Ever since the India-Pakistan war of 1947-’48, Gilgit-Baltistan has been de facto administered by Pakistan. Known as the “Northern Areas” from 1970 to 2009, it was once part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, although much of its territory had been administered by the British under a lease as the Gilgit agency from 1889 until 1947. The British regarded the area as being of vital strategic importance because it was where the British Empire bordered both China and Russian Central Asia. In 1947, the British cancelled the lease and handed the territory back to the maharaja, but Gilgit troops under a British officer intervened to ensure that the area acceded to Pakistan.

Hitherto, Pakistan has been careful not to integrate the territory and its neighbour, “Azad Kashmir”, into Pakistan for fear of undermining its legal position on Kashmir before the United Nations. In India, Gilgit-Baltistan (at 73,000 square km) and the much smaller Azad Kashmir (13,000 square km) are collectively known as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Kashmir conundrum

No reasons for the committee’s decision have been made public, but there has been a recent push in Pakistan to tidy up some of its colonial-era boundaries. On March 2, Pakistan announced that it was merging the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghanistan border with the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (formerly known as North West Frontier Province). Like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan has also suffered from a democratic deficit. For the 70 years of Pakistan’s existence, the inhabitants have not enjoyed full representation and, with a majority Shia and Ismaili population, they have not always felt adequately represented in predominantly Sunni Pakistan. There is no clear evidence for a third possible reason: that China might have pressured Pakistan because of security concerns about the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that traverses the full length of Gilgit-Baltistan.

However, if the recommendation of the committee is adopted, it will signify a new calculation in Islamabad about the Kashmir dispute. Although both sides would formally deny it, the fact is that India has never seriously expected to “recover” Gilgit-Baltistan from any Kashmir settlement. No more has Pakistan had any expectation of being awarded Jammu or Ladakh. In fact, the whole Kashmir dispute can be (and has been) boiled down to three limited geographical areas: the Kashmir Valley, the Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek on the Arabian Sea. The outlines of agreements on Siachen and Sir Creek have been reached in the past and neither issue is a serious impediment to a wider agreement. The really thorny issue is the Kashmir Valley.

As early as 1950, the Australian High Court judge, Sir Owen Dixon, the United States representative for India and Pakistan appointed to mediate the Kashmir dispute, came to exactly the same conclusion. He proposed a plebiscite in the Kashmir Valley whilst awarding most other elements of the former princely state to the country in de facto control of territory. Under his “Dixon Plan”, which came close to success, Gilgit-Baltistan would have become part of Pakistan, except that Jawaharlal Nehru did not accept the conditions of the plebiscite.

Manmohan-Musharraf initiative

More recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s long negotiation with President Musharraf from 2004 to 2008 resolved Siachen and Sir Creek and then focussed on the Kashmir Valley and the Line of Control. This negotiation also came close to agreement and only foundered due to Musharraf’s unconnected dispute with his chief justice. Whether either leader could have sold the solution to their more hawkish compatriots is a moot question. One of Musharraf’s generals later told this author that the Corps Commanders had been largely kept in the dark about the details. In his book, The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh’s media advisor Sanjaya Baru makes clear that some of the prime minister’s advisors were disconcerted by the scope of the discussions.

Nonetheless, Manmohan Singh’s idea of treating the Line of Control as a “soft border” with free movement and consultative mechanisms across both sides of it remains on the table – to be revisited when both India and Pakistan simultaneously have leaders strong enough to take the political risks innate in any such process.

What must be clear to Nawaz Sharif is that Kashmir will not be solved through a United Nations process, but through bilateral agreement.

Meanwhile, he and his new Army chief, General Qamar Javed Baja, have to decide whether they can integrate Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan without setting off a major diplomatic storm. So far, there have been protests from the United Kingdom Parliament and from Indian politicians, but otherwise, international reactions have been low-key. They may calculate, therefore, that now is the time to take a step that their predecessors have avoided for 70 years.

This article was first published by Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read the original article here.