Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday said that Islamabad would allow the people of Kashmir to decide if they want to join the country or become an independent state, PTI reported.

Khan made this statement during a poll rally at the Tarar Khal town of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Elections to the 53-member Pakistan-occupied Kashmir Assembly are slated to be held on July 25.

Khan’s statement came six days after Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Maryam Nawaz said that a decision had been taken to change the status of Kashmir to a province. Legally, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which Pakistanis call Azad Jammu and Kashmir, is an autonomous self-governing territory. However, the Kashmir Council – a nominated 14-member body headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan – effectively holds most of the powers in the region.

New Delhi maintains that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India.

Rejecting Nawaz’s claim, Khan on Friday said that a day would come when Kashmiris would be allowed to decide their future as per United Nations’ resolutions and expressed confidence that the people of Kashmir on that day would decide to join Pakistan. “Afterwards, we will hold another referendum whereby Kashmiri people will be asked to decide whether they want to live with Pakistan or as an independent nation,” he was quoted as saying by Dawn.

“Remember, the decision has to be made by Kashmiris themselves,” he added. “And the day is not far when you will decide about your future status of your own free accord.”

Elections to the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir Assembly will be held on July 25, despite appeals to delay it by two months due to the threat of resurgence of the coronavirus. In November 2020, Pakistan held elections to the Gilgit-Baltistan territory, which is also a part of undivided Jammu and Kashmir. India had conveyed its “strong protest” against the elections, and reiterated that the region is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession in 1947.

Khan, speaking at an event organized by a think tank in May, had said that the Kashmir conflict was the “only issue” coming in the way of building better ties with India. “We will make our efforts but India must take the first step. Till they take the first step, unfortunately we cannot move forward,” he had said.

The Pakistan prime minister expressed readiness to hold talks with India, only if New Delhi reversed steps taken by it in 2019 by changing the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and gave Kashmiris the right to self-determination.