Gilgit Baltistan Reforms Order 2018; China, CPEC and Pakistani Colonization
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi addressed a joint session of the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) and Gilgit Baltistan Council (GBC) on 27 May 2018, where he introduced the proposed Gilgit Baltistan Reforms Order 2018. This order, which had been passed by the Pakistan Cabinet on 21 May, seeks to provide marginally greater administrative and financial powers to Gilgit Baltistan (GB) than did the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009, which it will replace. Despite this, members of the opposition in the GBLA walked out of the Assembly while tearing copies of the new Order before Abbasi’s address and joined the thousands of protesters gathered at Ittehad Chowk in Gilgit, where protests had been raging from the previous night. Leader of the Opposition in the GBLA Muhammad Shafi expressed dismay at the fact that GB had been governed for 70 years through orders and packages, and demanded that constitutional rights be accorded. He added: “The PM imposed the order just a few days before the end of his government despite knowing the aspirations of people and their opposition to the bill".
The whole of GB was in the throes of protests against the new legislation since 25 May, and a complete shutter down strike was observed in all the ten districts of the region. Abbasi was greeted on his arrival in Gilgit by thousands of protesters holding banners calling him ‘Viceroy’, which eloquently conveyed their sentiment of Pakistan treating GB as a colony. The scene welcoming him at the GBLA was not warm either – protesters holding up shoes facing the Assembly. The scale of the protests compelled the police to seal the roads leading to the GBLA and resort to firing tear gas shells as well as serial firing to stop protesters from reaching the GBLA. Several people, including two opposition lawmakers, were injured in the police actions.
Opposition parties, including the Awami Action Committee (AAC), an umbrella organization of over 20 political, religious and nationalist parties of GB, termed the new order ‘anti-people’. AAC Chairman Sultan Raees stated that the protests would continue till the order was revoked. The opposition parties detest the unfettered legislative, executive and judicial powers pertaining to GB that the proposed order accords the Prime Minister of Pakistan. GB finds itself in the bizarre situation where it does not have any representation in the federal legislature of Pakistan and, therefore, plays no part in electing the person who is all-powerful in all aspects of the region’s governance. Quite obviously, GB did not have any representation in the Cabinet that passed the order on 21 May.
India, which claims GB legally as per the Instrument of Accession of 26 October 1947, saw the order as an attempt by Pakistan to incrementally incorporate GB into Pakistan as its fifth province. It summoned Pakistan’s Deputy High Commissioner Syed Haider Shah on 27 May and lodged a strong protest against the order. A press release issued by India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) informed that: “It was clearly conveyed that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which also includes the so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ areas is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession in 1947. Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under forcible and illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis whatsoever, and is completely unacceptable”.
Pakistan’s dilemma vis-à-vis GB stems from the fact that it is in illegal occupation of the region and is not in a position to formally induct it into the country due to constitutional restrictions as well as wider strategic considerations relating to the Jammu & Kashmir issue. Unsure of their place within the Pakistani set-up, the people of GB, an increasing number of whom demand independence, have over the last few years articulated their discontentment with the country through several popular protests that effectively shut down the region for days. The anti-taxation protests of 2017, and the agitation against withdrawal of the wheat subsidy in 2014 are examples. Sectarian violence fuelled by Pakistan's policies has also plagued GB. Meanwhile, the geo-strategic importance of GB for Pakistan has increased exponentially since 2015 when the $60 billion agreement on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was signed. GB is the only territory controlled by Pakistan that borders China, and the Karakorum highway, the arterial link of the CPEC, enters Pakistan after passing through about 600 km in GB. Hence, without GB, Pakistan cannot possibly have a CPEC which its faltering economy has placed all hopes of revival on. Peace and stability in GB is, therefore, of paramount importance to Pakistan. The Gilgit Baltistan Reforms Order 2018 represents Pakistan’s feeble, half-hearted attempt at assuaging the sentiments of the people of the region. That it failed to delude them is obvious from the widespread protests it generated.
