Fri. Nov 27th, 2020

TIME FOR BOLD ACTIONS: Settling the Constitutional Status of Gilgit-Baltistan

By Izhar Hunzai

Historically ruled as a collection of independent mountain states, GB and Chitral have enjoyed distinct political identities for much of their history. This system began to break down when a local prince, Karim Khan over a succession dispute, overthrew the ruler of Gilgit with the help of a Sikh army in 1843. In 1846, the East India Company sold ‘all the hilly territories east of Indus” including parts of current GB, to Maharaja of Kashmir, under the Treaty of Amritsar. In 1877, the British retook control of Gilgit from the Maharaja to stop a perceived threat from Russia, and formally established their rule under Gilgit Agency, but the internal autonomy remained intact with local rulers. On August 14, 1947, the departing British Administration handed over Gilgit Agency to the Maharaja of Kashmir. A war of liberation ensued in GB against the new colonial rule, and the heroic struggle culminated in independence on 1 November 1947. On 15th of November 1947, the newly founded Republic of Gilgit declared its unconditional accession with the state of Pakistan. GB’s only link with the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir has been the forceful subjugation and literal sellout of the area by one colonial ruler to another! After liberation of the area and decision to join Pakistan, this link was severed forever.

Jugular Vein of Pakistan

Bordered and connected with China through KKH, GB has served as a land-based security corridor for China and Pakistan, and now this geopolitically strategic region is poised to take a new geo-economic significance as gateway to China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

The region of GB, spread over an area of 72,400 km (seven times bigger than AJK) is a treasure-trove of natural resources. Its water resources alone are considered as a sustainable ‘white’ goldmine, which can generate over 100,000 MW of clean hydropower. Even if a fraction of this resource is developed, it can turn Pakistan into an energy exporting country on CPEC. Moreover, it has huge reserves of industrial and gemological minerals in its mountains; its climate is ideal for growing high quality fruits and other agricultural products. The area is home to one of the biggest clusters of mountain peaks and glaciers in the world. It has a young an increasingly literate work force. Yet, these human and material resources have remained grossly under-utilized for the last seven decades, simply because its disputed status prevents investment from multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, Asian Development, the Islamic Bank, etc.

It is clear that given the strategic location of GB and its economic potential, Pakistan can never give up its claim over GB. The integration option can be adjusted to accommodate Pakistan’s stance over the broader issue of J&K. On the other hand, keeping GB’s status as a grey area amounts to accepting a sovereignty vacuum and inviting India’s un due interference.

The second part of this argument is that regardless of Pakistan’s legalistic approach on J&K, India will continue to interfere in this area under the current constitutionally unsettled status. The example is the pressure it recently brought on the international lending agencies to walk away from the planned investments in Diamer-BAsha and Bunji projects. It may be a good time for Pakistan’s establishment to demonstrate its seriousness, by taking a bold step in asserting its sovereignty over GB.

This essential point is that GB is the true jugular vein of Pakistan and, as all students of international politics know, national interest and not UN Resolutions drive national policies.

Aspirations of People

For the past seven decades, the people of GB have been demanding full integration with the federation of Pakistan. But the constitutional status of the region has been kept in limbo for misconstrued historical reasons.

The time has come to recognize the liberation of GB on 1st November 1947, and welcome the offer of accession to Pakistan made on 15 November 1947. The time has come to re-write the social contract between the people of GB and federation of Pakistan and extend the spirit of Articles 1 and 3 of the Constitution of Pakistan to the people of GB.

The constitutional question and meaningful self-governance are also a prerequisite for the success of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The basic need is to create an empowered provincial government in GB that works through the mandate of people and addresses their sense of deprivation, their current needs and future aspirations, which are well known and summarized bellow.

  1. Ultimate integration of GB with the Federation of Pakistan as a Constitutional Province, or a Constitutionally protected Autonomous Region, with full rights of a province, addressing the longstanding demand of the people of the region
  2. Or an interim status, making this integration ‘provisional’ to accommodate Pakistan’s internal and international stances on disputed territories; the precedence is Pak-China Border Agreement of 1962, which a ‘Provisional border’
  3. Empower and decentralize institutions of governance and economic management to local people, and restore political, economic, religious and cultural rights and freedoms of people
  4. Reform and establish a modern and equitable social sector, including the provision and promotion of high quality services in health, education, sanitation, as well as wellbeing and social protection of the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the society
  5. Develop and sustainably manage natural resources of the region, giving highest priority to private sector-led development, promoting clean industries, creating jobs and ensuring local ownership of economic assets and participation in investment opportunities
  6. Encourage a merit based system that provides equal opportunity for employment and upward social mobility for all, especially the working classes, youth and women
  7. Ensure an accountable and responsible system of governance, law and order and promote regional peace and reconciliation

 Available Options

Option 1: Full Integration with Pakistan

This is the first and preferred option for the people of GB. They have liberated this part of the country from colonial rule in 1947, and voluntarily opted to become part of Pakistan with all the rights, privileges and obligations. This accession is covered under Article 1 (d) of the Constitution of Pakistan, and does not require any amendment.[1] The article 370 of Indian constitution also grants special autonomous status and privileges to the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir.

Option 2: Provisional Province Status

The argument that a full integration with Pakistan will amount to changing Pakistan’s long-standing position on Kashmir is unfounded on several grounds. Firstly, the Sino-Pak border agreement of 1962 is a good precedence, which establishes Pakistan’s de facto sovereignty over GB, containing a provision to revisit the border agreement, after the Kashmir dispute is resolved between all parties. Following the same argument, GB can be made a province of Pakistan, with a provision to address the final status when the dispute over Kashmir is finally resolved.

Option 3: An Autonomous Region

A third option, based on another historical precedence is to integrate Chitral and GB and create an autonomous region, calling it the Autonomous Region of Hindukush, Karakoram and Himalaya (HKH), similar to Hong Kong, which has its own autonomy, but under the sovereignty of China. This option should accompany a plan that makes this region a free trade zone, attracting tourism and investment from all sides. This will be a great experiment in geo-economics, turning this region at the cross roads of Asia, as a regional hub for trade, commerce, travel and tourism.

Conclusion

A clear and unambiguous legal status is key to making CPEC a success, attracting investment, and turning this area into a vibrant free trade zone at the crossroads of Asia, not only between Pakistan, China and Central Asia, but also eventually India, if it demonstrates the necessary goodwill towards its neighbors. This will be a win-win for the people of GB, Pakistan and China.

[1] Article 1 (d): Such States and territories as are or may be included in Pakistan, whether by accession or otherwise.

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