Pakistan seems to have tied itself into another knot. Just a day after waving its irrational map that claims Kashmir, Junagadh and other Indian territories at the virtual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 15 September, it now seems that Islamabad, in a U-turn of the century, is about to incorporate Gilgit-Baltistan into a full-fledged province. If we go by Pakistan’s stance of 73 years, the changes would mean that the Kashmir dispute is over, and the two neighbours had better take a sharp red pencil and turn the Line of Control into an international border. But nothing is ever simple where Pakistan is concerned. It seems Rawalpindi would like to have the cake and eat it too, particularly when the cake is made in China.
For one, the proposed ‘inclusion’ of Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan legalises the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) activity in the region, and allows Beijing greater ingress. Second, if the India-China conflict flares up, and Pakistan opens a second front, Kashmir would truly get internationalised, with the United Nations forced to step in; a process that has been foreseen by Indian officials but with one important difference – Pakistan gets to keep Gilgit-Baltistan, even as its multicoloured map expands its claims. If there is a war, to the victor goes the spoils. And given the way the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) works, possession is nine points of the law. Things just got more interesting.
At SCO, Pakistan was playing for high stakes
Pakistan can’t be faulted for sheer effrontery. It may be recalled that a mild stir had been created by Pakistan’s move of publishing a map that showed not just Kashmir, but also Sir Creek, Junagadh, and Siachen Glacier as part of its territory. Twitter and officialdom laughed it to scorn, and there it ended. It was this map that Pakistan’s representative saw fit to display at the SCO meeting, thus violating Article 2 of the charter of the organisation, which bars such cartographic adventurism. While National Security Advisor Ajit Doval left the meeting, the annoyance of the Russian side should be evaluated from the fact that Moscow is expecting about a billion dollars from the sale of 21 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to New Delhi. Pakistan was playing for high stakes, which was to make its absurd map ‘official’ by presenting it at a multilateral forum where China is the dominant member. That map, critically, also shows the Ladakh border as un-demarcated. No guesses as to who prodded Islamabad into this.
On 16 September, Pakistan’s Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Ali Amin Khan Gandapur — the man who threatened a missile attack on any country supporting India — announced that the Imran Khan government had decided to give constitutional rights to Gilgit-Baltistan, the last colony in the world.
Separated from the larger Kashmir after the war by ‘tribals’ in 1947, the region underwent another surgery through the ‘Karachi Agreement’ of April 1949, signed between a Pakistani minister, the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) ‘President’ and the representative of the Muslim Conference. The agreement, which existed in secrecy till about 1990, hived off an area more than five times the size of the so-called ‘Azad Kashmir’, to form what was then vaguely called the Northern Areas. It was kept in a state of limbo — constitutionally not Pakistani ‘territory’, nor part of ‘Kashmir’, but completely controlled by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs back in Islamabad.
That’s how things stood for 73 years, with even the Pakistan Supreme Court refusing to allow any change in the region’s status, since it would impinge on Pakistan’s ‘principled’ stance on the Kashmir dispute. It is this key component of its Kashmir policy that Islamabad has chosen to overturn ostensibly to win over the people in local elections in November. This reason hardly seems unlikely, given the harried status of the two large opposition parties — the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) — and their leaders. Moreover, the civilian government has no power to decide on such a course without the military’s nod. And the military is not at all interested in providing any rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
There are two possible reasons for this watershed change in policy.
Easing Chinese access
First, the legalising of Pakistan’s stranglehold over Gilgit-Baltistan means that roadblocks to Chinese investors in setting up industry or buying up land will be removed. No bank worth its bonds will give loans to a project where the issuance of a title of ownership of the land (Pakistani/Kashmiri/local) is unclear. Indeed, the Minister for Kashmir Affairs Ali Amin Khan Gandapur also announced that the Chinese-financed Moqpondass SEZ (special economic zone) will now go ahead. This project takes up 250 acres officially and 500 acres unofficially. Earlier, the land was sought to be acquired under the archaic rules of the Dogra period, which allowed takeover of community land without compensation. That naturally led to protests. Another project in nearby Diamer was taken over under a different set of rules altogether. This medley of confusing rules led to delays, including in the Chinese-financed Gilgit KIU Hydropower plant, or even for private Chinese citizens acquiring land. Giving full constitutional status to the former colony removes these anomalies.
There is, however, a second likelihood, which is linked to the timing of this decision.
LAC conflict and its shadow on Pakistan
That the conflict between India and China in Ladakh could spin out of control is an open secret. Remember that Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has warned of a two-front war. It would seem that Pakistan is trying to ensure that, should India and Pakistan (and China) come to the point of an open war in Kashmir, this part of Kashmir remains constitutionally safe, and out of reach of any meddling United Nations resolutions that will come into play as hostilities break out.
Pakistan has thrice tried to get the Kashmir issue into the agenda of the UNSC, with the support of China, on the grounds that after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, there is heightened danger of war between the two nuclear powers. Each time, the UNSC has dismissed it as a bilateral issue and not relevant for discussion. With not two but three nuclear powers involved now, the UN will be there in a jiffy.
Either or both scenarios favour the two all-weather friends.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.