New Delhi: India on Thursday strongly opposed any move by the Pakistan government to make Gilgit-Baltistan that country’s fifth province, saying such an action would have “no legal basis whatsoever” since the region has been militarily occupied.
Pakistan’s minister for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur, recently spoke about official plans to make the region, a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, a full-fledged province with constitutional rights such as representation in both houses of parliament.
The move comes ahead of the holding of local elections in Gilgit-Baltistan in November, and it reportedly has the backing of the powerful military establishment. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is backing the move to boost its chances of faring better in the upcoming elections.
External affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said the government has seen statements by the Pakistani leadership and media reports about the proposed changes in Gilgit-Baltistan.
“Any action by Pakistan to alter the status of the militarily occupied so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ has no legal basis whatsoever and is totally void ab-initio,” he said.
“Our position has always been clear and consistent. The entire territories of the union territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh have been and are an integral part of India, and would remain so,” he said, adding that Pakistan has “no locus standi to comment on India’s internal matters”.
The Pakistan government’s move comes two years after powers of the Islamabad-controlled council for Gilgit-Baltistan were transferred to a local assembly. In 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order renamed the Northern Areas as Gilgit-Baltistan and the region was given province-like status but without representation in parliament.
The Gilgit-Baltistan issue also figured in recent secret meetings between Pakistan Army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed and top political leaders such as Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the Pakistan People’s Party, who raised questions about the holding of free and fair elections in the region.
The proposed changes in the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region have also been spurred by the Pakistani military’s concerns related to India’s scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir last year. However, senior PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of former premier Nawaz Sharif, has said that issues such as Gilgit-Baltistan should be decided in Parliament and not at the military headquarters.
In reply to another question, Srivastava said the ministry had summoned a senior Pakistani diplomat and lodged a strong protest through a note verbale, or unsigned diplomatic correspondence, about the recent kidnapping of a woman from the Sikh minority.
“The kidnapping led to anger and worries among the Sikh community, and they conveyed this to the Indian side…There are some reports that the woman has been freed,” he said.
“This is not the first incident of its kind, there were others in the past. We have told the Pakistan government to take all possible steps to ensure the security of the minorities,” he said.
Replying to another query on Pakistan denying visa to diplomat Jayant Khobragade, who was proposed by India as the next acting head of the Indian mission in Islamabad, Srivastava said the Pakistani side had “some reservations” but didn’t give details. “This is an administrative issue and we are handling it,” he said.
Khobragade’s name was proposed to the Pakistani side in June, days before New Delhi asked Islamabad to reduce the strength of its high commission by 50%. The move triggered a reciprocal decision by the Pakistani side. On Sunday, Pakistan contended Khobragade was too senior for the post and sought to link bilateral ties to the resolution of the Kashmir issue.