Pakistan’s plan to usurp Gilgit Baltistan and further divide Jammu & Kashmir is disquieting. EFSAS Commentary

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It had been underlined in the EFSAS Commentary of 08-05-2020 that Gilgit Baltistan, which had been an integral part of the erstwhile Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), had legally acceded to India in October 1947 after the British colonial rulers had left. Despite the accession, Pakistan forcibly occupied Pakistan-Administered J&K and Gilgit Baltistan and has since retained control over these 2 parts of the erstwhile Princely State. Over the years, amidst incessant suppression and exploitation of the people and the resources of Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan has made periodic half-hearted attempts to integrate Gilgit Baltistan into the country. The hesitation that caused it to stop short of doing so was induced by the recognition that integrating the region would equate to shooting Pakistan’s long-held position on J&K painfully in the foot. In a sign clear that the criticality of this position for Pakistan was withering away, yielding subserviently to Chinese demands, and largesse, a Pakistani minister announced on 16 September that Pakistan will indeed be making Gilgit Baltistan its fifth province.

Pakistani daily Express Tribune quoted Ali Amin Gandapur, Minister of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs, as telling a delegation of journalists from Gilgit-Baltistan that the government had decided to “elevate Gilgit-Baltistan to the status of a full-fledged province with all constitutional rights, including its representation in the Senate and the National Assembly. Gilgit-Baltistan would be given adequate representation on all constitutional bodies, including the National Assembly and the Senate. After consultation with all stakeholders, the federal government has decided in principle to give constitutional rights to Gilgit-Baltistan”. Gandapur added that Prime Minister Imran Khan would visit the region soon to make the formal announcement in this regard. He also said that elections in Gilgit Baltistan will be held in mid-November, and distribution of party tickets to candidates would begin shortly. President Arif Alvi then issued an official notification to fix the date of the elections, and on 17 September it was announced that the elections for the legislative assembly of Gilgit Baltistan will be held on 15 November.

Analysts have attributed several reasons to this decision of Imran Khan. Domestic factors have been stressed by some, while others believe that the decision is Khan’s belated response to India’s 5 August 2019 moves to nullify Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian constitution that had accorded autonomy to Indian-Administered J&K. Branded a “selected” Prime Minister by the Pakistani opposition, Khan has also come under increasing pressure from his political rivals. Pakistan’s three major opposition political parties, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazal), the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), recently announced the launch of a “three-phased anti-government movement” beginning next month and lasting till January next year that will aim to oust Khan from office. While this development will certainly worry Imran Khan, it is hardly likely to be the primary reason behind the Gilgit Baltistan decision. The contention of the decision being a response to Indian actions, on the other hand, does not stand to reason as it could well be argued that it was Pakistan that had for several decades prior to 5 August 2019 tried to incrementally incorporate Gilgit Baltistan into Pakistan, that too despite lacking any legal basis to do so.

As it later emerged, although it could have safely been assumed in any case, it was not Imran Khan at all who had made the decision. A decision of this magnitude was way beyond Khan’s pay scale. It could only have been made in Rawalpindi, not in Islamabad. Reports this week revealed that the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and the Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed had summoned leaders of Pakistani political parties to a meeting on Gilgit Baltistan on 16 September, the same day that Gandapur made his announcement. PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid were among the leaders that attended.

The Pakistani media reported that the purpose of the meeting was to develop political consensus on making Gilgit Baltistan a province, but other national issues like the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has been utilized extensively by the military establishment to neutralize inconvenient leaders like PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, also figured in the discussions. The correlation between the two issues was as evident as it was sinister, with Shahbaz Sharif receiving summons from the NAB in an alleged money laundering case within a week of the meeting being held. As PPP leader Senator Sherry Rehman, who also participated in the meeting, pointed out in a Geo TV news programme, a two-thirds majority in the Pakistani parliament would be required to make Gilgit Baltistan even provisionally a Pakistani province. Since Imran Khan does not have the numbers, the opposition would perforce have to chip in. Hence the need for a dressing down of the opposition by the big bosses of the military establishment arose. The way the events played out, it was obvious that after the Army had first instructed Imran Khan to make Gilgit Baltistan a Pakistani province, that, despite the legal title to the region vesting in another sovereign country, India, it had herded the opposition together and told them to fall in line or else face dire consequences.

The Army’s decision to call such a meeting came in for strong criticism. Sherry Rehman said that she had asked the meeting management why Prime Minister Imran Khan was not chairing the meeting on such a crucial and important issue. Jamaat-e-Islami leader Sirajul Haq told The News that even during the meeting, one opposition leader had pointed out that such a meeting on issues of national importance should have been called by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and not the Army leadership. PML-N Vice President and Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, was the most vocal. Responding to a question on the meeting she said, “I don’t know about a dinner, maybe it was not a dinner but I heard about the meeting. From what I understand it was called to discuss Gilgit Baltistan which is a political issue, an issue of the people’s representatives, for them to solve and deliberate upon. These decisions should be made in parliament, not in GHQ. The political leadership should not be called nor should it go to discuss such issues. Whoever wishes to discuss these issues should come to the parliament”.

