The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a project of great strategic importance to Pakistan. But the corridor passes through the Pakistan-administered territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the disputed Kashmir region to which India lays an equal claim and which has never been constitutionally, geographically, or ideologically integral to Pakistan. It is imperative that Pakistan address the indeterminate legal status of Gilgit-Baltistan and placate the dissenting population to ensure the smooth execution of CPEC and reap its economic benefits.
Many new ideas regarding Gilgit-Baltistan’s integration are being proposed by the academic fraternity, military intelligentsia, and policymakers in Islamabad. However, a successful strategy has yet to materialize. This article proposes an alternative strategy for the integration of Gilgit-Baltistan—administration of the territory as a “Special Administrative Region” with a set of supplementary measures that would secure the interests of all stakeholders.
When the inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan, who were enthusiastic about the idea of integrating into an Islamic Republic, moved to Pakistani leadership in November 1949,[i] they may have never anticipated that political arithmetic would destine their homeland a perpetually disowned and disputed territory. Instead of accepting the proposal of accession, the politically shrewd Mohammad Ali Jinnah acted otherwise. He hyphenated the territory with the disputed region of Jammu & Kashmir, considering the strength of Muslim votes from Gilgit-Baltistan in a collective plebiscite with Jammu & Kashmir.[ii]
By declining the proposal of accession, Jinnah induced the idea of the political utility of Gilgit-Baltistan among the body politic of Pakistan, present and posterior. Neither he nor his successors ever reciprocated the affinity of being co-religionists towards the populace of Gilgit-Baltistan.[iii]
A new era dawned for Gilgit-Baltistan with Sino-Pak economic relations under the premiership of Pervez Musharraf. With the manifestation of Gwadar Port, conceived through substantial Chinese investment in 2001, and subsequent rumination upon the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it became increasingly inevitable for Pakistan to stabilize the region.
The challenge is twofold: (a) to constitutionally reconcile the region’s indeterminate status and (b) to placate the dissenting population aggrieved by half a century of political deprivation, incessant sectarian conflict, and an extremely poor economic outlook. Pakistan has made several attempts to resolve the legal ambiguity of the region and endow partial political self-determination to its population, but these attempts have been to no avail.
Integration: Need of the Day
Post Gwadar, a pattern of increased desperation by Pakistan to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan can be observed. What rationalizes this desperation?
The first and obvious concern can be traced to China, which has a mammoth investment of $51 billion at stake. China will put pressure on Pakistan to protect its financial interests. Any unrest or illegality in Gilgit-Baltistan will not only jeopardize this enormous investment, but also endanger Chinese calculation of an alternative to the tumultuous South China Sea route for its oil imports.
Second, Pakistan’s waning enchantment with the United States and unremitting apprehension of a hostile neighbor like India makes it geo-strategically imperative for Pakistan to scale up its partnership with China by ensuring the smooth execution of CPEC.
Third, after the turf war between the democratic government and military establishment in Pakistan was alleviated through a constitutional arrangement post-Musharraf, the importance of economic growth is visible in Pakistan’s policy conscience. Gilgit-Baltistan’s projected capacity to produce 40,000 MW of hydroelectricity, immense potential for tourism, and abundance of rare minerals and gemstones can contribute substantially to the overall GDP of Pakistan.
Veteran intellectuals in Pakistan are mulling over a host of legal avenues for the integration of Gilgit-Baltistan as a constitutional or interim province. Nonetheless, any form of provincial status granted to the region has at least three shortcomings: it will weaken Pakistan’s diplomatic stance over the Kashmir issue, enable India to request United Nations intervention since such a move by Pakistan is in direct violation of all hitherto agreements, and finally, evoke consternation among pro-Pakistan separatist voices, like the Hurriyat Conference, in India.
Further, in the past, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has already delineated the scope of Pakistan’s jurisdiction by ruling that Gilgit-Baltistan, although administered by Pakistan, is a disputed territory over which Pakistan has no absolute control.
An Alternative Strategy: SAR
Considering the legal and diplomatic ramifications of provincialism, Pakistan needs an alternative strategy. A promising solution would be to tweak the present administrative arrangement by accepting Gilgit-Baltistan as a “Special Administrative Region” (SAR), mimicking its neighbor China.
Beyond securing a legal mechanism for the smooth execution of CPEC, Pakistan’s principal intention should be to dispel the sense of alienation among the Gilgit-Baltistan population through mainstream integration. Though this measure will not fulfill the original aspiration of Gilgit-Baltistan to join the Islamic Republic in its entirety, it will, to some extent, quench the flames of rage and distrust.
In contradistinction to provincialism, the SAR initiative is a constitutional recognition of the administrative mechanism and not the administered territory. Thus, Pakistan would be constitutionally obliged to reciprocate equal civil assurances and liberty to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan like its own citizens, but still concede that the dispute with India is yet to be settled. This solution offers an end to political deprivation and induces functional autonomy whilst avoiding the repercussions of granting provincial status.
As a special territory with a constitutionally-recognized administrative mechanism, Gilgit-Baltistan would be entitled to proportional representation in parliament. With this measure, the proletariat-bourgeoisie perception will be breached, and a new sense of confidence and partnership will be created. In response to an Indian outcry against this parliamentary integration, Pakistan could point to India’s six parliamentary constituencies in Jammu & Kashmir.
Allowing for proportional representation in parliament would contain two dissenting political movements in Gilgit-Baltistan: one that sees itself as politically unrepresented (with the help of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO)) and another separatist Balawaristan movement that pivots around the Bolor identity and anti-Pakistan narrative. The latter secessionist movement considers Pakistan’s rule an “illegal occupation” and equates treatment from Islamabad as that of “virtual slaves.”
Beyond representation, the suggested autonomy would demand the political appointments of Islamabad elites to the Gilgit-Baltistan Council to be replaced by local representatives. Further reservation of administrative posts and government jobs for locals could instill more trust in Islamabad among Gilgit-Baltistan populations.
Finally, to complete the process of integration, Gilgit-Baltistan needs to be physically connected to Pakistan via better infrastructure, especially the renovation and expansion of the Karakoram Highway. Currently, public transport between Gilgit and Islamabad on this dilapidated highway takes nearly twenty hours, which can well be cut in half.
These political efforts, if compounded by the promotion of tourism, a surge in economic activities, availability of civic amenities, and better law and order to check the menace of sectarian violence, can regenerate the original fascination of Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan. Considering present circumstances, the only prudent way for Pakistan to address the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan is to accommodate the territory as a Special Administrative Region, which would secure the interests of all stakeholders without infringing on any international agreements.
[i] Behera, N. C. (2006). Demystifying Kashmir. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. pp. 147
[ii] Behera, N. C. (2006). Demystifying Kashmir. Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press. pp. 174
[iii] Sōkefeld, M. (2005). From Colonialism to Postcolonial Colonialism: Changing Modes of Domination in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The Journal of Asian Studies, 64(04), 939-973. pp. 964
Image 1: Flickr, Ali Zahoor
Image 2: Flickr, Mare