The status of Pakistan’s far northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan -- part of the larger disputed region of Kashmir -- has been in limbo for decades.
Pakistan attained the remote, mountainous area in a war with archrival India in 1948 following the bloody partition of British India.
Since then, Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional status has been undefined. Locally elected officials have few powers, the territory has no representation in the national parliament, and it receives only a fraction of the national budget.
Successive Pakistani governments have feared that changing the status of the impoverished region could undermine Islamabad’s case in the United Nations for full control over Kashmir -- the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan that is claimed in full by both countries.
But that could be about to change after Prime Minister Imran Khan said on November 1 that his government would grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, though he gave no timeline.
That has been a longstanding demand of the region’s roughly 2 million people, who have been unable to enjoy autonomy or the same rights as other Pakistanis. They have called for the territory to be merged into Pakistan and declared a separate province.
“A perfect storm of domestic and regional factors has given Islamabad a compelling reason to act now,” says Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Strategically located, Gilgit-Baltistan is Pakistan’s only land link to China, a strategic ally and major investor in Pakistan’s economy.
The territory is at the heart of the $65 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a massive project inaugurated in 2015 that consists of rail, road, and energy infrastructure.
CPEC forms the cornerstone of China’s wider $1 trillion project known as the Belt and Road Initiative that aims to build infrastructure, expand trade links, and deepen ties across Asia, Europe, and Africa.
But Gilgit-Baltistan is claimed by India, which has long protested against CPEC activity through the disputed territory.
“Islamabad likely saw an opportunity to settle the status of a region that is claimed by India and is envisioned to be a key area of construction for CPEC,” says Kugelman.
Analysts say China has been pressuring Pakistan to resolve the status of Gilgit-Baltistan to safeguard its own economic and strategic interests in the country.
“The Pakistani state has often preferred to keep its border regions, whether on the Indian or Afghan side, as ungoverned spaces,” says Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani diplomat and a director at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “The Chinese state prefers to keep greater control over border areas.”
Haqqani says the greater control Islamabad and the country’s powerful military has in Gilgit-Baltistan, the “deeper the Pakistani security presence in the region and the greater likelihood of Chinese security presence as well.”
Years of delays and implementation problems have slowed down the pace of CPEC.
Khan’s government has raised concerns about the long-term implications of becoming dependent on China. Proponents of the project say it will give Pakistan the infrastructure boost needed to kick-start its struggling economy at a time when Islamabad is failing to attract international investors.
The United States and many EU countries have criticized China's project and its lending for regional infrastructure efforts, warning that it has saddled some developing countries with debts they cannot afford to repay.
Tit For Tat
Pakistan’s plan to alter the status of Gilgit-Baltistan is also seen in part as a response to India’s decision in August 2019 to revoke the special autonomy of India-controlled Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region, and to bring it under New Delhi’s direct rule.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government stripped Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood, scrapped its separate constitution, and removed inherited protections on land and jobs.
New Delhi also unleashed a crackdown on militants and supporters of independence or unification with the Pakistani-administered part of Kashmir.
Residents of the heavily militarized Indian-controlled region of Kashmir say security forces have arrested thousands of young men since the crackdown began. They claim that security forces have raided homes, carried out beatings and used electric shocks on people, and threatened to take away and marry-off their female relatives.
The Indian actions have outraged Pakistan, which in a symbolic move last year unveiled a new political map of the country that included Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistan also named a highway in Islamabad after Srinagar, the major city in Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Islamabad rejects what it sees as an annexation of Kashmir by India, which in turn opposes Islamabad's position that the region's fate should be decided through a referendum conducted by the United Nations. Most Muslim Kashmiris want the territory to be united under Pakistani rule or to be run as a sovereign country.
Over the past year, Indian and Pakistani soldiers have traded gunfire almost daily along the Line of Control -- the de facto border between the two countries in Kashmir -- killing dozens of civilians and soldiers on both sides.
The neighbors have fought two wars and a limited conflict over Kashmir since the end of British colonial rule in 1947.
“Islamabad's move will have an impact on relations with India, the message being that Pakistan, too, can make internal changes that India may not like but will have to accept,” says Haqqani.
