The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which has been in the works for quite some time, has garnered a fair bit of attention surrounding it. This hype is owing to several reasons.
Firstly, it is a component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project and has experts energetically pointing out its relevance in China’s conception of the new silk road, bearing resemblance to the original silk road in terms of vast trade routes facilitating interconnectedness.
Secondly, it also reflects the ever-improving yet complex dynamic between China and Pakistan, especially considering the strategic importance of the two countries to each other’s foreign policy. China can provide major economic, technological and developmental support to Pakistan, while Pakistan’s geographical location in the Arabian Sea makes them a valuable ally for China in South Asia.
However, there remains a third major reason underlying the discourse around CPEC, something which particularly concerns India, and ties into the long-standing arguments over border issues with Pakistan, the Kashmir conflict, and sovereign integrity. The reason is Gilgit-Baltistan.
If the name sounds familiar, it is because it has featured in the news quite prominently and frequently. This has mostly come about following Pakistan’s announcement of granting Gilgit-Baltistan (or GB) provisional provincial status, a decision met by huge disapproval in India, mixed reactions in Gilgit-Baltistan, and elated response in Pakistan and China. Hence, it seems a good time to assess what exactly is going on here.
History of Gilgit-Baltistan
British India was a place where different communities did their best to collectively fight oppression, yet this was also a place where cultural and political distinctions became more marked.
The late 1940s was one of the most important yet traumatic periods for the people of India and Pakistan; a bittersweet amalgamation of violence, conflict and independence. In light of the partition, political leaders and rulers were deciding their allegiances, and this state of affairs was reflected in the situation in Kashmir.
Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir was under a lot of pressure from all directions, which was natural considering the complex demography of the region. As the pressure mounted, Maharaja Hari Singh ultimately decided to sign the Instrument of Accession, leading to Jammu and Kashmir becoming a part of India. However, this was done hastily, in a way that did not satisfy the people living in some parts of Jammu and Kashmir. One such area was the present-day Gilgit-Baltistan.
British military officers took cognizance of the discontent of the people in the region and decided to act upon it. Perhaps they felt that the people of Gilgit Baltistan preferred integration with Pakistan, or perhaps they just did not see eye to eye with the Maharaja due to some power dynamics. Whatever the cause, in a sharp turn of events two of the officers, Major William Brown and Captain Mathieson, ordered the arrest of the Governor in the region. They then declared the accession of the Gilgit region to Pakistan.
Ironically enough, Pakistan’s recent decisions with regards to the integration of Gilgit Baltistan have been criticised by the British Parliament in recent times, even though Major Brown had been awarded an MBE (the third highest-ranking award in Britain) for his actions.
Now, was this coup d'état legal?
That is a heavily debated question. Nonetheless, the Pakistani soldiers were quick to move into the region and effectively take control of the area for a long time. From then onwards Pakistan has played a crucial role in administering the region whether directly or indirectly.
Given such a dramatic set of events, the region was always bound to have at least some degree of internal strife. There were some pro-India groups, but there were other sources of conflict as well.
This manifested in the 1970s when Pakistan attempted to increase the Sunni population in the Shia dominated region. This was a conniving political move, given the fact that every region in Pakistan, other than Gilgit-Baltistan, has a Sunni majority population. So naturally, the people in the region saw the attempts of fostering Sunni settlements by the government as somewhat hostile.
Around the same time, the region was given the name “Northern Provinces''. Following this came an administrative group hostile towards various local groups, particularly tribal communities. This hatred apparently stemmed from a Roman empire like distaste for the “barbarians and uncivilised”.
Through the 90’s India continued to reiterate that areas such as Gilgit and Baltistan were Indian territory. This was bolstered by an Indian parliamentary statement along these lines in 1994, deeming Gilgit-Baltistan an integral part of India.
The new century came about, and a few years into it, Pakistan finally ramped up efforts in the Northern Provinces. Firstly, an act in 2009 (Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009), laid the groundwork for a new local administrative unit, which would give the region, now officially called “Gilgit-Baltistan”, more decision-making independence. Secondly, various developmental projects were undertaken in the region, mainly related to the generation of hydropower. Thirdly, Pakistan-China cooperation in the region began, particularly relating to energy.
