The geo-strategic GilgitBaltistan (GB) which has illegally been made the provisional fifth province of Pakistan by Prime Minister Imran Khan was a part and parcel of Jammu and Kashmir since the past 180 years when the troops of the Dogra ruler Gulab Singh conquered the territory. The action of Imran Khan has triggered protests in Pakistan and elsewhere as the move was being viewed a step to please China that after constructing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through GB was planning heavy investments in power and other infrastructural sectors in the area.
Moreover, GB is the only road connection for China to penetrate into Pakistan. It is strategically placed and has the potential to grow as an economic centre as being the tri-junction it is the gateway to Afghanistan, Tajikistan and the central and west Asia. Zorawar Singh, the commander of the Dogra Army of Maharaja Gulab Singh, launched his campaign against Baltistan in 1839 and a year later conquered Skardu.
However, the subsequent ruler Pratap Singh was considered a weak ruler and allowed the British to establish an agency in Gilgit in 1889 with a political agent who reported to the Srinagar based British Resident.
The agency was cleverly established to restrain Hunza and Nagar (parts of GB) from dealing with the Russians. The British forced the Maharaja in 1935 to lease out GB to them for a period of 40 years, but they terminated the lease in 12 years on 30 July 1947 few days before partition of India.
Various powers have been eyeing GB that covers mountainous area of over 72,971 kms also bordering Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan and China’s Xinjiang Uyghur region. It also touches Ladakh which has been split from Jammu and Kashmir and made a separate Union Territory (UT).
GB touches Turtuk in the Leh district of Ladakh which is the gateway to the strategic Siachen Glacier that is world’s highest battlefield between India and Pakistan. Turtuk was captured by Pakistani army and raiders in 1947 but during the regime of Indira Gandhi the area was recaptured by the Indian Army during the 1971 war.
There were reports that Imran Khan has succumbed to the pressure of China for declaring GB a province of Pakistan so as to protect its own economic interests. China’s CPEC connecting Xinjiang to Balochistan’s Gawadar port through GB has given it direct access to the Arabian Sea.
China is also in the process of building in collaboration with Pakistan Army the world’s tallest hydroelectric dam in the Diamer district of GB, a move which is being resisted by the locals.
However, China is trying to build connect with residents of GB by supplying rations to them and trucks carrying Chinese foodgrains have been photographed in the area.