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Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Kashmir issue.

Column By: Ashfaq Rehmani


Email: pasrurmedia@hotmail.com

Gilgit Baltistan borders the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the northwest, China's
Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang to the northeast, the Indian-controlled state of
Jammu and Kashmir to the south and southeast, the Pakistani-controlled state of Azad
Jammu and Kashmir to the south, and Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province to the
west. Before the independence of Pakistan and the partition of India in 1947, Maharaja
Hari Singh extended his rule to Gilgit and Baltistan. After the partition, Jammu and
Kashmir, in its entirety, remained an independent state. The Pakistani parts of Kashmir to
the north and west of the cease fire line established at the end of the Indo Pakistani War
of 1947, or the Line of Control as it later came to be called, were divided into the
Northern Areas (72,971 km) in the north and the Pakistani state of Azad Kashmir
(13,297 km) in the south. The name "Northern Areas" was first used by the United
Nations, to refer to the northern areas of Kashmir. A small part of the Northern Areas, the
Shaksgam tract, was provisionally ceded by Pakistan to the People's Republic of China in
1963. The local Northern Light Infantry is the army unit that was believed to have
assisted and possibly participated in the 1999 Kargil conflict. More than 500 soldiers are
believed to have been killed and buried in the Northern Areas in that action. Lalak Jan, a
soldier from Yasin Valley, was awarded Pakistan's most prestigious medal, the Nishan-e-
Haider, for his courageous actions during the Kargil conflict.
The climate of Gilgit Baltistan varies from region to region, surrounding mountain ranges
creates sharp variations in weather. The eastern part has a moist zone of western
Himalayas but going toward Karakoram and Hindu Kush the climate dries considerably.
There are towns like Gilgit and Chilas that are very hot during the day in summer, yet
cold at night, and valleys like Astore, Khaplu, Yasin, Hunza, and Nagar where the
temperatures are cold even in summer.

On 29th August, 2009, Pakistan officially granted full autonomy to the former Northern
Areas. Ending their struggle for autonomy since 1947. Furthermore, the name of the
Northern Areas was changed to "Gilgit Baltistan". The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment
and Self Governance Order, 2009 approved by the federal cabinet on Saturday has
received mixed initial reactions. At least one change has been universally applauded
though: renaming the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan has met a long-standing demand of
the people of the area who chafed under an appellation that was simply the geographical
expression of the area’s position vis-à-vis Jammu and Kashmir, i.e. the ‘northern areas’ of
Jammu and Kashmir. But while the federal government and its allies have trumpeted the
other changes to the administrative structure of Gilgit-Baltistan, the people of the area
have been less than impressed.
Dear Reader’s The Deosai Plains, called Byarsa in Baltistan, are located above the tree
line, and constitute the second-highest plateau in the world at 4,115 meters (14,500 feet).
The plateau lies south of Skardu and west of Ladakh. The area was declared to be a
national park in 1993. The Deosai Plains cover an area of almost 5,000 square kilometres.
For over half the year (between September and May), Deosai is snow-bound and cut off
from rest of Baltistan. The villages of Byarsa/Deosai are connected with the Kargil
district of Ladakh through an all-weather road, but due to the closure of the border with
the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, the people of Byarsa and Gultari are stranded for
the winter months and are, therefore, not able to take advantage of the economic
resources of Ladakh during that time. Prior to 1978, Gilgit Baltistan was cut off from
Pakistan due to the harsh terrain and the lack of accessible roads. All of the roads to the
south opened towards the Pakistani controlled state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AKJ)
and to the southeast towards the present day Indian-controlled state of Jammu and
Kashmir. During the summer, people could walk across the mountain passes to travel to
Rawalpindi. The fastest way to travel, however, was by air, but air travel was accessible
only to a few privileged local people and to Pakistani military and civilian officials. Then,
with the assistance of the Chinese government, Pakistan began construction of the
Karakoram Highway (KKH), which was completed in 1978. The Karakoram Highway
(KKH) connects Islamabad to Gilgit and Skardu, which are the two major hubs for
mountaineering expeditions in Gilgit Baltistan. The journey from Islamabad to Gilgit
takes approximately 20 to 24 hours. Landslides on the Karakoram Highway are very
common. The KKH connects Gilgit to Taxkorgan and Kashgar in China via Sust (the
customs and health inspection post on the Northern Areas side) and the Khunjerab Pass,
the highest paved international border crossing in the world at 4,693 metres (15,397 feet).
Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) offers bus and jeep transport service to
the two hubs and several other popular destinations, lakes, and glaciers in the area.

What are we to make of the changes then? In fairness, the government deserves some
credit for taking the step of recognizing that there is such a thing as Gilgit-Baltistan and
moving to redress at least some of the local grievances against the system of governance
and the delivery of justice. Yet, we are also sympathetic to the local claim that they are
denied any clear constitutional status and the rights that would flow from it and the fact
that the absence of a high court in Gilgit-Baltistan means the locals have to go to
Islamabad to seek justice. The problem though has to be seen in the international context
because of the Kashmir issue. Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan was not merged into Pakistan
proper because the fear was that it could undermine our claim on Kashmir and it was not
merged into AJK because it could complicate a settlement on the area. If, for example,
Gilgit-Baltistan is made a full-fledged province within the constitutional framework of
Pakistan, India could perhaps argue that the state it has carved out of the disputed area,
Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir, is also a legitimate entity and that it is a settled issue.
This, then, is the government’s dilemma; acting on the desire to see to it that all the
people who live in Pakistan have the same constitutional rights versus potentially further
complicating an already intractable problem like the Kashmir issue. What the government
appears to have done is to try and occupy the middle ground by moving towards
replicating the AJK template of governance in Gilgit-Baltistan.
It is certainly not ideal there are real questions about whether the federally dominated
council will overshadow the locally elected assembly but it at least opens the doors to
further changes down the road once the new system is operational. The people of Gilgit-
Baltistan deserve all their rights; however, realistically, that goal can only be achieved
incrementally.

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