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Amid pushback, Pak shelves Gilgit-Baltistan move
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KARACHI (PAKISTAN), Mar 18 (Agencies): Strong opposition from the leadership of both parts of Kashmir has forced Pakistan to shelve its plans to grant provincial status to the Chinese-bordering northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan, according to Foreign Ministry officials and politicians.

With the ministry denying reports that Islamabad is seriously considering declaring the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region -- a key route of the $51 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project -- as its fifth province at Beijing’s demand, a senior government official insisted that the plan was very much there.

“It is true that the government was seriously considering the proposal for the last several months. But strong opposition from various stakeholders in Kashmir, especially the Hurriyat leadership of Indian-occupied Kashmir, has compelled the government to shelve the plan for the time being,” the official, who asked not to be named due to restrictions on speaking to the media, told Anadolu Agency.

He claimed the proposal was tabled following Beijing’s concerns about the unsettled status of the region, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir along with the Pakistani- and Indian-administered parts of the disputed valley.

“The major concern raised by Hurriyat leaders like Syed Ali Gilani and Yasin Malik was that the move could give India an excuse to further bifurcate occupied Kashmir in order to change the demography and quell the resistance movement,” he maintained.

According to local English daily Dawn, the proposal to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan is not new.

In January 2016, the newspaper reported, the government of Premier Nawaz Sharif initiated a proposal to elevate the constitutional status of the region in a bid to provide legal cover to the CPEC.

The corridor -- part of Beijing’s most ambitious foreign economic initiative, One Belt, One Road -- is set to connect northwest China to Pakistan's southwestern port of Gawadar through a network of roads, railways, and pipelines to transport cargo, oil, and gas.

This will provide the shortest route to Chinese cargo destined for the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa.

Controversy

The controversy made headlines earlier this week when the federal minister for inter-provincial coordination, Riaz Hussain Pirzada, told local Geo TV that a committee headed by Foreign Affairs advisor Sartaj Aziz, who effectively serves as foreign minister, had proposed giving provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan.

Pirzada, however, later denied the remarks, saying he had been quoted out of context.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria also denied the reports. “There is no such proposal under consideration,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Abdul Rasheed Turabi, the head of Jamat-e-Islami Azad Kashmir and a member of the legislative assembly, however, disputed the government’s denial.

“The proposal was and is very much there. We have opposed the idea in the past and will oppose it in the future as well because it amounts to weakening Pakistan’s historical stand on Kashmir,” Tirabi told Anadolu Agency, referring to the country's position on the future of the greater Kashmir region.

Currently, Gilgit-Baltistan is treated as a separate geographical entity by Pakistan. It has a regional assembly and an elected chief minister.

Islamabad has historically insisted that the parts of the disputed Himalayan valley it controls are semi-autonomous and has not formally integrated them into the country, in line with its position that a referendum should be carried out across the whole of the region.

Turbai said the Sharif government had given up the idea following strong resistance from the political and religious leadership of both parts of Kashmir.

Amjad Hussein, head of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) for Gilgit-Baltistan, however, insists that the region should be brought under Pakistan’s constitution in line with its four other provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, and Balochistan.

“The people of Gilgit-Baltistan support the idea of grating the status of a fifth province to the region. This is our 70-year demand because we joined the federation of Pakistan unconditionally in 1947,” Hussain told Anadolu Agency.

“Our main point is that Gilgit-Baltistan in full has never been part of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute. Secondly, if Gilgit-Baltistan is brought under the constitution of Pakistan as a province, it will highlight the Kashmir issue instead of harming it,” he argued.

Hussain observed that Gilgit-Baltistan’s four major districts -- Hunza, Nagar, Gazar, and Diyamir -- which share the key CPEC route, had never been part of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.

International reaction

The proposal has drawn a mixed reaction from the countries concerned.

According to the Times of India, the idea may raise concerns in India, as the region borders Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Gilgit-Baltistan, according to the paper, shares a geographical boundary with Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and India considers it part of undivided Jammu and Kashmir, while Pakistan sees it as a separate from Kashmir.

Reacting to India’s objection, China says its position on the Kashmir issue is consistent and clear-cut.

“As a leftover issue from history between India and Pakistan, it needs to be properly settled through dialogue and consultation between the two sides,” adding that the CPEC has not affected China’s position on the Kashmir issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing earlier this week.

Gilgit-Baltistan was incorporated into the princely state of Kashmir by Dogras in the mid-19th century. When India and Pakistan were founded in 1947, following the end of British colonial rule, the Hindu ruler of Kashmir opted to join India. This triggered a rebellion by the Gilgit Scouts and 16 days of independence. The region later unconditionally joined Pakistan, and since then its fate has been intertwined with the Kashmir dispute.

Kashmir, a Muslim-majority Himalayan region, is held by India and Pakistan in parts and claimed by both in full. A small sliver of Kashmir is also held by China.

The two countries have fought three wars – in 1948, 1965 and 1971 – since they were partitioned in 1947, two of which were fought over Kashmir.

Kashmiri resistance groups in Jammu and Kashmir have been fighting against Indian rule for independence, or for unification with neighboring Pakistan. More than 70,000 people have reportedly been killed in the conflict since 1989. India maintains more than half a million troops in the disputed region.


News Updated at : Sunday, March 19, 2017
 
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