Perched high up in the lofty Karakoram mountain range is the Gilgit-Baltistan region, administered by Pakistan. At the time of partition of 1947, the region was a part of the empire of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir. Following a coup by the army unit stationed at Gilgit, Gilgit’s governor (political agent of the Maharaja) was ousted and later the Pakistani establishment took over the charge of the region.
In 1970 the Gilgit Agency and Baltistan, were merged into a single administrative unit, named "Northern Areas". A Northern Areas Advisory Council was established in 1969. Later, in 1974 it was renamed to Northern Areas Council (NAC) and Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) in 1994. The leader of NALC became the deputy chief executive and the minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas served as the chief executive.
Gilgit Baltistan covers an area of 72,971 sq km but is sparsely populated due to the mountainous nature of the terrain. The region has a population of approximately 2 million people only. Shina and Burushaski are the majorly spoken languages in Gilgit whereas the Balti language is spoken by the people of Baltistan. The northern parts of Gilgit also consists a tiny population which speaks the Wakhi language. Shi’ism (Athna Ashari) and Ismailism are the majorly followed faiths in GB.
In 2009, Pakistani establishment devolved some of the legislative power to the political aspirations of the region by passing the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order in the Cabinet and getting presidential assent for it. As a result, a GB Legislative assembly and GB council was created. The legislative assembly is a 33 member assembly headed by a Chief Minister, elected popularly. 24 members are directly elected members, 6 seats are reserved for women candidates and the remaining 3 are reserved for technocrats.
The 2009 order also established a 15 member (all nominated) GB council, headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Also, the post of governor in Gilgit-Baltistan was created in September 2009 who is also the vice-chairman of the GB council.
Following the enactment the 2009 order, Syed Mehdi Shah from PPP became the first Chief Minister of GB. PML-N won the next round of elections held in 2015 and Hafiz Hafeez-ur-Rehman became the next Chief Minister. Mir Ghaznafar Ali Khan is the current governor of GB.
GB as fifth Province?
With the announcement of $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor in 2015, the region’s significance resumed as it is Pakistan’s only gateway to China. Due to the magnitude of the investments involved in CPEC, the Chinese establishment has expressed concerned regarding the status of GB, which is still not mentioned as a part of Pakistan in the nation’s constitution. There were reports that the Pakistani government was considering to make the region as its fifth province. Recently, a high level committee was established in Islamabad to take decision of the elevation of the region as a province.
The Kashmiri leadership (Hurriyat parties) voiced their concerns regarding this proposal. In New Delhi, Hurriyat leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq met the Pakistani High commissioner to enquire regarding this issue, who ensured him that there was no change in Pakistan’s policy on GB’s status. This is crucial for the separatist Kashmiri leadership because they also include GB as a party to the Kashmir dispute. It is feared that once GB is made a province, the separatist movement on the Indian side of Kashmir would be weakened as both India and Pakistan would enter into a permanent status-quo having carved out provinces in their respective territories.