Pakistan’s progressive capitulation to China has meant that the latter has made steady inroads into GB, which has complicated matters further for Pakistan and put additional pressures on it. Through a treaty in 1963, Pakistan illegally ceded a part of GB’s Shaksgam Valley to China without consulting the people of the region. Lured by the strategic and economic gains that access to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea will provide it, as also the even tighter grip over Pakistan that it will ensure, China is investing billions of dollars in the CPEC. It is, however, worried about the undetermined political status of GB and the recurrent protests and instability there. The new order is aimed as much, if not more, at mollifying China as the people of GB. China would ideally like absorption of GB into pliant Pakistan. However, for Pakistan, inducting GB as a province would tantamount to a change in its long-held policy on the Kashmir issue, a risk it is not yet prepared to take. Compounding Pakistan’s woes is the fact that the people of Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir as well as the rest of Jammu and Kashmir, each for their own reasons, are strongly opposed to Pakistan’s absorption of GB.
China has taken a convoluted stand on the new GB order. When asked on 29 May whether the order was aimed at advancing the CPEC, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying responded: “We have repeatedly stressed that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is a framework for cooperation between China and Pakistan focused on long-term cooperation in various fields. It aims to help improve local infrastructure and livelihoods and promote local economic and social development”. She added that cooperation on the CPEC would not affect China’s position on the Jammu & Kashmir issue. On India’s protest to Pakistan against the order, she stated: “First of all, I will like to say that the Kashmir issue is a legacy issue between Pakistan and India and should be properly handled by the two countries through dialogue and consultation”. This advice is rather bewildering. Firstly, China is well aware that a dispute exists between India and Pakistan on the Jammu & Kashmir issue, and that the status and future of GB forms part of that dispute. It acknowledged this in the 1963 Shaksgam Agreement between Pakistan and China, which stipulated that “after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India the sovereign authority concerned would reopen negotiations with China”. Despite this, and in total disregard for international norms and practices, it has signed the CPEC with one of the parties to the dispute involving territory that forms part of the dispute. This raises serious questions about the propriety of China’s actions and intentions, which have only served to render the already thorny dispute even more complicated. Secondly, the repeated Chinese emphasis on the CPEC being an economic cooperation project is simplistic and misleading. It is aimed at shrouding China’s geo-strategic ambitions. In any case, if a project envisages a third country’s entry into territory long disputed between two other countries, it cannot remain just an ‘economic and social development’ venture and must necessarily take into consideration the political aspects involved as such entry is bound to further complicate the dispute and impede its resolution. The fact that the Pakistan Army has taken upon itself the task of overseeing implementation of the project reveals a lot about its true nature.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) was highly critical of the new order. In a statement on 24 May, it stated: “In claiming to grant the people of GB their fundamental freedoms, the GB Order has clipped their right to freedom of association and expression. It has denied any Gilgit-Baltistani the right to become a chief judge of the Supreme Appellate Court or to have any say in internal security. Above all, it has disregarded people’s needs despite continual public pressure in GB to address their problems fairly and in accordance with local aspirations. The continuing imprisonment of Baba Jan and his comrades for having stood up for their fundamental rights is a sore case in point. There is nothing in the GB Order to protect others like Baba Jan in the future”. Baba Jan, a GB political activist, was sentenced to life in prison by an anti-terrorism court for protesting against the killing by the police of two disaster-affected GB residents in 2011.
The Pakistani and Chinese Governments have marketed the CPEC as an economic game-changer. A more apt assessment was preferred at a conference on the CPEC organized by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) in Berlin last month, which quoted Dr. Christine Fair’s observation that CPEC could well stand for ‘Colonizing Pakistan to Enrich China'.
For the people of GB, in total disregard of whose wishes the CPEC is being pushed forward, the project will not bring economic gain commensurate with the region’s contribution or criticality to it. Ecological degradation, a huge influx of people from Pakistan, especially from the Punjab province, and loss of their lands and culture are also inevitable. That protests on an even larger scale are not being reported from the region is on account of the fact that the Pakistani military cracks down heavily on critics of the CPEC and misuses anti-terrorism laws in a trigger-happy manner to silence them.
Pakistan’s new GB order is, in essence, an illegal move to alter the status of a region illegitimately occupied by it, and is aimed at appeasing China to ensure the success of a project that violates the norms of international law. China, through its reaction, has once again revealed its proclivity to totally disregard human rights violations, the rules of international engagement and the rights of indigenous people that come in the path of its single-minded pursuit of its geo-strategic and economic goals. The order, and any subsequent move to integrate GB into Pakistan, would only serve to hamper resolution of the broader Jammu & Kashmir issue.