Pakistan and India have been drawn into a fresh dispute following an announcement by the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, that he will provisionally declare the border territory of Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.
The strategic area bordering China and Afghanistan forms part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir – an area claimed by Pakistan and India, but controlled by Pakistan since the war of independence in 1947.
Gilgit-Baltistan, for decades ruled by Pakistan’s central government, has no representative in the federal parliament and cannot bring cases to the supreme court, but making it a provisional province gives the region stronger constitutional and voting rights, more local autonomy and increased powers for its legislative assembly.
“Administrative, political and economic reforms are a longstanding demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan,” said a statement by the Pakistan government.
For the state to officially become Pakistan’s fifth province, it would require an amendment to the constitution.
India, which claims sovereignty over the entire state of Kashmir, responded vehemently to the announcement by Khan, stating that it “categorically rejects” the move. India’s ministry of external affairs said “so-called Gilgit-Baltistan” was Indian territory and the declaration of the region as a Pakistan province was an attempt to camouflage an “illegal and forcible occupation” of the area.
The announcement by Khan is the latest escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan over the troubled territory of Kashmir. In August last year, India infuriated Pakistan by removing the special semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir – the part of the Kashmir region that falls on the Indian side of the border – and bringing the state fully under the control of the Indian government for the first time since partition.
The announcement by Khan also came less than a month before the 2 million people of Gilgit-Baltistan are to go to the polls for their legislative assembly, which currently has very limited powers.
The move has been seen as a clear attempt by the prime minister to win over voters at a time when the popularity of Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (PTI) is in severe decline amid economic collapse, record levels of inflation and increasingly united political opposition.
Many in the region viewed the announcement with scepticism and it was seen by some as a half measure, without committing to enshrining the change in the constitution.
Naveed Saleem, a student in Gilgit-Baltistan, said: “Khan is bluffing. This provisional status is not what we asked for. It still wouldn’t make Gilgit-Pakistan a constitutional part of Pakistan. We still can’t vote for the prime minister of Pakistan. We still can’t go to supreme court of Pakistan. It’s a joke.”
Shaan Mohammed Khan, an IT expert from the state, was similarly mistrustful. “Without a constitutional change, Imran Khan’s words mean nothing,” he said. “As general elections are near they are doing this only to increase their vote bank.”
The move is one that will particularly satisfy Pakistan’s close ally China. Beijing has been pushing for more stability and security for Gilgit-Baltistan as the region forms a crucial part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an infrastructure project running through Pakistan, which is the flagship of Xi Jinping’s belt and road initiative.
“Given the depth of India-Pakistan tensions, this will certainly raise temperatures even more,” said Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program and a senior associate for south Asia at the Wilson Center.
“Pakistan has sought to make this change for quite some time, and with both Pakistan-India and India-China relations in deep crisis, the timing makes sense from a geopolitical context,” added Kugelman.
“It’s an opportunity to push back against New Delhi on two fronts: it delivers a blow to its claim to Gilgit-Baltistan, and it gives some momentum to a CPEC enterprise that India opposes.”