A proposed bill tabled in Pakistan Parliament to integrate Gilgit-Baltistan as its fifth province has evoked strong reactions from Kashmiri separatist politicians against the move.
Making their displeasure clear about any such proposed move by Islamabad, Hurriyat Leader Shabbir Ahmed Shah said that if Pakistan integrates GB as its fifth province, “it will have an adverse impact on the entire Kashmir dispute. This will also give India a chance to make a stronger claim for this side of Kashmir and also weaken our case at the UN.”
The separatist leader also said that “the merger of Gilgit-Baltistan will also have a significant implication on the demand for implementation of the United Nations resolutions which call for referendum in the state as it existed prior to the division in 1947.”
Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir divided between the two neighbours, is treated as a separate geographical entity by Pakistan. It has a regional Assembly and an elected Chief Minister.
It is believed that China’s concerns about the unsettled status of the region, which serves as the only entry point of the $52 million China-Pak Economic Corridor, has prompted this move. If Pakistan does go ahead with the proposed move it could signal a historic shift in the country’s position on the future of the wider Kashmir region.
“We are not against the idea of reviving the old silk route but when it comes to making it a province, we have our apprehensions. Trade should happen, but not at the cost of Kashmir,” Shah said.
“I have personally made our apprehensions clear to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif about the plan through all the channels available to us. So far we have received positive feedback from them,” he added.
The united faction of the Hurriyat Conference led by Syed Ali Shah Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Mohammad Yasin Malik also released a joint statement saying any proposal to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as the fifth state of Pakistan will have an impact on the Kashmir dispute.
Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front chief Yasin Malik also wrote a letter to PM Nawaz Sharif, pleading with him to not go ahead with the proposed move. “If Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over Gilgit-Baltistan, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it. With one stroke, Pakistan will be helping India to consolidate its writ on Kashmir,” Malik wrote.
“I urge and appeal to you to stay away from such a course of action,” he said in the letter.
In response to Malik’s letter, Sharif has written to him calling the news of integration of GB into Pakistan a case of “misperceptions and misinterpretation.”
He said, “I would like to make it unambiguously clear that Pakistan is fully aware of the sensitivities attached to Gilgit-Baltistan with regard to the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Media speculations are a result of either misperception or misinterpretation. The reforms intended in Gilgit-Baltistan are aimed at empowering the people of this region and giving them a greater say in their governance. I would like to assure you that Pakistan will never compromise on its principled stance on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, which is based on the UN Security Council resolutions.”
However, according to local daily Kashmir Reader, members of the separatists leadership based in Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) have given their vote for the integration of GB during a closed door meeting with PaK Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider in Islamabad a few days ago.
The report said that around 30 members from Hurriyat, JKLF and other separatist parties met Mr. Haider and were mostly in favour of the move to integrate GB pointing towards a stark difference between the stand taken by the separatist top brass in the valley.
Gilgit Baltistan serves as the only entry point for CPEC corridor a $52 billion Chinese project that intends to connect Xinjiang province in China to Gwadar port in Balochistan in Southeastern Pakistan through a vast network of railways, roadways and free industrial zones.
Dr. Siddiq Wahid a senior fellow at Center for Research and Policy believes if Pakistan does go ahead with the integration of GB “it will further complicate the conflicted dispute.”
“It is already wracked by, among other things, legal ambiguities. Can Islamabad act unilaterally over a region whose sovereignty is disputed? If so, does this allow New Delhi to act unilaterally on issues concerning its half of the erstwhile ceasefire line that is now called the Line of Control? These questions, in effect, translate into creating yet another layer in the political debris of this complex conundrum,” he added.
India has so far vigorously opposed the multi-billion dollar CPEC and has called it illegal as it passes through the disputed region which is also claimed by India in entirety.
“Kashmir will be watching to see what Delhi's reaction to this move is. If it is rhetorical sabre rattling without any concrete action to counter Pakistan's violation of the Simla Agreement, it will confirm to the peoples of the State that New Delhi and Islamabad collude over the J&K state when it suits their own interests and mock fight each other,” Wahid said.