Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan says his government will grant provisional status to a portion of the disputed territory of Kashmir, drawing condemnation from India and sparking a fresh war of words between the two countries.
The strategically important Gilgit-Baltistan region bordering Afghanistan and China is home to an estimated population of two million people.
Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars since gaining independence in 1947 over the mountainous territory of Kashmir, which both claim in full but administer separate portions of.
On Sunday, Khan addressed a political rally in the city of Gilgit, capital of the Gilgit-Baltistan region that forms part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, ahead of planned elections there later this month.
“We have made a decision to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, which has long been the demand here,” said Khan.
The proposal is unlikely to face opposition within Pakistan, where opposition political parties met secretly with the country’s army and intelligence chiefs in September to discuss the issue, lending their backing to the upgrade of Gilgit-Baltistan’s status, several opposition leaders told Al Jazeera at the time.
In India, however, Khan’s pronouncement was met with a sharp rebuke from the foreign ministry, which said it “firmly rejects” the move.
“I reiterate that the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including the area of so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’, are an integral part of India by virtue of the legal, complete and irrevocable accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India in 1947,” said Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Shri Anurag Srivastava.
Vital part of $60bn CPEC project
The statement provoked an equally strong response from Pakistan’s foreign ministry, which “categorically reject[ed]” the Indian statement.
“Administrative, political and economic reforms are a long-standing demand of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan,” said a statement released late on Sunday. “The envisaged provisional reforms reflect the aspirations of the indigenous populace of Gilgit-Baltistan.”
Gilgit-Baltistan is a vital part of the $60bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with the project’s major overland crossing at Kashgar, in the territory’s north.
Launched in 2014, CPEC is a set of trade and infrastructure projects that would connect China to the Arabian Sea through road and other transport infrastructure Pakistan, and also includes several power-generation and industrial revival projects.
Gilgit-Baltistan is located in the far north of Pakistan, at the intersection between the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges. It is home to some of the highest mountain peaks in the world, including K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.
Currently, the territory is nominally governed by the legislative assembly, for which elections are due on November 15, but that body has few legal powers and the region remains largely governed directly by the federal government in Islamabad.
The upgrade to provisional provincial status would see a more empowered local provincial assembly formed, with broad-ranging administrative and governance powers.