism of Kashmir dispute.

Even Delhi has formally advised Islamabad against changing GBs status quo. India’s unease is understandable. Firstly, for the last few years, it is infusing massive resources in creating road communication all along the Sino-India border, including the LoAC, to match the infrastructure on the other side of the divide. Secondly, Delhi worked for two years to manage better cooperation with the Red Army that would otherwise get into Changthang belt, almost on daily basis. Now it is seeing a massive PLA presence on the rest of Tibetan plateau that it shares with China and Pakistan. With regional giant making massive investment to get a foothold in Arabian Sea, not far away from Mumbai and Chennai, Delhi seems perturbed.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief with Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehman.

(Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief with Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehman.)

GB was annexed to Kashmir state by Dogras in 1860. They later raised Gilgit Scouts and arranging supplies for this army was a perennial crisis for Kashmir. As India and Pakistan were born, Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan led a successful rebellion and freed GB from Hari Singh. Shah Raees Khan became president of the Islamic Republic of Gilgit with Khan as Chief of its army, the Gilgit Scouts.

Barely 16 days after, Gilgit approached Jinnah seeking permission to join Pakistan without pre-conditions. Accepting the offer, Pakistan revived Gilgit Agency, appointed Sardar Alam Khan as political agent and implemented Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) as rule of law. Gilgit failed to merge with Pakistan.

As Delhi took Kashmir to UN, Islamabad exhibited caution in Gilgit. In case of plebiscite, as the 1948-53 era suggested, Islamabad hoped the GB vote would help it wrest Kashmir. Already, Islamabad and PaK had inked the Karachi Agreement on April 28, 1949 envisaging a separate ministry in Islamabad for ‘Northern Areas’. Interestingly, Gilgit was unrepresented on the table.

In 1970, Gilgit Agency, Baltistan, and former princely states of Hunza and Nagar became a single administrative unit.

In 1972, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto abolished all princely states. An 18-member Northern Areas Advisory Council was elected and headed by a commissioner to govern the belt.

Zia-ul-Haq sent two members from Northern Areas to his Majlis-i-Shoora as observers.

In 1988, Benazir Bhutto set up Northern Areas Council. In her subsequent term, she introduced the Legal Framework Order (LFO)-1994, upgrading the Council into Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC). Authorized to manage 49 subjects of local governance, the NALC leader became deputy chief executive with Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas serving as Boss.

In 1999, Pervez Musharraf amended LFO, granting GB fiscal power, creating a new post of principal accounting officer, converting NALC into Northern Areas Legislative Assembly (NALA) and extending its control to over 61 subjects for local governance. The leader of the house became the chief executive as Islamabad’s in-charge minister was pushed up to be a nominal Chairman.

Yousuf Raza Gilani withdrew some of these powers while introducing “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Government Order (GBESGO) – 2009”. Under the presidential ordinance, Northern Areas became Gilgit-Baltistan, a long-standing demand of the locals insisting that Northern Areas merely denoted a direction rather than describing a people or their land. The chief executive became the chief minister, advisors in the assembly became ministers and a provision of federally-appointed governor was made. Of the 15-members in Gilgit-Baltistan Council, six were elected from the local assembly and the rest were elected members of various provincial assemblies of Pakistan.

But the power still exhibited the skewed balance. GBESGO took away the right to amend the LFO, and made the Council more powerful than the assembly.

It is in this background that Nawaz government is working on some proposal that Gilgit leaked to AFP, triggering condemnation from either side of the LoC.

Possible changes in the constitutional status of the remote, mineral rich region are in huge demand locally. GB has two independence days: August 14, with the rest of Pakistan; and November 1, when they first found freedom. Last fortnight witnessed key members of GB civil society running a campaign that Kashmiri leader’s lack any right on the affairs of GB because they are already enjoying their rights under a democratic set-up in J&K as well as in PaK.

On this side of the divide, Delhi is also facing a similar situation in Ladakh. Unlike Kargil, the demand for a Union Territory (UT) status in Leh has been there since 1990. It was in response to this demand that Delhi-Srinagar encouraged setting up of two councils – the Ladakh Hill Development Autonomous Council (LAHDC), in Leh and Kargil. Despite being elected directly, these councils lack legislative authority. If Islamabad integrates GB, even provisionally, Delhi could follow the suit, believe local separatists.

Gilgit Baltistan elite posing for a picture.

At the same time, the Chinese concerns are indicative of a new out-of-box thought-process in Kashmir context. Is economy anticipated to play a major role in undoing the jinxed crisis that had bedeviled India and Pakistan relationship for six decades? Economic angle to Kashmir resolution has been an alternative thought process for decades and opening of two windows on LoC – Uri and Poonch, for travel and trade is considered to be just a beginning.

Ever since the LoC was opened for travel in 2005, strong voices are seeking opening of Kargil-Skardu road, a demand, Islamabad has consistently turned down. People in GB too want this road opened because most of their revenue records are still in Kargil!

Right now, work on a massive tunnel project is on that will bypass the perilous Zoji La pass. Once ready, it will make Kargil, a three-hour drive from Srinagar and accessible round the year. With KKH now 30-meter wide road, Srinagar is going to be much closer to Kashgar than Islamabad, if Kargil gets the Skardu access. With this tunnel, Skardu would barely be around 300 Kms from Srinagar. It can help Kashmir revive its Silk Route connection. Is that the barter that Islamabad will eventually offer?

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