The Pakistan government plans to make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province, two years after powers of the Islamabad-controlled council for the region were transferred to a local assembly.
The government’s plans were outlined by the federal minister for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur, during an interaction with a group of journalists in Islamabad on Wednesday. He said the region will be accorded the status of a full-fledged province with constitutional rights such as representation in both houses of Parliament.
Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to visit the region soon and make a formal announcement about the change, Gandapur was quoted as saying in reports in the Pakistani media.
“After consultation with all stakeholders, the federal government has decided in principle to give constitutional rights to Gilgit-Baltistan,” he said. “Our government has decided to deliver on the promise it made to the people there.”
There was no immediate reaction to the minister’s remarks from Indian officials, though New Delhi has consistently opposed changes made in the disputed region by the Pakistan government. India claims Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Gandapur also said that subsidies and tax exemptions for the region wouldn’t be withdrawn after the grant of constitutional rights. “Until the people there stand on their feet, they will continue to enjoy this facility,” he said.
People familiar with developments said the Pakistani military establishment had been in touch with political parties regarding the changes. Khan’s ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is backing the changes with an eye on upcoming elections in Gilgit-Baltistan so that it can make political gains and form the next government in the region.
Gandapur said the elections were likely to be held in mid-November. Preparations had been completed and the distribution of tickets by the PTI will begin soon, he added.
He contended that the “deprivation” faced by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for 73 years would end with the change. Besides constitutional rights and a provincial setup, important steps are being taken for developing the region, he said.
This includes work on Moqpondass special economic zone under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and steps to improve health care, tourism, transport and education, he said.
In 1999, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are Pakistani citizens and directed the federal government to start appropriate administrative and legislative measures.
In 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order was introduced, whereby the Northern Areas were renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan and the region was given province-like status but without representation in Parliament.
In 2015, a committee constituted by the federal government proposed giving Gilgit-Baltistan the status of a province, and three years later, a new order transferred all powers of the local council to the local assembly.
The people cited above said any move to give the region the status of a full-fledged province would be welcomed by local residents. Some stakeholders had suggested the region should be provisionally given the status of a province and it should be made a full province only after the Kashmir issue is resolved, the people said.
Though the proposal made by the committee in 2015 didn’t go through because it didn’t have the blessings of the security establishment, it appears that the Pakistan Army has had a change of heart in view of the changes in Jammu and Kashmir since August last year, the people further said.