Sphere of Influence: GILGIT-BALTISTAN

Spearhead Analysis – 28.03.2017

By ShahBano Khan
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Present-day Gilgit Baltistan only became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name of “Northern Areas”. Before that, it not only lacked a sound democratic system but the people of Gilgit-Baltistan had no rights and privileges as citizens of Pakistan. Over the years various political ‘reform packages” have sought to improve the state’s relationship with the region, but in reality, those half-hearted cosmetic measures have done little to bring Gilgit Baltistan under the sphere of conscientious governance. In truth, the territories of Gilgit Baltistan were never formally integrated into the Pakistani state and has never participated in Pakistan’s constitutional political affairs. That is, until now; the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region will soon be declared as the fifth province of the country. The move has been welcomed at home- and challenged, denied, and lambasted outside it.

Recently, a committee headed by Advisor of Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz had proposed giving the status of a Province to Gilgit Baltistan. In the same breath, Pakistan’s Minister for inter provincial coordination Riaz Hussain Pirzada informed the public and the media that the change in the status of the region will only be possible through a constitutional amendment. While talks of integration have been rife since the 1970s, but it is only now gaining momentum in light of the massive $51 billion CPEC investment, that will directly pass through the region. It is believed that China’s concerns about its unsettled status prompted the move, triggering a historic shift in the country’s position on the wider Kashmir issue.

While Gilgit Baltistan has a Legislative Assembly, a Council, and a Chief Minister, an order of self-rule granted in 2009, it is neither a province nor a state. It has a semi provincial political structure. But in truth, the power is vested with the Governor rather than in local hands as the fate of the region has always been directed under Islamabad’s strict gaze. But as the region is poised to gain economically from the massive CPEC investment, it is natural for the locals to demand political improvement with it.

The CPEC cuts through the Gilgit Baltistan region on its way from China’s Kashgar in Xinjiang province to Pakistan’s Gwadar in Balochistan. Without declaring the region as part of Pakistan, Islamabad will not be able to impose policies and plans that are essential for the success of the CPEC. Yet, despite CPEC’s imminent benefits huge protests have erupted in the region, primarily over jobs and a lack of local involvement over the ecological, economic, and social framework of the region. Protesters claim that the jobs generated from the construction of developmental projects are being given to Punjabi elite from Islamabad and other areas. In addition, it is being said that the employed labour force is not just Punjab centric, but will not be subject to a minimum wage and will not be allowed to be part of trade unions, at least for the next 20 years. The land acquired for CPEC will operate under ‘special economic zones’ that will not be taxed.

Furthermore, according to the locals, CPEC development will undermine the diverse ecology and the rich culture of the region if environmental issues and tribal nuances are not taken into account. While Gilgit Baltistan will benefit greatly from infrastructural development, the scenic beauty of the land, the customs of the locals, and economic practices of the region will have to be necessarily given priority once CPEC becomes a functional reality. It would be best to bring the locals on the table of negotiations and engage them in decision making to minimize the felt resentment.

However, the brunt of resentment against Gilgit Baltistan gaining a provincial status comes from Indian efforts to challenge the entire CPEC structure. Not only has it openly resisted the project, but have been on an international rampage to smear Pakistan’s gains. More so, the Kashmir Issue has also become by proxy a part of CPEC discourses. GB is seen by the Indians as part of ‘Pakistan Occupied Kashmir’ because of which any development on the land is being challenged, questioned, and disputed. According to India, GB has been illegally occupied by Pakistan and according to the protests of Indian Occupied Kashmir separatists, the move to make GB a separate province defeats Kashmir’s authentic demand for struggle. In reality, while GB borders with Kashmir, it is a separate territory with its own exclusive language, culture, customs, and traditions. GB is an accumulation of different city states that were under ‘Amirs’, as Kashmir was under a Gojra ruler. The nature of political involvement, awareness, and structures have changed greatly since nation-states came into existence. While GB has always been part of Pakistan, its designation as ‘Northern Areas’ and its proximity to the Kashmir region has put it on the map of political, Geo-strategic, and economic controversies.

While the Kashmir issue has always been part of Pakistan’s DNA, it is time that the conflict be dissected in light of modern fluctuations. GB is an important region in CPEC development in Pakistan, and with a defining project such as this- it is important to use it an opportunity to make necessary reforms in the national and constitutional structure of the country. By granting GB a provincial status, it is possible that Pakistan might be in a better position to negotiate the Kashmir issue. The local inhabitants of GB associate themselves with the larger Pakistani identity rather than just an exclusively Kashmiri one. At the same time, the Kashmiris need to be reassured that they’re struggle will remain part of Pakistan’s international and national effort.

It would be wrong to say Gilgit Baltistan has been perpetually neglected; like it would also be wrong to undermine their sincere efforts to be naturalized by the state. While there have been progressive improvements in the political status of the region, only by fully granting it legitimacy can Pakistan gain any kind of momentum in making CPEC into not just a reality, but also a part of global life. In addition, other pockets within the Pakistani territory that have an unsettled status (FATA, Balochistan) need to be brought under the political framework of the country. Only then will a united state of the union be able to counter discourses that directly oppose Pakistan and its development.