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Pakistani PM Khan has promised to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of the larger Kashmir region. Activists say the move is akin to India's decision to integrate its part of Kashmir.
Earlier this month, Pakistani authorities announced their decision to grant Gilgit-Baltistan — an autonomous region that Islamabad administers in the Pakistan's north — the status of a full province.
In 2009, Islamabad granted autonomy and the provision of a legislative assembly to the region. The Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly held elections in 2015, with new polls scheduled for November 15.
Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. In 1948, a year after India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain's colonial rule, it acceded to Pakistan, hoping it would be given constitutional status.
But the Pakistani government, while accepting the region as part of Pakistan, also regarded it as part of the disputed Kashmir region.
Read more: Kashmir: The world's most dangerous conflict
While Islamabad lays claim to the entire Kashmir region, including the India-administered region, New Delhi considers Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (Azad Kashmir) as well as Gilgit-Baltistan Indian territory.
Pakistan's intention to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its fifth province has received mixed reactions from both sides of the Kashmir border. Kashmiri nationalists, who seek an independent state, denounced the move, fearing it would make their demand for a united Jammu and Kashmir irrelevant.
Islamabad's earlier attempts to grant Gilgit-Baltistan provincial status have been met with fierce resistance and opposition from various Kashmiri groups.
Tauqeer Gilani, president of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) in Pakistan, believes that Islamabad's actions in Gilgit-Baltistan are not very different from India's decision last year to strip its part of Kashmir of its semi-autonomous status, which practically means that Kashmir is now directly under New Delhi's control.
"Gilgit-Baltistan province would be a step toward the division of Kashmir. It is also against international laws and Pakistan's own stance about the region's disputed status," Gilani told DW.
Khalid Shah, an associate fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF), is of the view that provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan would weaken Pakistan's position on the Kashmir conflict.
"It is similar to what India did on August 5, 2019 when it integrated its part of Kashmir," he told DW.
Asma Khan Lone, author of the upcoming book, The Great Gilgit Game, said that the decision has been packaged in a way as to be seen falling within the jurisdiction of the UN resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir.
"During his announcement in Gilgit city, Khan alluded to the proposal being within the ambit of the UN resolutions. He was probably referring to the UN resolution of 13 August, 1948, Part 2, A (3), which states that 'pending final solution, the territory evacuated by the Pakistani troops will be administered by local authorities.' In Pakistan's scheme of things, this is provisional, hence an interim arrangement till the final settlement of the Kashmir issue according to the UN resolutions," she told DW, adding that an empowered local legislature will be akin to "local authorities" prescribed by the UN.
Lone added that the clause was more in consonance with an "autonomous" character for the region, preserving its indigenous rights and ownership, especially over its land and natural resources.
However, Junaid Qureshi, director of the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), expects the decision to tamper with Pakistan’s strategic considerations at the UN.
"When Pakistan calls for Kashmir's right to self-determination, it only refers to India-administered Kashmir, and not the part that it controls. As per UN resolutions, Pakistan has agreed to withdraw all its troops from the region, after which India would withdraw its forces," Qureshi said, adding that the UN's Kashmir resolutions are no longer applicable or relevant.
By declaring Gilgit-Baltistan its province, Islamabad would treat the area as "non-controversial," which would allow New Delhi to assume the same status for the Kashmir region that it governs..
Experts say the provincial status move would make the regional borders permanent, with India and Pakistan both governing their integrated parts of the Himalayan region and maintaining status-quo.
A permanent status for any part of the disputed area is a violation of the UN resolutions. Kashmiri activists on both sides of the border, those who seek an independent and unified state, are against New Delhi's August 2019 decision to integrate its part of Kashmir and now Islamabad's move to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its official province because they see these developments as attempts to make the current Line of Control (Kashmir border) permanent.
Qureshi believes that Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan maneuver is aimed at appeasing China, whose billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) runs through the region.
"China has been expanding its presence and influence in Gilgit-Baltistan and is colluding with Pakistani authorities to help them cement their occupation of the area," Kamal Madishetty, a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, told DW.
"China's presence there poses a strategic threat to India. For instance, there could be Chinese troops entering Gilgit-Baltistan sometime in the future under the guise of providing security to CPEC assets," he added.
Analyst Qureshi says that CPEC runs through a disputed territory, which makes the project illegal, and that is why China wants Pakistan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its official province.
"When you invest $60 billion (€51 billion) in a region, you don't want it to be a contested land. That is why it is important for Beijing that Islamabad makes Gilgit-Baltistan its legally declared province," he said.
Some locals agree with this assessment.
"Chinese influence is increasing in Gilgit-Baltistan, which will prompt India and the US to intervene. This could pose a threat to the stability of the region," Nawaz Naji, a former member of the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly, told DW.
"If Islamabad goes ahead with its plan, we will resist it peacefully and politically," he added.
Ijaz Awan, a retired Pakistani military official, denies the China appeasement claims. "The Pakistani government wants the Gilgit Baltistan residents to benefit from CPEC and other development projects. Also, the provincial status would be a temporary arrangement until we find the final solution to the Kashmir dispute according to UN resolutions," Awan told DW.
Prior to the independence of India and Pakistan from British rule in 1947, Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the same administrative unit as India's Ladakh region. However, its demography has changed over the years, making it more integrated to the rest of Pakistan than ever.
"CPEC will open up the region and increase the flow of people from other parts of Pakistan into Gilgit-Baltistan. It will eventually change the region's demography," Saleem Qadri, a journalist based in India-administered Kashmir, told DW.
Many locals see the demographic change as a threat to their culture and economic interests. Some, however, see a benefit in development projects and economic assimilation.
"There has been a long-standing local demand for the region to be completely assimilated into Pakistan. After India's integration of its part of Kashmir, it has become even more pertinent," said a local on condition of anonymity.