Pak's Gilgit-Baltistan move wrong

India has protested Pakistan’s proposed integration of Gilgit-Baltistan as the country’s fifth province. The step is likely to tighten Islamabad’s illegal control over the region. India’s concern is understandable. Gilgit-Baltistan is Indian territory, land that was part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which became a part of India when its ruler acceded to India. Pakistan’s subsequent invasion and occupation of a third of J&K brought Gilgit-Baltistan under its control. However, in the seven decades since this occupation Gilgit-Baltistan’s status within Pakistan has been unclear. It has been in a constitutional limbo. By making it the fifth province, Pakistan is bestowing constitutional status on it. The move has come on China’s prodding. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, a key section of which runs through Gilgit-Baltistan. China was keen that its massive investment there had legal cover.  It is reported to have nudged Islamabad into extending constitutional status to Gilgit-Baltistan. India has opposed the CPEC project because it runs through Indian territory occupied by Pakistan. It has been protesting the project strongly. It can be expected to step up its objections even more robustly now with Pakistan conferring provincial status on Gilgit-Baltistan. Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that India will continue to affirm its claim over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir including Gilgit-Baltistan.

Pakistan’s proposed granting of provincial status on Gilgit-Baltistan has drawn the ire of Kashmiri separatists. The move has laid bare Pakistan’s real intentions vis-à-vis Kashmir. Contrary to what some Kashmiris have been made to believe all along, Pakistan, as India warned for decades, is interested in annexing all of Kashmir and not in helping in the establishment of an independent state. By making Gilgit-Baltistan a province, Pakistan has dropped the charade.

While India must draw the world’s attention to Pakistan’s illegal action in Gilgit-Baltistan, it would do well to think through its strategy on Kashmir. In its rhetoric, India continues to lay claim to all of the erstwhile princely state. However, since 1972 at least, it is evident that it is willing to accept a settlement that will see the Line of Control being converted into an International Border. That is, it is willing to legalise the status quo in Kashmir. If this is so, Pakistan’s proposed granting of provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan opens up space for the two countries to reach a settlement. India under Indira Gandhi and Pakistan under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were in favour of turning the LoC into the IB. It found articulation in the 1972 Shimla Agreement. India must reach out to Pakistan and quietly urge it to settle the border in Kashmir.

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