India slammed Pakistan for its attempt to accord provincial status to "so-called Gilgit-Baltistan”, saying it is intended to camouflage the "illegal" occupation of the region by Islamabad. Spokesperson in the Ministry of External Affairs Anurag Srivastava said 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. Srivastava's response came following a media query about Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's comments in Gilgit on Sunday about his government’s decision to accord “provisional provincial status” to the Gilgit-Baltistan region. In this edition of The Big Picture we will analyse Pakistan’s Bid to camouflage the illegal occupation of the region.
Edited Excerpts from the debate
What has happened?
On November 1, observed every year in Gilgit-Baltistan as “Independence Day”, Pakistan Government announced that it would give the region “provisional provincial status”.
When that happens, G-B will become the fifth province of Pakistan.
Pakistan is comprised of:
the provinces of Balochistan
one federal territory
the federally-administered Islamabad Capital Territory.
Although the region is claimed by India as part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir as it existed in 1947 at its accession to India.
The plan to grant G-B provincial status gathered speed over the last one year.
The push have well come from India’s reassertion of its claims after the August 5, 2019 reorgansiation of Jammu & Kashmir.
Quick history of the region
Before its independence, present-day GB was part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, one of the largest princely states of India.
This state was created in 1846 after the signing of a treaty between the British and Gulab Singh of the Dogra dynasty.
During the first Anglo-Sikh war (1845-1846), Gulab Singh, who was serving as the ruler of Jammu in the Sikh empire, chose to side with the British East India Company by remaining neutral.
Acknowledging Singh’s loyalty during the war, in 1846, the East India Company sold Kashmir to him for 7.5 million rupees of that time.
With this accord, Gulab Singh eventually became the first Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.
The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had four units:
the province of Jammu
the province of Kashmir
the district of Gilgit
the district of Ladakh
Present-day Baltistan was subjugated and annexed by Gulab Singh’s Dogra army earlier, in 1840, before the Treaty of Amritsar.
In the new administrative set-up, Baltistan was made part of district Ladakh as Skardu tehsil.
In 1935, the British took over the administration of Gilgit Agency from the Dogra ruler under a 60-year lease.
However, the Baltistan region remained under the direct rule of the Dogras.
Two weeks before the independence of India and Pakistan, the British abruptly cancelled the lease.
On July 30, 1947, the British offered the State of Jammu and Kashmir to take over Gilgit, as per the lease deed.
On August 1, Brig Ghansara Singh took charge of the Gilgit Agency and the region fell under the control of the Maharaja.
The Pakistani forces occupied Gilgit-Baltistan on November 4. Since then, Gilgit-Baltistan has been under Pakistan's administrative control.
What do the people of Gilgit-Baltistan want?
The people of GB have been demanding for years that it be made a part of Pakistan.
They do not have the same constitutional rights that Pakistanis have.
Gilgit-Baltistan is the northernmost territory administered by Pakistan, providing the country’s only territorial frontier, and thus a land route, with China, where it meets the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
To G-B’s west is Afghanistan, to its south is Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and to the east J&K.
Notable features of the region
Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most mountainous regions in the world that is rich with mines of gold, emerald and strategically important minerals.
It is known for its extraordinary scenic beauty, diversity and ancient communities and languages.
Gilgit is the only place in the world that is connected to 5 countries. Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Tibet – China.
When India was called Golden Bird, 85% of our trade was through Gilgit. The land routes were connected to Central Asia, Eurasia, Europe, Africa, everywhere through Gilgit-Baltistan.
Himalaya has 10 big peaks and 8 of these 10 are in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is home to K-2, the second tallest mountain in the world.
The region is known for high altitude dams because of both local and Islamabad-driven initiatives. Mountain streams and rivers are often harvested for local community needs.
The tradition of building dams and bunds dates back to the reign of Balti King Ali Sher Khan Anchan of 1580-1624, who built the famous bund at Satpara Lake, which helps in watering Skardu.
