India has reacted strongly to reports in the Pakistani press that the neighbouring country is planning to designate Gilgit-Baltistan as its fifth province.
“The position of the government on Jammu and Kashmir is consistent and well known. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir acceded to India in 1947. It has been, is and will always be an integral part of India. A part of Jammu and Kashmir has been under illegal occupation of Pakistan. Any unilateral step by Pakistan to alter the status of that part will have no basis in law and will be completely unacceptable,” said Gopal Baglay, a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, in his weekly media briefing.
“It will also be a violation of the agreement between the two countries to address all issues bilaterally through peaceful means, which was enshrined in Shimla Agreement of 1972 and reiterated through the Lahore Declaration in 1999. I must also say that such a step will not camouflage the illegality of Pakistan's occupation of parts of Jammu and Kashmir and the gravely concerning and serious human rights violations there, as well as denial of democracy to the people there.”
This comes after Pakistani Inter-Provincial Coordination Minister Riaz Hussain Pirzada told the media that a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz, the de-facto foreign minister of Pakistan, had proposed giving the status of a province to Gilgit-Baltistan. “The committee recommended that Gilgit-Baltistan should be made a province of Pakistan,” Pirzada reportedly said.
The contents of the committee report remain a secret. Pakistan watchers in India say one must not wish away the possibility of such a move by Pakistan. But it would also be foolish to ignore how Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in trouble on several fronts, including the Panama Papers leak investigations case pending in court, the outcome of which could singe his political career. A Supreme Court judgement is due soon.
History of the region, and India's position
Since the Karachi Agreement of 1949, Pakistan has treated this region – once part of the Dogra Kingdom and later leased to the British, who wanted it as a strategic safety valve – as part of the 'disputed' Kashmir region. It has refrained from completely amalgamating it, despite the territory being under its control. Any change to this position would entail losing the opportunity to attack India on the Kashmir issue.
There was a drastic change in Pakistan's attitude to this region in 2009, when it was given near-provincial status under Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order. Till this order, the region was still referred to as I Northern Areas.
In 2015, the region saw its second Assembly polls.
“We are concerned at the continued efforts by Pakistan to deny the people of the region their political rights, and the efforts being made to absorb these territories,” Vikas Swarup, then-spokesperson of the MEA had said, articulating India's opposition to the move.
India's opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, in which the Chinese are investing more than $50 billion in Pakistan as part of the One Belt One Road project, also hinges on the fact that it passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims to be its own territory, part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Pakistani analysts, according to reports, believe that the move could, in fact, be part of the Pakistani policy to assuage the Chinese. Pakistan watchers in India, too, believe, it could very well be the reason. China has had concerns about different aspects, ranging from security to the discontentment among the local populations, through which the multi-billion-dollar corridor passes.
Difficult road ahead for Pak
It is not going to be an easy run for the Pakistani government, considering the hurdles in the way. Making Gilgit-Baltistan a province would entail a drastic change in its policy on the region, which is expected to give rise to opposition for the move from within the pro-Kashmir elements, as well as opposition from pro-independence locals.
Separatists in Jammu and Kashmir, including Yasin Malik, have in the past reportedly warned Nawaz Sharif about their reservations on how such a move could have serious implications on their stand on the Kashmir issue, or demands of an independent Kashmir.
To declare Gilgit-Baltistan as the fifth province would also require a constitutional amendment, which would need to be ratified by the Pakistani Parliament.
Prime Minister Sharif is in the eye of storm in the Panama Papers case, and may not be in a position to ensure the passage of the constitutional amendment till at least the pronouncement of the judgement by the Pakistani Supreme Court.
Pakistan is also under pressure from the international community, which is out to restrict the flow of funds to the Pakistani government if it doesn't act against the many terror outfits operating within its borders.