Gilgit-Baltistan: Larger regional role

By K.N. Pandita

Gilgit-Baltistan region has had chequered history ever since the partition of the sub-continent. Pakistan’s control over the region began with the incursion of tribesmen on Kashmir in October 1947. But the precise status of region’s relationship with Pakistan in the aftermath of the tribal incursion remained vague. It was neither independent, nor integrated nor federated. 

However, in 1953, Pakistan separated the region from the rest of the part of J&K State illegally held by her. It got the new name of Northern Areas (NA)

Interestingly, none among the signatories of Karachi agreement about separation of NA represented the region in question. Whatever the de jure status, its de facto status was that of a detached region now administered by Pakistani bureaucracy in collaboration with Pak Army under the loose framework.

At the UN India did occasionally raise the question of G-B albeit only leaving Pakistan unchecked for what she was doing there. Of course, twice did New Delhi shoot half-hearted missives to Pakistan mission in New Delhi during this long period; one was about Pakistan ceding 5,000 square kilometres of area in Aksaichin to China and the other was when China completed the Karakorum Highway that changed the entire strategy of the region in military and political terms.

However, Gilgit and Baltistan did remain in focus when India pre-empted Pakistan’s impending adventure of capturing Siachin Glacier in 1984. The Kargil war of 1999 could also be linked to strategic moves on G-B chessboard.

But the entire spectrum of our northern border strategy changed when with the tacit agreement of Pakistan, China sent in thousands of her PLA personnel disguised as technicians, skilled workers and labourers. For more than two years in the past, they were engaged in working on numerous developmental and infrastructural projects in the strategic region with Beijing making major investments. Building of link roads, bridges, tunnels etc. has been taken up on a large scale.

China has sounded Islamabad that it is interested in having a regular military base in Waziristan. Among other prospective enterprises are a link with Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor, and laying electric supply line from Rougan mega hydroelectric power generation plant in Tajikistan to Pakistan across Badakhshan mountain range and Wakhan corridor for which the Agha Khan Institute in Karachi has conducted survey. Apart from this, China has prepared the blue prints of a couple of major projects like railway line parallel to the Karakorum Highway, extending Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to Xingjian via Khunjarab Pass and another extension of TAPI gas pipeline.

In addition to strategic importance of the region, new thinking not only in Pakistan and China but also in the western circles is about economic and tourism potential likely to unfold once Gilgit-Baltistan region is opened to overland communication to and connectivity with Central Asia. It means revival of an artery of the ancient Silk Road.

Only recently, influential right-of-the centre think-tank ‘The Henry Jackson Society’ held an event titled “Gilgit-Baltistan: South-Central Asia’s Socio-Economic Integration and Regional Politics” at the House of Lords in London, which focused on reviving the southern branch of the Silk Route to help transform resource-rich region from being a battleground of three nuclear states into a hub of trade, tourism, economic integration and cultural exchange. This is for the first time that Henry Jackson Society, which has the backing of several senior politicians and ministers linked with the ruling Conservative party and military, hosted an event of this nature.

Focus has been on revival of travel across the line of control between Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh. Perception is that it would help more than ten thousand divided family members meet each after almost after seven decades. At the same time, it will help revive the Himalayan culture to counter rapidly growing extremism as well as transform the economy of the poverty stricken region.

It is strongly argued that Gilgit-Baltistan can interlink Central Asia with Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet which will boost potentials for eco-tourism and bring the much needed revenue. US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is reported to have said that prospects of reviving the Silk Route were encouraging and have brought Gilgit-Baltistan into the limelight. The attention of authorities in India and Pakistan is invited to repeating in the G-B region the experience of travel facilities between two parts of Kashmir.

The thinking is that with the opening of avenues of economic activity on a major scale in the region, the youth would be motivated to distance from the propaganda of religious extremists undertaken by the zealots of extremist religious groups in Pakistan. Closed borders, a lingering war and presence of armed forces and Taliban affiliated militants have impacted religious, cultural and economic composition of PoK but the opening of trade routes could contribute towards to the reversal of this situation.

Pakistan seems interested in opening G-B region to Central Asian region. Chilas will be getting an international airport. The News of Pakistan reported in its issue of 23 October that in a meeting held at President House, Islamabad with the Governor Gilgit-Baltistan Pir Karam Ali Shah, President Zardari stated that with the collaboration of China a Highway will be built between Gilgit and Kashmir. Gilgit-Skardu-Kargil road is also under consideration.

However, in the meanwhile, the European Parliament has criticized Pakistan for severe human rights violations in Gilgit-Baltistan. In a press release it says that “as the general security situation deteriorates in South Asia, and particularly in Pakistan, the world is becoming increasingly aware of the, as yet, relatively unknown area of Gilgit-Baltistan of Jammu and Kashmir – a region which is administered from Islamabad despite the wishes of the region’s peoples. The increasing presence of Chinese personnel further complicates the situation, adding another dangerous component with the involvement of a third nuclear power in a volatile region.”

Jurgen Creutzmann, Member of European Parliament and Chairman of the Friends of Gilgit-Baltistan European Union, showed concern over incidents of terrorism and sectarian violence perpetrated by armed groups. There has been a major escalation of sectarian violence because of Islamabad’s encouragement to fundamentalist Sunni groups; there has been an increase in violence against women and political groups seeking self-rule, he added.

He specifically asked Vice-President/High Representative of the Commission in European Parliament that “why can’t International Media and Human Rights Organizations get easy access to Gilgit-Baltistan?” He slammed the Pakistan Government for not giving access to them. He added, if this continues then Gilgit-Baltistan, heaven on earth, would turn into hell sooner or later.

The question is how can the region expect any radical change in its economy and living standard as long as rights of the people remain suppressed and discrimination rampant. Are the new players, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran all joining heads to draw political mileage out of the vacuum of sorts in the region?

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