Giving Gilgit-Baltistan provincial status could be a political masterstroke – Part 1

This is the first article in a two part series. Read part two here.

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In a major shift of a longstanding policy, Pakistan is set to elevate Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) to the status of a ‘provisional’ province. With this single move, Pakistan secures vital geostrategic, economic, and energy interests, and at the same time fulfills G-B’s most enduring demand for constitutional recognition. The move also strengthens Pakistan’s Kashmir stance at the United Nations (UN), instead of weakening it as is assumed, since it gives constitutional protection to the ‘material change’ clause of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on Kashmir. The material change clause of the UNSC resolution prevents both India and Pakistan from changing the demographic and cultural landscape of the regions in their respective control. While India revoked Kashmir’s special status to effect ‘material change’ there, Pakistan’s elevation of G-B honors the clause.

Unlike previous tinkering with the governance laws of G-B through easily reversible executive orders issued by the prime minister, this elevation will be sweeping and permanent as it will be carried out through an amendment to Pakistan’s constitution. Of course, the news has sent waves of enthusiasm across G-B, which has been demanding the recognition for 73 years now. It may just be pre-election gimmickry as the general elections are scheduled for November 15th this year, as was the case before the general elections of 2014 and 2009. But that’s unlikely because of the existence of two powerful variables this time: the army and the Chinese.

While the army purportedly withheld upgradation moves on two previous occasions, it’s the army taking the initiative and building the consensus this time around. That begs the question, what is the army thinking, or has there been a shift in how the military views the Kashmir dispute post Narendra Modi’s power move of August 5, 2019 when he stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status? It is hypothesised that a number of important factors drove this policy change. These factors are significant, and therefore the government must act quickly and decisively to make it a province as Pakistan may not find an ideal opportunity like the one presented by Modi’s Kashmir move and the ongoing China-India border spat.

The policy shift is pragmatic and optimally timed, and seizes the opportunity opened by Modi’s self-defeating move of scrapping Kashmir’s special status and China’s military campaign against India in Ladakh. Giving constitutional cover to G-B was overdue, and the threat of a military response by India to it may have deterred Pakistan in the past, but with China keeping India busy in Ladakh, the Indian response may come just in the form of an escalation of cross-border firing.

China’s military action against India is also triggered by Modi’s Kashmir move itself. The Chinese have taken Indian territory and have shown no signs of disengaging. Both the armies are digging in and bracing for the harsh winters of the Western Himalayas. That provides enough space for Pakistan to respond to India’s August 5, 2019 move in kind by turning G-B into a constitutional part of the federation of Pakistan, even if provisionally. Reports suggest that India and the US are likely to see China’s hand behind this, but Pakistan must act to protect a vital interest. In ordinary times, such a move would have drawn New Delhi’s ire, and possibly a military misadventure, but India’s LAC concerns with regards to China are still simmering, and the nation would be reluctant to open a front with Pakistan at the moment since every Indian military strategist would advise against a ‘Two Front War’’ with China and Pakistan. It has been India’s policy to deal with China and Pakistan one at a time since a two-front war would be devastating for India’s military.

Hence, the move not only serves as a rebuke to Modi’s Kashmir bravado but also re-establishes a political deterrence against India, which was upended by Pakistan’s failure to respond proportionately to Modi’s move in Kashmir. It also raises the costs on India’s rash behavior in the future. While Modi’s revocation of Kashmir’s status was hugely unpopular with the people of Kashmir, and India had to enforce a yearlong lockdown of the whole state, Pakistan’s elevation of the status is highly popular with people of G-B, who are already anticipating the move.

The advantages of having G-B as a constitutional province is self-evident for the purposes of protecting the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), legalising and securing funding for Diamer-Bhasha Dam, economic development, and meeting the chief seven-decade old demand of the people of G-B, among other economic and strategic needs of both China and Pakistan.

Ending the statelessness of G-B

Ending the statelessness of the people of G-B is acquiring new importance given the flux in great power relations in South and West Asia. Pakistan turned G-B into a colonial holding, which is the only region that fought a war to become part of Pakistan, betraying the trust and loyalty of the people. Three generations have endured statelessness and grueling political and psychosocial disorientation in G-B. In a world where the nation state determines the primary political identity of the people, not having one to fully own has been to G-B what living without a name for an individual would be: disorienting, maddening, and dehumanising. Despite such cognitive confusion and pain, the people of G-B have been loyal to the country, including contributing a full regiment to the Pakistan Army – the NLI, which has been the star performer in the Kargil War, winning two Nishan-e-Haider, and leading the battle against terrorism in ex-FATA.

Long deprivation has also alienated a significant number of people from the state, and separatist voices have strengthened. While that sentiment is still on the fringes, the general sense of deprivation is still present in G-B. In fact, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1999, irked by the subpar treatment of G-B by the federal government, had asked it to initiate measures to give adequate representation to the people of G-B, and their right to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan.

Legitimising and protecting CPEC and other foreign investments

The move legalises CPEC and other foreign investments in G-B. Since there is so much at stake with regards to CPEC, G-B being a disputed territory understandably makes the Chinese anxious. It’s important to assuage Chinese concerns about the safety of the massive $60 billion investment. The Chinese have been urging Pakistan to turn GB into a province for 20 years, and the time is definitely ripe now. A report in the South China Morning Post quoted analysts who believe that India and America would see the move to be influenced by China, and that India is likely to react strongly to this move as being provocative. Now while it is quite possible that China is encouraging Pakistan to go ahead with the move, it is important that Pakistan go through with this move to safeguard its own interests.

It’s not just the CPEC investment that needs legal assurances, but other foreign and domestic capital has been unwilling to come to G-B citing the legal mess that plagues the region. International Finance Corporation, a component of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, that advises, and finances investments is being wooed by the G-B government to encourage investors to G-B without much success, but the legal change opens the possibility of huge private investments in certain industries in G-B.