However, it has been frequently observed that the surface level developments and autonomy were not reflected by the ultimate reality on the ground. The GB Legislative Assembly seemed to simply be a proxy, with no actual influence, as officials in Islamabad continued to pull all the strings in the region. There was still a lot of ambiguity regarding how Pakistan officially viewed GB, from a constitutional standpoint. The situation was very confusing, considering the provisions for self-governance were effectively deemed void, and the centre and the governor were in charge of most administrative decisions in GB.
As the CPEC got underway in 2015, these questions became more important. Pakistan’s Government knew that the region was imperative for their developmental ties with China, as GB is the only way the two countries are connected by land.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan also started calling out the excessive control by the central government in the region, which ultimately led to the government giving more power to the GB assembly under the Gilgit-Baltistan Order-2018, a provision protected by the constitution.
This culminated in Pakistan finally giving “Provisional Provincial Status” to GB at the end of last year. There is a sense of ambiguity regarding what exactly this means and it is meant to be that way. In essence, it is now recognised as a form of an interim province in Pakistan, with Pakistani constitutional rights extended to it, but things such as jurisdiction still remain unclear till Pakistan flesh out its plan of integration.
The Great Divide: What are India and Pakistan claiming? What are their strategic interests?
Since 1947, India has held a pretty much uniform policy as far as GB is concerned: that like the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan is and has always been, a region within India. India for the most part does not go overboard in attempting to justify its claim, since they see it as completely cut and dry from a legal perspective, mainly due to the Instrument of Accession. This means that India naturally does not view the Gilgit-Baltistan issue as separate from the Kashmir issue in any way. For India, projects like CPEC serve as a particularly deep wound, since it partially fuels the China-Pakistan alliance, which to a degree aims to diminish India’s regional influence. This would subsequently affect India negatively considering its status as a possible future global power in a multipolar world.
Another dimension to India’s role on the issue is the fact that the Gilgit-Baltistan dispute also pays into the Indo-Pak dispute on the use of resources such as river water. This is particularly relevant since Gilgit-Baltistan is fairly rich in resources, including vast mineral deposits, and many water bodies for potential hydropower production. Furthermore, it is an area with immense potential to support agriculture.
Image of Diamer Bhasha dam in G-B, the construction of which has been bolstered by China Source: https://www.pakistankakhudahafiz.com/china-offers-make-diamer-bhasha-dam-project-part-cpec/
India’s opinion on the matter would also be influenced by the sectarian conflicts within GB, which initially began in the 70s and 80s, but has also seen tragically memorable clashes in recent times, notably in 2012. Moreover, steps taken by Pakistan to really resolve the conflict have proved fairly inadequate thus far. India probably views this as Pakistan’s fault, and this may actually be valid.
Furthermore, many have criticised Pakistan’s government for making empty promises of development in the region, which have thus far not been fulfilled.
Keeping this in mind, it is interesting to see what the situation looks like if we flip the script.
Pakistan has undertaken most of the administrative effort in the region, so they can realistically claim that they have a greater claim to having contributed to the development of the region and that they have introduced numerous legislative measures to provide the opportunity of self-governance to the people in the region (at least on paper).
Pakistan’s reluctance to constitutionally commit to giving a particular status to Gilgit-Baltistan ties into their general demand for Kashmir: a plebiscite. This demand in the international community would have been affected had Pakistan been too direct in consolidating the territory since it would have likely reduced international support for them in the UN Security Council. Therefore, the ambiguity in GB’s status pretty much suit Pakistan. As a matter of fact, even the “provisional” aspect of the new status seems to add an air of uncertainty regarding the exact procedure for granting complete provincial status.
Regardless of this, the granting of the provisional provincial status of Gilgit-Baltistan reflects a more ambitious step by Pakistan in the long-standing dispute and could possibly manifest into a more aggressive stance on Kashmir.
For India, it is integral to challenge this “illegal occupation” in the international community, and garnering international support using legally and historically backed arguments. The Union Government of India has also increased its influence in Kashmir by abrogating Article 370, which gave the J&K Government some autonomy, and assigning J&K the status of a union territory.
The new dynamic caused by the aggressive stances of both countries seems unpredictable. Whatever the case, a storm is clearly brewing.