How and Why Gilgit Baltistan Defied Maharaja Hari Singh and Joined Pakistan

Any honest accounting of the region's status has to take into consideration the reality of Dogra rule, which was not just contested everywhere outside of Jammu but actively disliked.

This is the second in a three-part article on Gilgit Baltistan and India | Part 1

In the first part of this article, we have argued that India’s desire to recover Gilgit Baltistan from Pakistan would amount to “expansionism”. We have also shown how the leaders of India’s freedom movement themselves had given far greater weightage to ascertaining the wishes of the people of the various constituent parts of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir than to Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession of his state to the Indian Union. Furthermore, the fact that the UN-mandated plebiscite could not be held seven decades ago lends no justification whatsoever to India wanting to forcibly ‘recover’ this region.

As far as the people of Gilgit Baltistan are concerned, they had, in a way, expressed their view on the matter of accession to India or Pakistan even before the UN Security Council adopted its resolution on the plebiscite on April 21, 1948. Within a week of Maharaja Hari Singh, the last Dogra ruler of Jammu, signing the Instrument of Accession to India (on October 26, 1947), they revolted against his decision, hoisted the Pakistani flag in Gilgit on November 1, and declared their determination to join the newly created dominion of Pakistan. To understand how, and why, this happened, it is necessary to briefly revisit the sequence of events that led to India’s partition and the constitutional crisis in Kashmir.

Also Read: Ladakh LAC on the Boil, India Must Avoid Stirring Gilgit Baltistan Cauldron With Pakistan

Reality of the Dogra ruled J&K state 

The most fundamental feature of Jammu and Kashmir, as it existed at the time of British India’s partition in 1947, was that it was an artificial state. This was stated by none other than Karan Singh, son of Hari Singh, in a conversation with B.K. Nehru, former governor of Jammu and Kashmir. “He explained that the state was a wholly artificial creation, its five separate regions [Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan] being joined together by the historical accident that Raja Gulab Singh had conquered all the territories over which his father, Maharaja Hari Singh, was ruling at the time of Independence and Partition. Those five different entities had nothing in common with each other.”

Jammu is the only Hindu-majority part of the erstwhile state. Kashmir is inhabited by Sunni Muslims, with a minority population that is Hindu and Sikh. Ladakh is inhabited by Lamaistic Buddhists and Muslims, and Gilgit-Baltistan by Shia and Ismaili Muslims. The languages spoken in each of the regions are different. It must be remembered that the Dogra rulers of Jammu were unpopular in every other part of the princely state.

Dogra rule was a sort of colonialism within the larger edifice of British colonialism. It owed its very existence to British power and patronage. Even those Kashmiri Hindus who were uncontaminated by the communal virus hated the Dogra rule. For example, this is what Prem Nath Bazaz, one of the greatest Kashmiri scholars in the modern era, writes in his book History of the Struggle for Freedom in Kashmir: “The Dogras have always considered Jammu as their home and Kashmir as the conquered country…[T]hey established a sort of Dogra imperialism in the State in which all non-Dogra communities and classes were given the humble place of inferiors…Dogra imperialism brought nothing but misery, thraldom, physical and mental deterioration in its wake…”

If such was the inimical sentiment of Kashmiris (both Muslim and Hindu) towards the alien Dogra rule, is there any reason to believe that the people of Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh were happy under it?

Jammu and Kashmir, which came into existence as a separate entity only in 1846, is itself an example of British-assisted expansionism by the Dogra dynasty. The Sikh empire in north-western India quickly disintegrated after the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1839. This resulted in the British annexing the Punjab, after their victory in the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845-46), through the Treaty of Lahore on March 9, 1846. This treaty forced the Sikhs to cede Kashmir to the British. Within a week, through the Treaty of Amritsar on March 16, 1846, the British ‘sold’ Kashmir to Gulab Singh, the Dogra chieftain of Jammu (who served the Sikh empire but later turned against it), for 75 lakh nanak shahi rupees. To this day, many Kashmiris deeply resent that their land was treated as a purchasable property.

New map of the UTs of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Source: GOI

British imperatives

“The greatest rascal of Asia” and “a cruel tyrant” is how Gulab Singh was described by Lord Hardinge, governor-general of India at the time of the first Anglo-Sikh War. In a letter to his wife, Hardinge wrote:

“The man, whom I have to deal with, Gulab Singh, is the greatest rascal in Asia. Unfortunately it is necessary to improve his condition because he did not participate in war against us and his territory touches ours. We can protect him without inconvenience and give him a slice of the Sikh territory which balances his strength in the same degree against theirs and as he is geographically our ally, I must forget he is a rascal and treat him better than he deserves.”

