Gilgit-Baltistan: A question of autonomy

The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order announced by the Pakistan government early this month caused a flurry of protests in New Delhi's diplomatic circles as the territory falls within the contentious Jammu and Kashmir disputed area. The issue:

What are the Northern Areas?

Of the Kashmiri territory occupied by Pakistan in 1947-48, the Sunni majority areas were constituted by it into a separate administrative unit which Pakistan calls "Azad Kashmir" and India calls "Pakistan-occupied Kashmir". The Shia majority areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, which were known before 1947 as the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir and which had been given on lease by the pre-1947 ruler of Jammu & Kashmir to the British, were incorporated into Pakistan and have been directly ruled from Islamabad.

Why have they been in the news recently?

The Pakistan government approved a self-governance and reforms package for the Northern Areas which entails that the strategically-located Northern Areas will have rights akin to those of Pakistan's four provinces, (Punjab, Sind, NWFP, Balochistan). The "Gilgit- Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009" also aims at giving the Northern Areas "full internal autonomy" and changing the region's name to Gilgit-Baltistan. Under the new system, the Northern Areas will have a province-like status without actually being conferred such a status constitutionally. The region will vote for a legislative assembly, elections to which are to be held in the next three months and a chief minister will govern the region, replacing direct rule by Islamabad

What is the strategic importance of the area?

The Northern Areas have immense strategic significance as they border the North West Frontier Province to the west, Afghanistan and China to the north and Jammu and Kashmir to the east. Islamabad had transferred territory from these areas to China in 1963 under the Sino-Pakistan Border Agreement and it is through the Northern Areas, which border China's Xinjiang Province, that the Chinese, in collaboration with Pakistani army engineers, built the Karakoram Highway connecting them with China. Moreover, China has, through its links with the Northern Areas, become a part of the Kashmir problem. It has poured money and men into developing transport links and undertaking major projects in Gilgit- Baltistan, and analysts claim that it is only a matter of time before the Northern Areas get integrated into Western China's economic profile.

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