The water-rich region’s biggest hydroelectricity project is the Diamer-Bhasha dam, which was launched in July 2020.
China’s role in the region
The China Pakistan Economic Corridor has made the region vital for both countries.
In a recent analysis by Andrew Small (Returning to the Shadow: China, Pakistan and the Fate of CPEC), this ambitious project is seen to have been going slow for a combination of reasons.
But given the strategic interests of both countries, CPEC will continue.
What is the political nature of Gilgit-Baltistan?
The political nature of Gilgit-Baltistan has been directionless from the beginning.
Pakistan initially governed the region directly from the central authority after it was separated from ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ on April 28, 1949.
In 1963, Pakistan gave away 5,180 sq km of the region to China, despite local protests.
Under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the name of the region was changed to the Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA).
Pakistan passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order in 2009, which granted “self-rule” to the ‘Northern Areas’.
In 2019, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, led by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, took up the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan to determine the extent of political rights that could be enjoyed by the people of the ‘Northern Areas’.
What is the region’s current status is different from PoK?
Though Pakistan, like India, links G-B’s fate to that of Kashmir, its administrative arrangements are different from those in PoK.
While PoK has its own Constitution that sets out its powers and their limits vis-à-vis Pakistan,
G-B has been ruled mostly by executive fiat. Until 2009, the region was simply called Northern Areas.
It got its present name only with the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, which replaced the Northern Areas Legislative Council with the Legislative Assembly.
The NALC was an elected body, but had no more than an advisory role to the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas, who ruled from Islamabad.
The Legislative Assembly is only a slight improvement. It has 24 directly elected members and nine nominated ones.
What is India’s stand?
India slammed Pakistan for its attempt to accord provincial status to the “so-called Gilgit-Baltistan”, saying it is intended to camouflage the “illegal” occupation of the region by Islamabad.
India claims Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Jammu and Kashmir but it has been under Pakistan’s control since 1947 under the name of Azad (Free or Liberated) Kashmir.
The strategically-important area shares a border with China and Afghanistan.
Strategic importance of the region
The region is an extremely fragile and significant one with three of world’s powerful ornery and daedalian powers along with a conflict-ridden nation encircling it.
Strategic points: But apart from its mountains, glaciers and green plains, the region has something else of superfluous significance and prudence: its strategic points. GB is home to some of the world’s most important and contentious strategic points capable of creating unremitting embroilments and fracases.
Volatility: The region holds extreme volatility and if gets subjected to desuetude can cause a ruckus in the entire regions of South Asia, Central Asia and China, ultimately affecting the entire world.
Leading the war: Gilgit Baltistan’s geo-strategic importance is multi-folded, in case of a two-front war against India, to become the most critical point of the war, capable of drastically affecting and determining the outcome.
Advance air force base to devastate enemy: An advanced Air Force base in GB can devastate the enemy’s confidence and steer the movement of conflict to India’s side.
Warfare: High altitude points are still tremendously important aspects of warfare which can prove to be, if accessed properly, the big game changers.
Countering China: The region is the key to the destruction of Chinese influence in South Asia; the string of China-Pakistan’s pearl necklace and also the Brahmastra for India against China. India controlling GB can turn out to be the worst nightmare for China and eventually for Pakistan too.
Economic significance: The economic significance of Gilgit Baltistan is also embedded in its vast hydroelectric potential. Home to Indus and its 6 tributaries, hundreds of glaciers and lakes, including world’s second and third longest glaciers outside of polar regions, the rich water resource region has the potential of generating 40,000 MW of hydroelectricity.
Economic epicentre of trade: Gateway to Afghanistan, Tajikistan and rest of the Central and West Asia, the region of Gilgit Baltistan is a potential economic epicentre of trade.
The region of Gilgit Baltistan is a marvellous throne of immense geostrategic importance adorned with the diamonds of its geographical location, economic potential and essentiality. The nation who coronates the throne becomes the king.