Gilgit-Baltistan is the sole route connecting Pakistan with China and the Central Asian states as the 1300 km Karakoram Highway runs through this sleepy, mountainous region. Recently, its geopolitical location has become intrinsic to the viability of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it is the entry point of the economic route, the mapping is reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road, which joined a myriad cultures and nations across the region.

Gilgit Baltistan (GB) can greatly contribute to the regional integration and connectivity, as it borders Pakistan, China, India, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, it makes it a natural gateway for trade and tourism. This geo-strategic region acts as a buffer between Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, it is the entry point of the vital Indus River and the Siachen glacier is also located here. GB is also home to four world’s mountain ranges Hindukush, Karakorum, Himalayas and Pamir, five worlds above eight thousand meter peaks, three longest glaciers Biafo, Baltoro and Batura while sixteen of famous lakes out of many.

This natural gateway will gain a lot from Chinese trade as well as tourism due to its stunning beauty while addition of economic zones will enhance business opportunities. This northern Pakistani region has 95 percent literacy rate and CPEC related projects would provide employment to educated human capital and ultimately, a higher standard of living to natives.

Right now, area’s communication set up is undergoing expansion, a massive fiber optic CPEC project is underway from Khunjerab to Rawalpindi at the cost of Rs. 4.4 billion, it would be completed in two years and provide an alternative telecommunication route between Pakistan and China. The Diamer-Bhasha dam is also being constructed in Gilgit-Baltistan, it would generate 4,500 MW of electricity, which ultimately help cut massive energy shortfall in the country. The CPEC would provide the option of exporting locally made products by road, and also offer bright trade opportunities to regional countries, in fact, GB can become Pakistan’s ‘northern Gwadar.’

As CPEC progresses, it becomes a veritable bete noire for neighbouring India, it wants to sabotage the project and claims that Gilgit–Baltistan is a disputed region. For this purpose, India unleashed a lot of fake news campaigns and rumours regarding GB, a lot of propaganda through Indian media. There is no insurgency or rebellion in GB, in fact, many inhabitants are serving in Pakistan’s state-owned entities including armed forces.

Since 1947, India never paid much attention to Gilgit-Baltistan or even claimed it along with Kashmir, so much so that the world did not even know that the ‘Kashmir dispute’ included this region, it was thought to be just the Kashmir valley, which was claimed by both countries. Indian claim on GB is a relatively recent development because it feels threatened, primarily by increasing Chinese influence and mainly due to the CPEC.

India woke up to the existence of Gilgit-Baltistan in 2009 and 2010, especially after it received reports that Chinese soldiers and workers had a presence in GB. Soon after, this is how it responded, “India believes that Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of parts of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947. The Chinese side is fully aware of India’s position and our concerns about Chinese activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”, the Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA) claimed in 2009. 

In 2015, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, surprised most nationals, when he reminded an audience of Border Security Forces (BSF) officers that “we also have a 106-km-long non-contiguous border with Afghanistan (Wakhan corridor) that we need to factor in,” this was a reference to Gilgit-Baltistan’s Afghan frontier.

Vikas Swarup, MEA spokesman, also remarked in similar vein “India’s position is well known. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, is an integral part of India. The election, which is scheduled for June 8, is as an attempt by Islamabad to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the regions.”

So finally, India wanted to claim Gilgit-Baltistan, notwithstanding the fact that when the Dixon proposals came up in 1950, India had accepted the proposal for allotment to Pakistan of those areas, where there was no apparent doubt about the wishes of the people aligned with Pakistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan was one of those areas. Gilgit- Baltistan’s geographical proximity with India has made it a sensitive zone and forward area.

Around this point in time, the Kashmir issue reached the boiling point and India took the matter to the United Nations, a plebiscite was ordained in a UN resolution. GB found itself back to the pavilion with Kashmir, even after having joined the Pakistan federation, the plebiscite was delayed by India for decades as it did not feel brave enough to face a referendum in Kashmir.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan government has tried to assimilate GB into the mainstream by making state employment available for its educated youth since a couple of decades, local entrepreneurs have also been facilitated and provided access to big investors, both locally and abroad. Back in 1979, the Karakoram Highway (KKH) was built to link GB with the rest of the country, it was an extremely difficult, inaccessible and challenging task for the builders, a Pakistani military’s construction company, known as frontier works organization (FWO). After 20 years (1959-1979) of valuable sacrifices of, about 810 Pakistanis and about 200 Chinese workers and troops, this Sino-Pak collaboration “KKH” become huge success.

The KKH made terrains accessible starting from Batgram to Khunjerab Pass on the Pakistan- China border and ushered in an economic, cultural and educational revolution amongst the locals. The CPEC is really a game changer for entire region particularly for people of Gilgit-Baltistan, as it’s filled with immense opportunities in terms of economic potential, energy through hydro-power resources, infrastructure and tourism attractions.

The CPEC mainly depends on the KKH, where Gilgit-Baltistan is concerned, it is aimed at widening and straightening of this existing highway. The location and basic alignment of route cannot be changed drastically due to the narrow valleys and mountainous terrain; an economic zone could be planned at a suitable location across river Indus in Bunji – Astore, where a wide stretch of land exists.

Every year, Gilgit-Baltistan observes two independence days, one is August 14th as part of Pakistan, and second is 1st November, when it achieved freedom from the shackles of Kashmiri Dogra rulers. The demand of Gilgit-Baltistan is to be recognised as Pakistan, not as India, this is something that the Indian government has to face sooner or later even regarding Kashmir issue. The GB area should be made into a province at the earliest to put an end to the ill- founded controversy, for all intents and purposes it is a part of Pakistan so there is no plausible reason for it to remain in a constitutional limbo and made to wait for its due rights. Today, Islamabad is working hard to enhance constitutional, parliamentary and budgetary rights to the people of GB. Islamabad’s effort will not only bring GB in mainstream but also strengthen this natural trade, economic and tourism gateway for regional prosperity.

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Sabena Siddiqi is a Lawyer, a Journalist writing on geopolitics and International law-related topics, also engaged in facilitating local charities for women and children since several years.