By: Dr. ASHOK BEHURIA, Senior Fellow & Coordinator, South Asia Centre,
Manohar Parrikar-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
A news report on 1st August 2021 revealed that the Imran Khan government of Pakistan was pushing for change in the status of the illegally occupied Indian territory of Gilgit-Baltistan by bringing in the 26th amendment to Pakistan’s Constitution. A draft bill to this effect has already been prepared by its law ministry which suggests far-reaching measures to turn Gilgit-Baltistan into a de facto “province” of Pakistan, by granting provisional or interim provincial status to it.
This is in violation of Pakistan’s own admission that Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory and runs counter to Islamabad’s own constitutional position over the territory illegally occupied by it since 1947.
Pakistan has pushed for such a status for nearly a decade in clear disregard of Indian position 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”. India’s Ministry of External Affairs has said Pakistan has no locus standi on the Indian areas illegally occupied by Islamabad.
The Imran Khan government’s recent move has been backed by both the army and the judiciary of Pakistan. In November 2020, the Pakistan Supreme Court had asked the government to expedite the implementation of its 2018 order. Earlier, in September 2020, the Pak army chief had met opposition leaders to discuss the impending changes in the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan. In March 2021, the local assembly adopted a joint resolution unanimously which demanded the region should be granted provisional provincial status, and representation in Pakistan’s Parliament and other constitutional bodies.
There is a long history to it. Gilgit Baltistan is part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir which had acceded to the Indian Union on 26 October 1947. In November 1947, Pakistan illegally occupied it and later, through a controversial agreement in April 1948, the area was brought under the control of the Pakistan State, while the other part of PoK was allowed to maintain the façade of an independent entity with the so-called name “Azad” Jammu and Kashmir.
The fact remains that while Pakistan maintained that Gilgit-Baltistan was a disputed territory, it was not granted any autonomy. This region provided a critical territorial link with China. The Karakoram Highway, which has now become China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), runs through the region. Therefore, Gilgit- Baltistan was ruled from Islamabad with an iron hand.
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There was no representative body in the region, till one was granted in 2009, in a bid to address popular demands for it. Whatever minimal representation has been granted ever since, does not meet local aspirations. There were local protests against the imposition of federal taxes on the people of the region in the aftermath of the imposition of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009.
By 2012, there was a popular movement against it with calls of “no taxation without representation”, which meant representation at the federal level. After coming to power in 2013, the Nawaz Sharif government established a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz in October 2015. Aziz submitted his report in February 2018, which formed the basis for the Gilgit- Baltistan order of 2018 that fell short of granting the much-touted provisional provincial status.
While domestic political calculations might have dictated the move to amend the Pak Constitution to meet what is projected as local demands from Gilgit-Baltistan; there is a view in Pakistan that there could have been some quiet push from the Chinese side to address local concerns and ensure that there is no disaffection at the local level, which could adversely affect the long-term prospects of CPEC, which is a showpiece project of Beijing’s Belt & Road Initiative.
It is indeed a desperate move of Pakistan for bring the disputed area under tighter controls. This portrays Islamabad’s insecurity. India has always maintained that the illegally occupied Indian territory must be vacated by Pakistan.