Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may have successfully silenced those who have been alleging that this deal is a complete sellout by giving the masses heavenly illusions of how the CPEC would turn Pakistan into a land of flowing milk and honey. However, his plan to circumvent the contentious legal issue concerning ‘ownership’ of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) (through which the CPEC runs) by making it the fifth province of Pakistan has attracted fierce criticism from both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). Unlike the last time when Sharif pacified the ‘azadi’ camp in Indian administered Kashmir (IaK) by calling the GB merger proposal mere speculation, this ruse won’t work this time as it has very serious and far reaching consequences for the movement for the ‘right to self determination’.
Islamabad’s decision to declare GB as the fifth state of Pakistan has sent alarm bells ringing in the separatist camp and in its statement the ‘joint’ Hurriyat has rightly termed this move as “unacceptable.” It has also warned Pakistan that “any deviation in its stance about Kashmir and its geographical entity is improper and will prove detrimental for the Kashmir cause,” the Hurriyat as asked Islamabad to desist from taking this step. United Jihad Council (UJC) chief and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) supremo Syed Salahuddin too has expressed his reservations on Islamabad’s decision to make GB a state of Pakistan on the grounds that it “will have serious ramifications on the Kashmir issue as well as Kashmir centric resolutions.”
However, the proposal of merging GB into Pakistan hasn’t come as a bolt from the blue. In January last year the media reported that this issue was under consideration and it had prompted JKLF chairman Yasin Malik to shoot off a missive to Nawaz Sharif warning him of the serious consequences this proposal. In his reply, Sharif not only dismissed media reports about the GB merger plan as speculations of “either misperception or misinterpretation” but also assured Malik that “Pakistan will never compromise on its principled stance on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute, which is based on the UN Security Council resolutions.” So, was the GB merger issue really a mere case of media speculation?
If related events are any indication then it doesn’t appear to be so at all.
Had the plan to make GB the fifth province of Pakistan been mere speculation then where the need was for the Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) Legislative Assembly to pass not one but two resolutions against this proposal? If there was no move to merge GB with Pakistan then what was GB Chief Minister’s spokesperson Sajjad-ul-Haq referring to when he told AFP during January last year that “A high level committee formed by the Prime Minister is working on the issue, you will hear good news soon”? If there was no such plan then how come “a third top government from GB” speaking on the condition of anonymity told AFP that the GB merger move was to assuage Beijing’s concerns because “China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory claimed both by India and Pakistan”?
Now that this issue has cropped up once again the suspicion that it is Beijing that is prodding Islamabad to do something to ‘legalise’ the territorial status of GB becomes all the stronger. And this is understandable because being a conservative investor, China would not like to put nearly half a billion dollars on the CPEC that could possibly run into legal trouble since it runs through PaK which is “disputed territory.” The factual position which the separatists need to take note of is that while Beijing most certainly wants the CPEC, Islamabad wants the money China has promised it for this project even more and Beijing knows this. So, even though Beijing can’t afford to scrap the CPEC venture, it can still call the shots and this is evident from its view that India and Pakistan need to resolve the Kashmir issue “through dialogue and consultation through proper manner.” Moreover, by saying that the CPEC will not affect China’s position on the Kashmir issue, Beijing has made it clear that it since is not prepared to modify its stand on Kashmir just for the sake of the CPEC, Islamabad has to do something to ‘legalise’ this project!
So, on the GB merger issue Islamabad is caught between the devil and the deep sea. If it goes ahead with the plan to make GB the fifth province of Pakistan, it will only strengthen India’s stand on the Kashmir issue but if it chooses to maintain status quo it will create fissures in the relations of two “all weather friends” which Islamabad can ill-afford! However, since there is a lot of money at stake, it wouldn’t be surprising if Islamabad goes ahead with the plan to make GB its fifth province. And this is why our leaders need to work out the strategy that should be followed in the case of such an eventuality.
Had the Hurriyat come out more forcefully against the GB merger proposal in January last year, it is likely that this issued wouldn’t have ever come up again. It doesn’t require rocket science to understand that the moment Islamabad tinkers with the territorial status of PaK it will ‘kill’ the Kashmir issue. One of the main reasons why both the UN and international community don’t take Islamabad’s stand of Kashmir being a ‘disputed territory’ seriously is due to Pakistan’s ill-considered move of ceding part of PaK to China in 1963. Even a layman will tell you that once something is legally declared ‘disputed’, none of its claimants has any ownership right over it. Thus, if J&K is ‘disputed territory’ as Islamabad claims then its act of ceding PaK territory to China is without any doubts, illegal. And if Pakistan maintains that this action is legal, then the only conclusion is that J&K is not ‘disputed territory’!
The Hurriyat has taken a wise step by making it clear to Islamabad that “Kashmir, Ladakh, Jammu, Azad Kashmir and GB are a single entity” and it must maintain this stand at all costs. While remaining grateful and indebted to Pakistan for supporting the Kashmir cause is understandable, our leaders also have an onerous responsibility towards the people of Kashmir and thus they cannot remain mute spectators when plans for the dismemberment of J&K are being considered. Since Islamabad has always supported the Kashmir cause and refers to Kashmir as its “jugular vein,” it may appear that the GB merger proposal would not materialise as it will sound the death knell for the ‘right to self determination’ movement in IaK. However, our leaders should not reject the possibility of economic considerations prevailing over moral issues and compelling Pakistan to go ahead with its GB merger plan!
Tailpiece: While people in Pakistan are bust speculating whether Islamabad will go ahead with its GB merger plan, in IaK the burning question is that at a time when the GB merger issue is hanging over our heads like the proverbial sword of Damocles, will our leaders still attend the March 23rd Pakistan Day celebrations at its High Commission in New Delhi?