External Affairs

Why India Insists on Keeping Gilgit Baltistan Firmly in the Kashmir Equation

Central Intelligence Agency map of the entire Kashmir region.

Central Intelligence Agency map of the entire Kashmir region.

New Delhi’s move to  raise objections to Pakistan’s plan of holding an election in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Gilgit-Baltistan region may appear to be an afterthought, but it is, in fact, the belated assertion of a simple principle: In a dispute, express your maximal position, rather than the one you will compromise on.

For long years, indeed, beginning in 1947 itself, India had tended to play down, if not ignore, its own legal claim over what Pakistan used to term as the Northern Areas and now calls Gilgit Baltistan. As a result, the world assumed the ‘Kashmir problem’ only pertained to the Kashmir Valley which was in India’s possession. Thus, when it came to compromises, it put the onus on New Delhi.

It is this principle that informs Beijing’s tough stand on the Sino-Indian border. In 1960 and 1980 they were agreeable to swapping claims and broached the idea with New Delhi. However, India rejected the proposal, and since it was holding on to Arunachal Pradesh, the area it claimed in the east, it hoped that it could persuade China to part with some 3000 or so sq kms in the Aksai Chin area. However, beginning 1985, China turned tables on the stunned Indian negotiators by insisting that the bigger dispute lay in the east and has since been demanding concessions from India in that sector. It has said it is willing to concede India’s claim to most of Arunachal if India is willing to part with the Tawang tract.

When it comes to Pakistan and PoK, India has clearly taken a page from the Chinese playbook.

In 2009 and 2010, India responded sharply to reports of the presence of Chinese soldiers and workers in the region.“India believes that Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of parts of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir since 1947. The Chinese side is fully aware of India’s position and our concerns about Chinese activities in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir”, the MEA said in 2009. In 2010 similar concerns were raised.

Last month, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval raised eyebrows when he reminded an audience of BSF officers that “we also have a 106-km-long non-contiguous border with Afghanistan that we need to factor in,” a clear reference to Gilgit Baltistan’s Afghan frontier. Now, in similar vein, Vikas Swarup, the spokesman for the external affairs ministry, said on Tuesday: “India’s position is well known. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, is an integral part of India.”

The election, which is scheduled for June 8, is as an attempt by Islamabad “to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the regions” and to deny its people their political rights; it is being held under a belated effort by Islamabad to give the region a figment of self-rule, the MEA said in a strong statement on Tuesday.

The Gilgit Baltistan area of Jammu and Kashmir occupied by Pakistan covers 85,793 sq km. It was further divided in 1970 into two separate administrative divisions: Mirpur-Muzaffarabad (which Pakistan calls Azad Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK) and the Federally Administered Gilgit-Baltistan.

Gilgit-Baltistan was earlier referred to as the “Northern Areas” in Pakistan. Pakistan illegally ceded the Shaksgam Valley, around 5,180 sq km, to China in a 1963 border agreement.

Swarup said the proposed election in Gilgit and Baltistan under the so-called ‘Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Government Order’ of 2009 is an attempt by Pakistan to absorb these territories.

“We are concerned at the continued efforts by Pakistan to deny the people of the region their political rights, and the efforts being made to absorb these territories. The fact that a federal minister of Pakistan is also the ‘Governor of Gilgit Baltistan’ speaks for itself,” he added.

Battle for Gilgit

The Gilgit agency was leased by the British from the Maharaja of Kashmir because of its stratgegic location south of Afghanistan and China. It was administered by a British officer and policed by the Gilgit Scouts which were, too, officered by the British. In July 1947, the British decided to terminate the lease and return it to the Maharaja who took over the control of the region as of August 1, 1947, and appointed  Brigadier Ghansar Singh as governor. But two officers of the Gilgit Scouts, Major W A Brown and Captain A S Mathieson, along with Subedar Major Babar Khan, a relative of the Mir of Hunza conspired to overthrow the government.

