The Tug of War in Gilgit-Baltistan
Kashmir will always remain the nodal issue in the Indo-Pak dynamic.
The scheduled polls in Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) have political parties up in arms on both sides of the border albeit for different reasons. India considers the polls illegal because it believes that Pakistan is forcibly occupying this region. Some parties in Pakistan also believe that the polls are illegal, but their reasons are different - they feel the region should be integrated into the main Pakistani state.
Why is there Opposition in Pakistan?
The Chief Coordinator of the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML), Ahmed Raza Khan Kasuri, has filed a petition looking for the suspension of the elections of for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly.
The petition also calls for a constitutional amendment to integrate the country into Pakistan as the fifth province. It states that the Supreme Court had directed the federal government to build a mechanism to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and the only way to achieve this is to ensure that the region shares the same system of governance and elections as enjoyed by the rest of the country.
In August 2009, instead of amending the Constitution, the government issued a Presidential Order titled the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order. This order granted self-rule to the people of the region and the petition insists that it cannot serve as a mechanism to establish Gilgit-Baltistan as a province. Before this order, Pakistan called the region the “Northern Areas”.
A former minister from the Pakistan People’s Party, Muhammad Ali Akhtar, has also raised questions about the elections for the same reason.
Kashmir’s Victimised Shia Population
Holding elections is not the only strategy Pakistan is employing in the region. There has been a concerted effort over several years to shift the demographic nature of the region. The Shia dominated area has seen the settling of Pakistani Sunnis in significant numbers. This has led to a rise in incidents of violence against military officials and the Shia population. In June 2013, militants stormed a mountaineering base camp and killed 10 climbers including nine foreigners.
The Indian government has responded to the polls by accusing Pakistan of attempting to deny the people of Gilgit-Baltistan their political rights. It has reiterated its official line that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, including the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, is an integral part of India.
Vikas Swarup, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs has expressed concern about Pakistan’s efforts to try and absorb these territories and the government has claimed that Pakistan is trying to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the region.
The Ultimate Bone of Contention
Pakistan labelled India’s statements disappointing and not conducive for bilateral ties adding that elections in the region have been taking place for years. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff responded by calling Kashmir an “unfinished agenda” of the 1947 Partition and added that Kashmir and Pakistan are “inseparable”. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, however, in the wake of these comments has told his High Commissioner to India Abdul Basit that Pakistan wants better relations with India.
Pakistan also added that it is India that is illegally holding Kashmiri territory by deploying 700,000 troops and trying to suppress the majority Kashmiri Muslims. It accused India of denying the right of self-determination to the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
If nothing else, the Gilgit-Baltistan poll debate and war of words has proved comprehensively that until a reasonable resolution of the Kashmir issue is achieved, the region will never take a back seat in the relationship of the two neighbours.
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