Pakistan government’s proposed move to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, a part of the pre-Partition princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, in Pakistan’s control since 1947, has led to sudden focus on a part of the disputed and divided state between India and Pakistan that doesn’t receive much attention otherwise.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor, a development project, for which China has invested $46 billion, passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, and is seen as a major boost in Pakistan’s economy. The fate of this region’s people, consistently ignored since 1947, is clearly at stake. Any constitutional change in the region’s status will affect not only them but the larger Kashmir dispute as well, which is at the heart of the geopolitical ambitions of three powerful countries – India, China and Pakistan.

The controversy is likely to spillover to the Indian side of the divided state as well, as can be seen from the strong opposition of the separatists based in the Kashmir valley, to the proposal. For Kashmiri nationalists, therefore, supporting the rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan becomes more important than ever.

The denial and the resolution

Media reports suggest that China has been exerting increasing pressure on Pakistan to provide legal cover to the corridor. Which explains one of the reasons why the proposal by the Pakistani federal ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan on January 14 2014 to provide provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. received strong opposition from all sides.

China has rebutted the accusations, saying the corridor would not affect the positions held by the parties to the Kashmir dispute. “The ownership of the Kashmir region is an issue between India and Pakistan left over from history and should be resolved through dialogues and consultations between the two sides,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei told reporters in Beijing on January 13.

“Relevant cooperation between China and Pakistan in the region aims to promote local economic and social development. It does not target any third party nor affect the positions held by different parties on the relevant dispute,” he added.

On January 13, on the Pakistani side, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (what India calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) Legislative Assembly unanimously passed two resolutions against the proposed provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan region.

“Making Gilgit-Baltistan a fifth province will weaken Pakistan’s national stand on Jammu and Kashmir at the international level,” said one of the resolutions. “Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and whenever a plebiscite is conducted the people of G-B will also have the right to decide their future with the people of other parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir”.

Explaining the resolutions, the state’s rehabilitation minister, Abdul Majid Khan, added, “It was our collective responsibility to stand against every move that paves the way for the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir”.

‘Bartering away territory’

On the Indian side of the line of control also, various separatist outfits and civil society organisations have expressed their opposition to the proposed move of Pakistan.

Last Tuesday, Yasin Malik, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, a group that supports independence of the entire pre-Partition state of Jammu and Kashmir, asked Pakistan to desist from the proposal. In a letter addressed to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Malik said the proposed move would help the Indian case.

“This will have implications on the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir,” Malik wrote “If Pakistan imposes its sovereign writ over Gilgit Baltistan, India will then have a political and moral right to integrate Kashmir with it…Bartering away territory for economic growth does not make you statesman.”

Syed Ali Geelani, senior separatist leader, urged Pakistan not to go ahead with the move to merge Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, saying it was unacceptable to Kashmiris, as it will harm the disputed nature of the state.

Referring to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, Geelani said that his party, the Hurriyat Conference, was not against the economic development and prosperity of the South Asian region,“but creating trade routes on the cost of rights, interests, wishes and sacrifices of Kashmiri nation is injustice and unkind,” he said.

“There is no constitutional or moral justification in making any decision over any part of this territory without the consent of its people. It is also clear violation of the UN resolutions on Kashmir,” he added.