Brigadier Ghansar Singh

Brigadier Ghansar Singh

On October 31, 1947, after the Pakistan-backed raiders had entered Kashmir, the three conspirators tried to capture the government along with a company of Gilgit Scouts. But the Brigadier got up and engaged the rebels and in the morning Brown asked the governor to surrender, threatening a massacre of non-Muslims in Gilgit. Brigadier Singh surrendered  and set up a provisional government under Major Brown and a number of Poonchi Muslims who had killed their Sikh colleagues in the 6 Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry located at Bunji, 50 kms away. The Pakistan flag was hoisted and from here, Pakistani regulars and irregulars launched attacks on the other towns and cities of the region like Skardu, Dras, Kargil and Leh.

No fiction of Azadi

Pakistan did not bother with any fiction of “Azad” Gilgit-Baltistan, nor did it claim that the government represented the will of the people. Two weeks after Brown’s coup, a nominee of the Pakistan government, Sardar Mohammed Alam, was appointed Political Agent and took possession of the territory.

From the outset, India was less than categorical about its desire to resume control of the Gilgit-Baltistan area, though Nehru did insist that as part of the UN resolution requiring the removal of Pakistani forces from J&K, the Pakistani regulars and irregulars ought to be removed from Gilgit-Baltistan as well.

However, when the Dixon proposals came up in 1950, which sought to partition the state, India went along with the proposal for allotment to Pakistan of those areas where there was no apparent doubt about the wishes of the people wanting to go the Pakistan, and Gilgit-Baltistan was one of these areas, along with areas of Jammu west of the ceasefire line. Jammu, Ladakh, and Kargil would go to India and the plebiscite would be held in the Valley and parts of Muzaffarabad. However, this proposal came to nought because Pakistan wanted a plebiscite over the whole state.

Shias targeted

In 1970, Pakistan changed the name of the region to “Northern Areas”, but kept it detached from Azad Kashmir. But while AJK was given a semblance of constitutional government right from the outset, Gilgit Baltistan was in a constitutional limbo, or simply a colony of Pakistan.  In 2009, Pakistan finally sought to give some legal cover to this relationship by passing a Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order in the Cabinet and getting presidential assent for it. The order allegedly granted self-rule to the people by creating a legislative assembly and a council, yet did not provide for any constitutional means of linking it to Pakistan. Islamabad believes that this way it is able to maintain its somewhat convoluted stand on Jammu & Kashmir.

Pakistan’s role in the region has not been particularly responsible. According to estimates, some 70 per cent of the population are Shias of various denominations and only 30 per cent or so are Sunnis. However, since the Zia-ul-Haq era, an effort has been made to alter the sectarian balance in the region. In 1988, a huge Lashkar of Sunni extremists was sent in to chastise the Shia population, triggering sectarian strife which has now recurred regularly over the years. And in recent times, the general climate of violence against Shias in Pakistan has taken a toll in the Gilgit-Baltistan region as well.  Tuesday’s MEA statement makes a reference to these issues too, for added measure: “Unfortunately in recent times the people of the region have also become victims of sectarian conflict, terrorism and extreme economic hardship due to Pakistan’s occupationary policies.”

China corridor

Since the Pakistan-China agreement in 1963 which saw the transfer of the Shaksgam Valley to China, Beijing has been an important player in  the region. Beginning in the mid-1960s, China constructed the Karakoram Highway linking Kashghar in Xinjiang with Gilgit and Abbottabad through the Khunjerab Pass. Though prone to landslides, efforts are on to upgrade this highway and make it an axis of China’s Silk Road Initiative which will link Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan through the highway, a possible railroad and oil and gas pipeline. China has invested in a number of projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and the Chinese connection is an important element of the region’s economy. During his recent visit, President Xi Jinping committed some $46 billion to projects in Pakistan.

China says that it is seeking to stabilise the region as Pakistan melts down and is ensuring that there is no blowback into its vulnerable province of Xinjiang. However, India cannot take that at face value, since the legal title of the region through which the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will run through vests with India. This is the reason the Indian side has  protested Chinese activity in PoK in the past and again recently. However, this is only a subtext of the larger Indian complaint about the Sino-Pak nexus.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.

This article has been edited to add a reference and hyperlink to India’s 2009 and 2010 statements on Gilgit Baltistan.