GB province: a CPEC prerequisite

Afzal A. Shigri

THE Pakistan government is projecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project as a panacea to all its problems, one which will result in unprecedented nationwide prosperity. Undoubtedly, an investment of the proposed scale and a project completed within a limited time frame is welcome, but a cautionary note is in order: mega projects of this scale also entail risks of equal magnitude. Therefore, it is vital to meticulously address all possible impediments in their implementation through careful planning in order to preclude any possibility of disruption in the smooth execution of projects of this nature.

One of the most crucial factors that should have been addressed prior to implementation was the settlement of the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which is strategically located at the entry point of the CPEC route. In view of the legal ambiguity over the status of GB and foreseeable difficulties for the execution of the project that can be created by our enemies, regional stakeholders have repeatedly highlighted the undefined status of the region and the opaque legal framework under which this area is governed as issues that need to be addressed forthwith.

In line with this reasoning, last summer the local legislative assembly had unanimously passed a resolution demanding a provincial status for this region. Due to the historical linkage of this issue with the Kashmir dispute, the assembly produced a carefully worded statement articulating that the demand for the status of a province was provisional and subject to the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute according to the UN resolution. This followed the precedent of a similar international border treaty with China in this region.

Gilgit-Baltistan is strategically located at the entry point of the CPEC route.

It appeared that the apprehensions of the stakeholders were justified when reports emerged of recent RAW-backed activity aimed at destabilising CPEC implementation. Fortunately, due to sound intelligence, police were able to catch anti-state elements involved in planning disturbance that could seriously threaten the CPEC route. Arms, propaganda material and a money trail were discovered, and the plan was foiled. As if to settle an additional score, the hostile elements planned to launch their nefarious activities from within an area that takes pride in the notable sacrifices made by many of their youth in the Pakistan-India conflict.

During his visit to GB a year ago, the prime minister established a committee under the adviser on foreign affairs for constitutional reforms for GB, with the proviso that the report on the findings would be submitted in three months’ time. Unfortunately, except for occasional news leaks and statements by ill-informed local leaders of the PML-N, nothing concrete has materialised. It then transpired that, apparently against the backdrop of virulent statements made by the Indian leadership reiterating their ‘claim’ to GB as an integral part of their country and the surfacing of anti-state activities, the Foreign Office scrambled to arrange a briefing for the local assembly. But, instead of discussing new options for constitutional rights, the forum just gave the oft-repeated excuse that nothing could be done in this regard due to its linkage with the Kashmir dispute.

The Foreign Office must remember that in 2009 when the PPP government promulgated the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, the same arguments were advanced. To the credit of the PPP, its government overruled these weak excuses, following up with swift, bold action by promulgating the order.

Unfortunately, it stopped short of declaring GB a province due to objections by Azad Jammu & Kashmir leaders, from whom the people of GB can expect little, as the former have repeatedly let down GB starting with the infamous Karachi Agreement when without consulting the locals, the control of GB was peremptorily handed over to the Pakistan bureaucracy to the detriment of fundamental constitutional rights for GB residents. Once again, like their predecessors, the leaders are objecting to reforms in the area. In one of their recent conferences, they even denied the GB leaders the right to speak.

A participant from GB in the Foreign Office briefing highlighted the irony of the Pakistan government rejecting the desire of GB residents for integration. It must be understood that the younger generation, unlike the more tolerant older generation, is likely to try and compel the government to talk to them on their own terms. The denial of full status of Pakistani citizenship to GB residents has made the new generation sceptical about the government’s intentions, as they cannot appreciate the historical context. They openly question the wisdom of accepting a lesser status despite unwavering loyalty towards and sacrifices for Pakistan.

The recent conspiracy to poison the minds of the youth by a well-resourced network should be the first omen of future threats. For the first time, a group of misguided GB residents has been arrested for possession of weapons and proof of financial support by anti-state elements on the payroll of India.

Based on their constitutionally enshrined claims, the Indians are vociferously objecting to construction of CPEC in the region. On the other hand, the Pakistani government, despite the steadfastness of the local population for unconditional integration with Pakistan, continues to be disoriented in its policy. It is high time to address the issue forcefully and incorporate the area in Pakistan with the condition that if and when a plebiscite is held, the people will be given a choice to exercise their vote. Inertia on this vital issue is no longer a choice, as the growing discontent can give rise to agitation that can imperil the legal status of the CPEC project route.

The Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009 was the first major, courageous step towards complete integration of the area thus providing the legal bedrock for the success of CPEC. It is strongly advocated that before hostile elements gain further influence in the area, this matter should be settled forthwith and GB should be provisionally declared a fifth province of Pakistan subject to a final settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2017

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