To ensure success of CPEC, empower Gilgit-Baltistan

Spearhead Analysis – 24.12.2018

By Fatima Ayub
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan was designated as part of the princely state of Kashmir, but over the course of almost seven decades since Independence, the clamor for integration with Pakistan by GB residents has only grown louder.

After independence in 1947, March 1948 saw the agreement signed between the government of Pakistan and Azad Kashmir which allowed for the administration of Gilgit Baltistan to be transferred to Pakistan, all the while maintaining, however, that there was no representation for the frontier in the Pakistani state. In 1950, control of Northern Areas (Gilgit Baltistan) was transferred from North West Frontier Province (KP) to the ministry of Kashmir affairs and the area remained under Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) for quite some time.

The importance of Gilgit Baltistan increased initially with the construction Karakoram Highway (KKH) and now with the start of CPEC. The region holds pivotal position in the latter project as it is the gateway to CPEC, covering almost 500 kilometers of CPEC routes.

The Gwadar port is estimated to save at least more than 16000 kilometers of distance for China. Furthermore, the location of Diamer-Basha dam on Indus River, which is one of the most ambitious public sector projects undertaken in the country – is only 40 kilometers downstream of Chilas.

Successive governments tried to mainstream the region through different political, administrative, social and Judicial reforms. The first major, political, administrative and judicial reforms were introduced in 1975. However major steps were taken when ‘Empowerment and Self Governance Order- 2009’ was introduced.

Never­theless, the empowerment of the region still fell far short of the kind of powers the provincial governments had. The ‘Northern Areas’ were renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan giving it a province like status. What the government appears to have done then is to try and occupy the middle ground by moving towards replicating the AJK template of governance in Gilgit-Baltistan.

With the accession to power of the PML-N government, constitutional reform towards a provincial status for GB was expected. Despite vocal demands by civil society and resolutions by the locally elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, the sitting government set up a committee under the adviser on foreign affairs in 2015, seeking recommendations regarding the resolution of this constitutional conundrum — again sidestepping constitutional reform by consigning the fate of GB to the adviser and his committee.

In 2009, Prime Minister Gilani issued empowerment and self-governance ordinance for Gilgit Baltistan which was subsequently replaced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with a reformed package in 2018.

Earlier this year, in August, Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Mian Saqib Nisar remarked the 2018 order has been restored as people of GB should have the same rights as those in other parts of the country do, sidelining the decision of the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan that had set-aside the 2018 order and ruled that order 2009 shall remain in force in the region.

The Govt of GB Order 2018, which accumulates all important powers and authorities in the office of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was strongly opposed, condemned and rejected by thousands of people across Gilgit-Baltistan. The GB assembly’s opposition members also opposed the Order, saying it gives imperial powers to the Prime Minister, who will not be answerable to anyone in Gilgit-Baltistan.

According to the GB Order 2018, the Prime Minister can reject any legislation made by the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, and the verdicts of the region’s courts will not be applicable to him. The Prime Minister of Pakistan will enjoy unparalleled power, despite  not being an elected leader of Gilgit-Baltistan.

It is pertinent to note that the Prime Minister of Pakistan is not elected by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, but he has de-facto authority over the region, which has now been enhanced and strengthened by the GB Order 2018.

Locals dubbed it the Emperor’s package since it consolidated absolute authority in the hands of the Prime Minister himself. All these ordinances and packages have come without constitutional protection and therefore fail to grant locals citizenship or representation in the parliament.

For now, in Gilgit Baltistan, the status quo prevails and the 2018 order prevails as it is. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that in the grand Indo-Pacific nexus operating in South Asia, regional powers are at play to sway the legal status of GB as legal territory in Pakistan.

In 2017, the statement by the American defence secretary about the status of the Gilgit-Baltistan area in the context of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor resulted in a flurry of activity in Islamabad to show that the issue is being addressed.

The GB chief minister and members of the local assembly criticised the statement of the US defence secretary, expressing apprehensions that the adversaries of Pakistan plan to use the US stance to derail the CPEC project as its success rests on access to the entry route of 500 miles (some 800 kilometres) from China into Pakistan.

The case of Indian involvement

The spate of recent terrorist attacks in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan indicate that foreign countries are out to undo the CPEC. India is reportedly training 400 Muslims in Afghanistan to  blast bridges on Karakoram Highway. Efforts to create disharmony among some sects in GB is being looked at as another handiwork of thriving RAW activity in Pakistan.

