THE Gilgit-Baltistan region was a part of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir, which was divided between India and Pakistan, and is directly ruled from Islamabad. It does not enjoy the constitutional status similar to, for example, the Punjab province, which has representatives in the parliament of Pakistan. Pakistan has been deliberating on whether to elevate the constitutional status of northern Gilgit-Baltistan region in a bid to provide legal cover to the multi-billion-dollar Chinese investment plan – the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This move could signal a historic shift in the country’s position on the future of the Kashmir region. The multi- billion dollar Chinese investment merits legal cover on an urgent basis for the greater long-term interests of the entire region. CPEC may very well provide the impetus for the whole nation to be on the same page for once. Although there are legal hurdles that block the process of development of reforms in this disputed region, the issue has also been projected negatively by the Indian media. For example, the videos posted by the Indian media that depicted protestors on the streets of Gilgit-Baltistan were not genuine rather they were clips of protests that were carried out after the Hazara killings in the year 2013. This is one of the many reports that the Indian media outlets have released whose only aim seems to be undercutting the progress of CPEC in Pakistan. Such negativity can be perceived as interference and, more worryingly, as an attempt to sabotage the process of development in Gilgit-Baltistan.
GB holds a pivotal position in this project as it is the ‘gateway to CPEC’. The Khunjerab Pass between Pakistan and China is the line of connection that acts as the archway of CPEC and thus will mark the beginning of an era of economic, historical and cultural bondage between these two countries. CPEC will usher in an era of prosperity for the people through increased trade and tourism. Once the Western route starting from Gilgit-Baltistan is managed and the construction of Gwadar is complete, this distance will reduce from 16000km to about 5,000 km. Thus this venture is extremely cost-effective for China in the long run and it emphasises the central role that the land of Gilgit- Baltistan plays in this regard.
The general populace does believe that this project will bring advancement and infrastructural development with it. The close proximity facilitated by road links will increase the likelihood of the goods from Gilgit-Baltsitan to be sold in Chinese markets. The groundbreaking optic fibre line being laid down from Khunjerab to Rawalpindi will convert this region into the hub of high speed internet headwork of Pakistan, thus obliterating all grievances against the antiquated and broken telecommunication signals in Gilgit-Baltsitan. In the contemporary world, economic interdependence has surpassed conventional politics which demands that countries put aside issues that hold them back from economic development. Thus it would be wise for all the stakeholders to embrace CPEC and the benefits it yields for immediate up-gradation of the living standards of the people in the region.
A two-part solution to resolve the socio-economic and political problems of GB can be deployed namely, a short term solution and a long term solution. In the short term, to seek maximum benefit from CPEC and its projects, along with other parts of the country, Gilgit-Baltistan must be added to the Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) on CPEC. This addition can be added to the current status of Gigit-Baltistan with reference to the limited autonomy that has been given to it under the constitution. The JCC is a committee of mutual interest and structure that acts as a bridge between the National Reforms and Development Commission (NRDC) of China and the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms (MPDR) in Pakistan to oversee the CPEC project. Representation of Gilgit-Batistan in JCC will clarify all misperceptions regarding its lack of participation in the project.
In the long term, once the mega project of CPEC has bolstered up the economy of the region, then the next step can be the socio-political and infrastructural reforms. They will have to be brought about under the ‘special status’ that has been given to this region instead of delaying the economic opportunities for development due to an issue that has not been resolved for more than 60 years. There are examples of other countries that have such territorial disputes and yet the development of the indigenous population has been carried out regardless of their unresolved territorial issues. For example, China has brought about immense development in Tibet to win support of the local people. Thus following this example economic development can be brought to the doorstep of the people of Gilgit first, and then the task of legal reforms can be initiated. If this issue is politicized further, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will be deprived of the economic benefits that this new project brings.
Furthermore, if the environment is conducive the issue must be resolved according to the wishes of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan by holding a referendum. To benefit from CPEC and its projects, Gilgit-Baltistan must be added to the JCC on CPEC. Development should be continued at all costs. Once CPEC has strengthened up the economy of the region, the next step can be the introduction of socio-political and infrastructural reforms. Moreover, a constitutional package granting maximum powers to locally elected representatives, ensuring their presence in parliament and other forums, appears to be an ideal solution. However, again this should not happen without a meaningful consultation with political forces in Gilgit- Baltistan. It is imperative that the rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are ensured through constitutional measures and institutional rearrangements.