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Pakistan Declares Part of Contested Kashmir Its 5th Province
Wearing a traditional feathered wool hat of the region, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is shown on November 1 in Gilgit announcing the new provisional status for the region. (Associated Press of Pakistan)

Pakistan Declares Part of Contested Kashmir Its 5th Province

Gilgit-Baltistan, also claimed by India, is seen as gateway to the $64b. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor 

[Islamabad] Pakistan has officially announced its decision to give provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), formerly known as the Northern Areas and part of the larger Kashmir region that has been the subject of a dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, while addressing a public gathering in Gilgit city, announced the decision on November 1, the date the area was merged into Pakistan in 1947 during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948, sometimes known as the First Kashmir War and the first of four Indo-Pakistan Wars.

“We have decided to grant Gilgit-Baltistan ‘provisional’ provincial status, which was their demand. We have taken this decision keeping in mind UN Security Council resolutions,” Khan, wearing a traditional Gilgit feathered wool hat, told his audience.

We have taken this decision keeping in mind UN Security Council resolutions

“One of the many reasons Gilgit-Baltistan remained backward was because it was cut off from the rest of Pakistan,” he explained.

Ali Amin Gandapur, federal minister for Kashmir affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, told The Media Line that “the historic decision” will bring a “significant change” to the status of the Gilgit-Baltistan people.

“It will play a pivotal role in the prosperity of the region. The people will be able to exercise greater constitutional rights,” he explained.

It will play a pivotal role in the prosperity of the region. The people will be able to exercise greater constitutional rights

“The 73-year-old dream of constitutional rights has come true, and the loyalties and sacrifices of the people of GB are honored by Prime Minister Imran Khan,” the minister said, adding that Khan had engineered the move “with the consensus of all political leaders,” including those of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the country’s two main opposition parties.

“The required legislation is about to be completed, and Gilgit-Baltistan will be given full provincial status after their general election on 15 November 2020,” Gandapur stated.

Gilgit-Baltistan has been a self-governing territory within Pakistan. It is overseen by a chief minister and governor, like the original four provinces. The present system was introduced in 2009 through presidential decree.

Before the 1947 partition, Gilgit-Baltistan was part of British India and “greater Kashmir.” As such, it was ruled by Hari Singh, a Sikh maharaja, a Sanskrit title meaning “great ruler,” “great king” or “high king.”

After the end of British rule in the subcontinent, mass protests surged in the Muslim majority areas of greater Kashmir, and Singh declared the merger of “greater Kashmir” with India. Local residents rejected this and revolted.

On November 1, 1947, after a deadly guerilla war, Gilgit-Baltistan’s Sikh military governor, Brig. Gen. Ghansara Singh, surrendered to revolutionary guards and the Islamic State of Gilgit was declared. On November 16 of that year, Pakistan took administrative control.

Gilgit-Baltistan is highly mountainous and considered very beautiful. It is at the confluence of the world’s greatest mountain ranges – the Karakoram, Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Pamir. It borders China, Afghanistan and Indian-controlled Jammu-Kashmir, an area also disputed between Pakistan and India since partition.

In August 2019, the Indian Parliament passed the Jammu and Kashmir (Reorganization) Bill, which divided the region into two union territories – Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh − both to be governed directly by New Delhi.

Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir has been in a state of lockdown since then. Curfew-like conditions have been imposed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Indian troops are regularly deployed to the region.

The Indian government has condemned the latest Pakistani move, claiming it brings a material change to Indian territory. Pakistan responded by issuing a statement: “False claims by India can neither change facts nor divert attention from India’s illegal actions and Human Rights violations in occupied Kashmir.”

With an area of 28,174 sq.m., Gilgit-Baltistan is divided into three administrative sectors and 14 districts. The estimated population of the region is 2 million. It is a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-sectarian territory.

It is also the gateway to the $64 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, commonly known as CPEC.

CPEC is part of Beijing’s massive Belt-and-Road infrastructure project, a network of roads, railways and pipelines aiming to connect China’s strategically important northwestern Xinjiang Province to the far-away deep-water port of Gwadar in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province, located on the shores of the Arabian Sea opposite Oman.

“Given the high tensions in India-China and India-Pakistan relations, Pakistan’s decision shouldn’t be taken lightly,” Michael Kugelman, a leading expert on South Asia and a senior associate at the Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line.