In January 2017, GB inspector-general arrested a dozen persons in Yasin valley of Ghizer district along with a cache of arms and ammunition. They confessed to having been paid and trained by RAW to sabotage CPEC and admitted to planning to attack a Jama’at Khana in Ghizer and other parts to push sectarian rift in the Balti region.

It is telling that since 2017, leading India press such as the Times of India has vociferously shared media content, for instance during Pakistan’s General elections in July this year, portraying Gilgit populace in viral media footage as rising against Pakistan. The Awami Action Committee of Gilgit Baltistan denied allegations by Indian media, stating that the strikes were against new taxes and not against Pakistan.

It is said that a nationalist, ‘separatist’ movement of dissenters is at play in GB and efforts are being made to exploit the constitutional status to their benefit. However, sub nationalists do not enjoy any significant support in Gilgit Baltistan. In 2017, Inspector General of the Police in Gilgit Baltistan confirmed Indian involvement in funding sub nationalists in Gilgit Baltistan and within the year, the Gilgit Baltistan police foiled a plan supported by RAW to sabotage CPEC.

As history shows, India started occupying key peaks in April 1984 in a major airborne operation called Meghdoot. From Indian occupation sites today, the terrain slopes downs to position held by the Pakistani army and leads to major towns in Baltistan. Indian military is skeptical that if Pakistan consolidates its control and hold over the GB region, then the Indian line of supply to Ladakh and Kargil would be threatened. 

The spate of terror attacks that erupted in the largely peaceful region since 2017 in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan are worrying. A sudden eruption of violence  with arson attacks on a number of girls schools in the Diamer region fueled apprehensions that the adversaries of Pakistan plan to use the US stance to derail the CPEC project as its success rests on access to the entry route of 500 miles (some 800 kilometres) from China into Pakistan.

The sudden eruption of violence in a region that has been relatively calm in recent times has brought quick explanations from security officials. One theory is that anti-Pakistan militants in Afghanistan are the architects of the attacks, but security officials in Kohistan, the KP district which shares a boundary with Diamer in GB, claim that neither is there any organised presence of militants in Kohistan nor has unusual cross-boundary movement been detected between the latter and Diamer.

Given the area’s key importance to the success of CPEC, disruption in the form of civic discontent to the issues highlighted could imperil the entire project. A realistic appraisal of the situation is needed, alongside a reasonable solution to which the residents are amenable.

A thorough investigation of the upsurge of violence has offered different theories. It is possible that anti-Pakistan militants based in Afghanistan have played a role in organising the attacks, and it is also possible that elements hostile to CPEC and BRI are involved. Inevitably, however, all externally directed attacks require a local infrastructure and this raises questions about Pakistan’s internal security apparatus in its northern areas.

Moreover, the eagerness to point fingers externally often obscures local and domestic failures on account of a lagging Pakistan policy to deal with the GB citizens in a dignified manner.

It is telling that India, although lacking physical control over Gilgit Baltistan, has gone ahead and amended its constitution to declare Gilgit Baltistan an integral part and granted the locals citizenship and a representation in the political institutions.

Despite having accepted GB as part of Pakistan, India changed its official policy and began reclaiming the region to be a part of India. Vikas Swarup, Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesman, declared: “India’s position is well known. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, is an integral part of India.” The same was reiterated during a 2015 by the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval who offered the reasoning behind the official policy change in the words – “We also have a 106-km-long non-contiguous border with Afghanistan (Wakhan corridor) that we need to factor in..”

 As GB has become increasingly vectored in Indian defense policies, not just in a linear attempt to sabotage CPEC but also to gain leverage in Afghanistan, the narrative has now resulted in Gilgit Baltistan being a disputed territory. Narendra Modi raised the issue with China of CPEC passing through disputed territory, thus citing its construction being ‘illegal’. He urged China to discontinue the mega project. President Xi Jinping rebuffed these claims stating that CPEC was a development project and not a strategic or military one and that its advent is to oversee the benefit to people of GB along with others in the region.

U.S., which is now India’s strategic ally and wants Modi to play a role in Afghanistan to keep the Chinese at bay, also echoed the same narrative. Both U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have parroted the Indian objection to CPEC.

