Context: Reports indicate that the Pakistan government is on the verge of declaring Gilgit-Baltistan a province of Pakistan.
- Technically speaking Gilgit-Baltistan was a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) at the time of Partition.
- British rule: The region because of its strategic importance in the context of the Great Game in Central Asia, had been leased to the British by the Dogra Maharaja.
- Gilgit had its own British-officered local army, the Gilgit Scouts, which switched allegiance to Pakistan within a week of the Maharaja’s accession to India.
- Since independence: From the beginning Gilgit-Baltistan was governed as a separate entity by Pakistan and not as a part of Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK).
- Islamabad had hesitated to declare it a province of Pakistan because of its claim that J&K is disputed territory and its future must be decided by a plebiscite among all its inhabitants.
Geopolitics of Gilgit-Baltistan
- The revocation of Article 370 by India and the bifurcation of the State into two Union Territories have sent a clear message that the Kashmir dispute is dead For India.
- Pakistan’s move is a clear reaction to the Indian decision.
- Public opinion in Gilgit-Baltistan has long been in favour of full integration into Pakistan as a province as the predominantly Shia and ethnically distinct population of the region has very little in common with PoK.
- Chinese interests:
- The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through Gilgit-Baltistan and China has invested heavily in the region.
- In view of India’s continuing claim to the area, Beijing is interested in delinking Gilgit-Baltistan formally from Kashmir in order to protect its investments.
- China opposes New Delhi’s decision to separate Ladakh from J&K.
- Beijing views the Indian move as the first step towards India attempting to enforce its claim on Aksai Chin, currently under Chinese occupation.
- Strategic location: It is contiguous to Ladakh as well as Xinjiang and could act as a staging post against India if a major India -China conflict erupts in Ladakh.
- There is already substantial Chinese civilian presence in Gilgit-Baltistan related to CPEC projects.
- China is interested in stationing military personnel as well.
India must calibrate its response carefully because merely by turning up the rhetorical heat, it may play into Chinese and Pakistani hands and escalate the situation. Rhetoric must always be determined by a meticulous assessment of capability.
Image source: https://www.oneindia.com/international