Given the high tensions in India-China and India-Pakistan relations, Pakistan’s decision shouldn’t be taken lightly

“It will be perceived in New Delhi as an attempt by both Islamabad and Beijing, which values the region as a key area for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC development, to deliver a blow to New Delhi’s territorial claims,” he continued.

“India has never pursued its claims to Gilgit-Baltistan as much as it has with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and so I don’t anticipate any major crisis. We can expect some angry rhetoric from India, but that’s about it,” he said.

In response to a question from The Media Line, Kugelman said: “Washington’s recent military agreement with New Delhi to supply it with sensitive and detailed intelligence indicates just how much the US has cast its lot with India…. It’s quite clear that the US views India as its top strategic bet in South Asia.”

Washington’s recent military agreement with New Delhi to supply it with sensitive and detailed intelligence indicates just how much the US has cast its lot with India…. It’s quite clear that the US views India as its top strategic bet in South Asia

Kugelman notes that “from a US perspective, the Gilgit-Baltistan move will be the latest development in an increasingly volatile India-China-Pakistan triangle. It will also be seen as a move that will benefit Washington’s Chinese rival by potentially giving more permanent status to a region that figures so much in the China-Pak economic corridor, and in Belt-and-Road Initiative projects more broadly.”

Syed Sair Hassan, an Islamabad-based geostrategic analyst and retired Pakistan Air Force group captain (a colonel in American parlance), says “nothing can be predicted” before the result of the US presidential election is made known.

“American policymakers know very well that Chinese global influence is growing day by day, so to encounter it, the US policymakers remain ever in action,” Hassan said.

American policymakers know very well that Chinese global influence is growing day by day, so to encounter it, the US policymakers remain ever in action

Adil Faroque, an Islamabad-based regional security and political analyst, told The Media Line that “CPEC has further magnified the geo-strategic and geo-economic significance” of the Gilgit-Baltistan area.

“The US-Indo alliance would view it as a negative development from their strategic perspective because CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said. “Besides this, CPEC provides alternative access to Chinese exports, which is currently dependent upon sea trading routes falling under the US-led coalition’s dominance.”

Mumtaz Gohar, a human rights activist hailing from Gilgit-Baltistan, told The Media Line: “In the past, every ruling political party in the [Pakistani] federal governments had introduced various ordinances and laws for Gilgit-Baltistan, but such steps were temporary and had not significantly impacted the living standards of GB’s people.”

He called Khan’s announcement “like putting old wine in a new bottle.”

It’s like putting old wine in a new bottle

The vote for the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly will be held on November 15, with the active participation by Pakistan’s mainstream political parties.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party and a son of the late prime minister Benazir Bhutto, has established a headquarters in Gilgit city as a base for visiting remote areas to run the party’s campaign.

While addressing a public gathering in Gahkoch township in the Ghizer district, Zardari said that “the people of Gilgit-Baltistan would defeat the Khan-led puppet party” in elections later this year.

“The Imran Khan-led government brought poverty, hunger, price hikes and unemployment to the people of Pakistan,” he noted.

Zardari further claimed that his “slain mother, Benazir Bhutto, had taken the first step to introduce the democratic system in Gilgit-Baltistan.”

Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman, a senior leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and until this past June chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, told The Media Line that “the interim administration had completely failed to implement election rules and regulations. Federal ministers are violating the rules and visiting the areas to run the federal ruling party.”

Rehman rejects Khan’s announcement of provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan and says that in an election campaign, such statements amount to a “booster slogan, nothing more.”

Khwaja Kashif Meer, a leading analyst based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, a territory situated south of Gilgit-Baltistan that has also been claimed by India since 1947, told The Media Line that “China had firmly demanded of Pakistan to end the disputed status of Gilgit-Baltistan and to upgrade its status as a province.”

The Chinese were not ready to invest in the disputed areas, he added.

“In Gilgit-Baltistan’s coming elections, the Pakistan Peoples Party is the favorite in the eyes of the powerful Pakistani establishment,” Meer said, “but whoever wins will be in a weak position because of Islamabad’s tight grip.”

In Gilgit-Baltistan’s coming elections, the Pakistan Peoples Party is the favorite in the eyes of the powerful Pakistani establishment, but whoever wins will be in a weak position because of Islamabad’s tight grip

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