On 1st November 2020, Pakistan announced its decision to grant ‘provisional provincial statuses to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which was formerly known as the Northern Areas. It is currently under the illegal occupation of Pakistan, as part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). India has reacted strongly on this and slammed Pakistan for its attempt to camouflage the “illegal occupation” of the region. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that India “firmly rejects” the attempt by Pakistan to bring material changes to a part of Indian Territory which is under Islamabad’s “illegal and forcible occupation” and asked the neighbouring country to immediately vacate such areas. He further added that the government of Pakistan has no locus standi on these territories and the latest move will not be able to hide the “grave” human rights violations by Pakistan in this region. Mr. Srivastava reiterated that the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including the area of so-called “Gilgit-Baltistan”, are an integral part of India by virtue of the legal, complete and irrevocable accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India in 1947.
Gilgit-Baltistan is the left tip of the crown-shaped territory of Jammu and Kashmir. It is a high-altitude region about five times the size of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir but sparsely populated. It is also Pakistan’s only land link to China, its ally. Imran Khan’s visit to the region on 1st November 2020 came ahead of an election for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, scheduled to be held on 15th November. Earlier, the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly elections were held in 2015; however, the region has no representation in the country’s federal political structures, the lower and upper houses of Pakistan’s parliament. The official incorporation of Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan as full province will require an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution. The recent polls in Gilgit-Baltistan were to be held on August 18, but Pakistan’s election commission on July 11 postponed them due to the coronavirus pandemic. The election comes in the backdrop of a heated debate in Pakistan to make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.
Strategically located Gilgit-Baltistan, with an estimated population of 1.2 million, borders Afghanistan and China, and is at the heart of the $65 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure development plan. China has significant stakes in the future of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is adjacent to its restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in the form of infrastructure investments through the (CPEC), a flagship project of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the CPEC conception, Pakistan’s port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea will be linked to Kashgar in Xinjiang through a set of interlocking infrastructure projects. Gilgit-Baltistan forms the critical node in this plan. Converting Gilgit-Baltistan into the fifth province of Pakistan will help safeguard China’s CPEC investments in the region.
Backed by the Pakistan Army, Imran Khan’s ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), hopes to boost its numbers from the elections in GB. The move has the support of Pakistan’s military leadership. India’s consistent position has been that Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of Indian Territory, and a statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on 1st November reflected this. India had taken a similar stand after the Pakistan Supreme Court’s verdict allowing the government to amend a 2018 administrative order. The Gilgit-Baltistan Order of 2018 provided for administrative changes, including authorising the prime minister of Pakistan to legislate on an array of subjects. Responding strongly, the government had issued a demarche to a senior Pakistani diplomat lodging a strong protest over the court ruling. Within Kashmir as well, many have expressed worry about China’s growing footprint in the region.
Script: Dr. Smita, Strategic Analyst On Af-Pak Affairs