Frustration over the inability of the Pakistani military establishment to get much traction on the J&K issue internationally has certainly contributed to its decision regarding Gilgit Baltistan. More importantly, however, it is the constant Chinese pressure on the military establishment to ensure a proper legal cover under Pakistan’s legal jurisdiction for its investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which enters Pakistan from China through Gilgit Baltistan, that has forced the establishment to act. Equally as much, the CPEC has emerged as the bird laying the golden eggs for the military establishment. This was highlighted very recently when Lieutenant General (retired) Asim Saleem Bajwa, who was alleged to have misappropriated millions of dollars during his ongoing chairmanship of the CPEC Authority, earlier this month decided to step down as the Special Assistant on information and broadcast to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The nexus between the Pakistan Army’s control over the CPEC and the rampant corruption that this control has bred was aptly described in an incisive opinion piece by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, the Pakistan-based correspondent for The Diplomat. In a 4 September article titled ‘Asim Bajwa Exposé Underlines the Corruption Linking the Pakistan Army and CPEC’, Shahid questioned why despite being embroiled in corruption, Bawja only stepped down from his Special Assistant role, and not “his more lucrative role as the chairman of the China Pakistan Economic Authority. With millions of dollars’ worth of financial misappropriation already uncovered in the economic corridor that is still under construction, it makes little sense for CPEC to be spearheaded by an individual accused of such large-scale corruption. But common sense usually takes a backseat whenever questions centering around the army are posed in Pakistan”. He added, “The visions of the Chinese leadership and Pakistan Army align seamlessly. They both seek to appropriate Pakistan’s resources to grow their own neoliberal empires. CPEC itself links Xinjiang and Balochistan, the hubs of multipronged abuses carried out by China and Pakistan, respectively. Both governments also seek to maintain totalitarian controls so that no dissenting questions are posed to either of the two leaderships. And now with the economic corridor merging the duo’s autocratic ambitions, it is increasingly evident that, similar to Islam and the army, CPEC has swiftly become a holy cow that can’t be questioned in Pakistan”. He further wrote, “Since CPEC’s launch in 2015, the military has eyed its share in the economic bounties, which have historically made it richer at the expense of the masses. The first phase of development saw the military eliminating the inbound jihadist groups - which had hitherto remained untouched despite terrorizing the country for a decade and a half, and killing over 80,000 Pakistanis - because they now posed a threat to CPEC”. Shahid concluded that the Pakistani military’s “absolute submission to Beijing” meant that “much of the financial gains are to be enjoyed by the two hegemons”.

India, expectedly, reacted strongly to Pakistan's decision on making Gilgit Baltistan a province. An Indian government spokesperson underscored in a statement that “Any action by Pakistan to alter the status of the militarily occupied so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ has no legal basis whatsoever and is totally void ab-initio. Our position has always been clear and consistent. The entire territories of the UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh have been and are an integral part of India and would remain so. Pakistan has no locus standi to comment on India's internal matters”. As debatable as the Indian moves of 5 August 2019 were, there can be little argument about the fact that India does hold the legal title to the territories concerning which it affected the changes. Pakistan, on the other hand, plans to incorporate a territory over which it has never had any legal title, and that is what will render its planned move on Gilgit Baltistan an usurpation.

While the implications of Pakistan’s proposed move on Gilgit Baltistan have been analyzed in some detail in the regional media through the perspectives of Pakistan, India and even China, how the people who live in the regions that constitute the erstwhile Princely State of J&K feel about the issue finds little mention. The repeated violation of the integrity of their State has left residents of the erstwhile Princely State on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) feeling betrayed and disillusioned. Even Dr. Syed Nazir Gilani, a British jurist of Kashmiri origin who is the president of the London-based NGO Jammu and Kashmir Council for Human Rights, and who has historically displayed a leaning towards the Pakistani position on J&K, has in an article on 21 September advised Pakistan against usurping Gilgit Baltistan. He warned that Pakistan would “burn its fingers” if it insisted on doing so. He averred that people in all parts of J&K were “disturbed” over the Pakistani plans, adding that the political parties of Pakistan-Administered J&K, Kashmiri scholars and human rights activists had all “expressed their deep concern and had advised the Government (of Pakistan) to suspend its plans and respect the integrity of the State”.

With each division of the erstwhile Princely State of J&K such as the one Pakistan is threatening to execute with Gilgit Baltistan, the prospects of a fair and respectable solution that actually takes the desires and interests of all the people of J&K into consideration recedes into the depths of waters that are extremely murky.

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