“This move will also have an impact on any future discussion on the issue of Kashmir between the two countries,” he adds.
New Delhi quickly rejected Pakistan’s plan to change Gilgit-Baltistan's status, insisting that the territory is an “integral part” of India.
The Pakistani Foreign Ministry, in response, said the “administrative, political, and economic reforms are a longstanding demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.”
Analysts say Gilgit-Baltistan’s importance has increased not only because it is part of CPEC but also due to the ongoing India-China border standoff.
The two countries have been locked in a months-long border confrontation in the Ladakh region, which is part of India-administered Kashmir. China also claims part of Ladakh.
Both countries have amassed thousands of troops along the de facto border, with troops killing each other -- sometimes even in hand-to-hand combat.
In the deadliest clashes in decades, 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese troops were killed in Ladakh in June.
The two countries fought a war in 1962, which India lost. India accuses China of occupying 38,000 square kilometers of its territory. Several rounds of talks over the past 30 years have failed to resolve the boundary disputes.
India holds around 45 percent of Kashmir and Pakistan more than one-third. The remainder is controlled by China.
“In effect, changing Gilgit-Baltistan’s status delivers a boost for Pakistan's Chinese ally and a blow to its Indian rival,” says Kugelman.
Analysts say there are also domestic reasons that Islamabad has decided to alter the status of Gilgit-Baltistan.
There has been growing discontent with Khan and the military, which has an oversized role in the domestic and foreign affairs of the South Asian nation of some 220 million.
The military’s influence has become more overt under Khan, with former army officials taking over key government positions.
In Khan's two years as prime minister, there also has been mounting censorship and crackdowns against dissent. He has also been criticized for his handling of Pakistan's faltering economy, which was in crisis even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.
The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a recently formed alliance of 11 opposition parties, has been staging mass rallies against Khan, demanding he resign. The alliance has also mounted the most significant challenge in years to the military, publicly calling out the institution for its alleged meddling in politics.
Analysts say Khan’s decision to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan -- a longstanding demand by locals -- could have been a tactic to ensure his embattled Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) government won a tightly fought local election.
Khan’s announcement came just weeks before November 15 elections for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, which has little power.
“We can see this move, on one level, as an effort to get votes in the Gilgit-Baltistan election -- and given the result, it appears the strategy paid off,” says Kugelman.
The PTI and its allies won the most seats in the election. Opposition parties accused the government of rigging the vote.
Khan said the results in Gilgit-Baltistan were a rejection of the PDM’s “narrative.”
Any change in Gilgit-Baltistan’s status would require a constitutional amendment, which must be passed by two-thirds of the parliament. If finalized, it would make the territory Pakistan's fifth province.
The proposal is unlikely to face resistance inside Pakistan, where reports say opposition parties met secretly with the country’s army and intelligence chiefs in September and offered their support for Gilgit-Baltistan to become a province.
But analysts say there are doubts about whether Islamabad and the military will follow through.
Khan is not the first leader to promise a change in the region’s status.
Previous attempts have been shelved over fears that it would adversely impact Pakistan’s case in the UN for full control over Kashmir.
Pro-Pakistan politicians in India-administered Kashmir have also previously said establishing the new province would harm their chances of gaining independence from new Delhi or of joining Pakistan.
Analysts also say Islamabad will be reluctant to weaken its chokehold on Gilgit-Baltistan, which is largely ruled directly by the federal government.
“There is the question as to whether Islamabad would want to relinquish so much power and control in a highly strategic region where it has long held sway,” says Kugelman.
Kugelman says questions over how much power the federal government will continue to wage in a hypothetically new province will come to the fore if CPEC eventually makes its long-anticipated inroads into Gilgit-Baltistan.
CPEC is largely overseen by the military and a retired general is at the helm of the newly formed CPEC Authority, a government body authorized to oversee the projects in Pakistan.
Under a proposed law put forward earlier this year, Khan’s government would cede further ground to the military, granting it wide-ranging autonomy to implement CPEC with limited oversight.
“Given the stakes of CPEC, you can be sure that the Pakistani government in Islamabad, and the military, will want to be involved,” he says.