 Oddly, the Pakistan government, instead of actively resolving the issue of GB’s constitutional status, responded in 2017 by only opting for a recourse to countering the negative propaganda by planning to dispatch a delegation of GB’s Legislative Assembly members to Europe to portray its side of the story.

Future of GB – a ‘provisional’ setup?

A Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar is currently hearing a set of petitions seeking the provision of political rights to Gilgit-Baltistan and implementation of the court verdict of 1999 for the provision of fundamental rights to the people of GB.

However, nascent in the Supreme Court ruling is also the fact that Gilgit Baltistan is still part of Jammu Kashmir, and it cannot be absorbed into Pakistan and further that the concerned authorities should grant locals basic rights without affecting the Kashmir issue. The Attorney General of Pakistan stated that Pakistan’s constitution cannot be amended to address Gilgit Baltistan issue and therefore existing ordinance would be reformed to satisfy the locals. Following the verdict, the federal cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan affirmed the statement of the attorney general on the basis of country’s geostrategic interests and refused to declare Gilgit Baltistan part or province of Pakistan.

 This verdict is also affirmation of the statement of Dr. Muhammad Faisal of the foreign office, who on June 21, 2018 stated:

“Gilgit Baltistan is part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir and is a disputed territory. Please visit the UN website to see the numerous Security Council Resolutions on the Jammu & Kashmir dispute. Under International Law and as per the directives of the UN Security Council, the final disposition of the State of Jammu & Kashmir shall be made as a result of a free and fair UN-administered plebiscite, wherein the Kashmiris will decide their fate in accordance with their basic right to self-determination. The legality of the Jammu & Kashmir dispute in rooted in these binding UNSC Resolutions. Therefore, there is no doubt about the disputed status of the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir, including Gilgit Baltistan.” 

 People of Gilgit Baltistan have rejected the verdict of the Supreme Court and threatened region-wide protests.

Historically, the government of Pakistan has chided and affirmed the view of the UN resolution for a plebiscite to determine the disputed status of the princely state. To date, the plebiscite has not taken place, and it is not likely to be held in the near future either. Hence, the fate of GB hangs in what is effectively a constitutional limbo.

At present, Pakistan realizes that it cannot expect support from the United Nations due to the fact that the Simla Agreement deemed Kashmir a bilateral issue. India’s overt and covert belligerence and avoidance of any bilateral dialogue on the Kashmir issue under its incumbent Modi regime makes any progress a farfetched hope. Therefore, the only option available for Pakistan is to replicate the constitutional framework of “Azad” Kashmir in Gilgit Baltistan. It is expected that the people of Gilgit Baltistan will accept an Azad Kashmir-like constitutional set up if it establishes genuine autonomy.

One solution is to counter the increasing onslaught of hostile propaganda as CPEC projects warm up, by setting into motion a concrete plan to merge GB with Pakistan provisionally till the ‘plebiscite’ takes place.

A provisional/interim province like status may be given linking it with the final settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Representation in the National Parliament may be given according to its population by electing three members from each division of Gilgit Baltistan. Proper representation may also be given in National Economic Council (NEC), Council of Interest (CCI) and Indus River System Authority (ISRA) with the power to participate in decision making.

The incumbent PTI government must not that the continuous denial of constitutional status to the GB region and the lack of planned development there (despite the CPEC project being under way) will serve to fuel the discontent of the local populace.

Increasing taxation, as was done in 2017, minus potent representation or significant developmental incentives may turn into a potential flashpoint for the government much like the issue of some Balochis with regards to CPEC gains.

The Western media has always picked holes in CPEC, attempting to paint the mega project as a ploy to ‘colonise Pakistan’, ‘to usurp Balochistan’s resources’, and disturb ecology of the region when ‘over 70,000 trucks will pass through this region daily, emitting a large amount of carbon’. To ensure the successful completion of CPEC, government, media and the law enforcing agencies of Pakistan need to take cognizance of the threat.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have time and again proven their loyalty and patriotism for Pakistan through the many sacrifices made in defensive battles waged in the name of the country’s causes. It is interesting to note that the people of Gilgit Baltistan liberated 28000 Sq. miles of the area without any external help and joined Pakistan decisively. 

This warrants appreciation and recognition from the state, before the Gilgit-Baltistan citizens run out of both loyalty and patience to an indifferent parent-state. Pakistan must act to reduce all exploitable vulnerabilities as soon as possible.