Under the Amritsar Treaty, Gulab Singh accepted the supremacy of the British, who in turn called him ‘Maharaja’ and permitted him to take possession of the mountainous territory eastward of the Indus river and westward of the Ravi. Even though Gulab Singh and his descendants were the ‘kings’ of the state, the British lost no time in exercising greater control over it by stationing their political agents. Because of the perceived threat from Tsarist Russia, which was moving southwards at the time in its ‘Great Game’ rivalry with the British empire, the latter further tightened its control over Gilgit and frontier areas strategically located near Afghanistan, China and Central Asia. Thus came into existence the Gilgit Agency, headed by a British political agent, in 1877. The Gilgit Agency had areas under three categories.

1. Kashmir State Territory encompassing Gilgit Wazarat (district) comprising Gilgit Tehsil (including Bunji) and the Niabat of Astor.

2. The Political Districts – Hunza, Nagar, Puniyal, Yasin, Koh Ghizar, Ishkoman and the republic of Chilas (present day Diamer district, where India has objected to Pakistan and China constructing the Diamer Bhasha hydro-electric project.). These were autonomous.

3. Unadministered Area including Darel, Tangir, Kandia (Killi), Jalkot, Sazin, Shatial and Harban.

The agency was withdrawn in 1881, but re-stablished in 1889. Thus, effectively, the Jammu king himself ‘ruled’ over parts of Gilgit, that too tenuously, only for a period of eight years between 1881 and 1889.

In 1913, the British established the Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary force comprising trained Muslim locals but commanded by British officers. In 1935, with the dark clouds of the Second World War approaching the Indian subcontinent, the British leased Gilgit Wazarat from Hari Singh, who had become the maharaja in 1925, for a period of 60 years. The leased territory became a “frontier agency’ under the complete political control and administration of the British.

On June 3, 1947, the British government announced its plan to partition India (i.e. territories directly under the British rule) into two independent dominions — India and Pakistan. The subsequent Indian Independence Act, 1947, ended British suzerainty over the Indian princely states and terminated all treaties and agreements with them.  Accordingly, the viceroy’s political department ended the lease of Gilgit Wazarat. However, in doing so, it retroceded the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir to the Maharaja, including those areas that were never really ruled by him or his predecessors. The Gilgit Scouts were also handed over to him. Naturally, the maharajah accepted the retrocession with great jubilation.

V.P. Menon’s account of what happened in 1947

What happened next is best heard from V.P. Menon himself. Since he was Sardar Patel’s most trusted aide, Modi and his followers cannot dismiss his account as inauthentic.

Soon after the retrocession, Menon writes in Integration of the Indian States, “the maharaja appointed a governor for that area. The governor, accompanied by Major-General H L Scott, chief of staff of the Jammu and Kashmir Army, reached Gilgit on July 30. On arrival, they found that all the officers of the British government had opted for service in Pakistan. There was no state civil staff available to take over from these officers. The Gilgit Scouts also wanted to go over to Pakistan… At midnight of October 31, [that is, six days after the maharaja signed the instrument of accession to India], the governor’s residence was surrounded by the Gilgit Scouts. The next morning the governor was put under arrest and a provisional government was established by the rebels. The Muslim elements (including officers) in the state force garrison had deserted; the non-Muslim elements were largely Iiquidated…On November 4, Major Brown, the British commandant of the Gilgit Scouts ceremonially hoisted the Pakistan flag in the Scouts’ lines and in the third week of November a political agent from Pakistan established himself at Gilgit.”

V.P. Menon. Photo: Collection of Narayani Basu

What Major Brown claimed

Why did Major William Brown, a British officer, join his Muslim colleagues in the Gilgit Scouts in hoisting the Pakistan flag in Gilgit? A plausible explanation is given in an excellent research paper ‘Three Forgotten Accessions: Gilgit, Hunza and Nagar’ by Pakistani scholar Yaqoob Khan Bangash, author of A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-1955, and a strong votary of peace and friendship between Pakistan and India:

“By the middle of 1947 news of communal tensions had reached Gilgit and in a place where Hindu Dogras were despised for their heavy-handedness during the conflicts to subdue Gilgit, stories of Muslims being slaughtered by Hindus and Sikhs in the Punjab inflamed passions against the small minorities of Hindus and Sikhs in Gilgit.”

Also Read: Article 370 and The Paradox of Kashmir’s Accession

Major Brown was well aware of the anti-maharaja sentiments among the people in Gilgit. In his subsequent account of the episode in his book Gilgit Rebellion: The Major Who Mutinied Over Partition of India he wrote:

“I shuddered at the thought of the havoc which would follow a decision by the ruler of Kashmir to join India. The blame for the widespread destruction of life and property would lie directly on the British government. I therefore felt it was my duty, as the only Britisher left, to follow a course which would prevent this … partisan, traitor, revolutionary, I may have been, but that evening my sentiments dictated that if the maharaja acceded to India, then I would forego all allegiance to him and I would not rest content until I had done the utmost in my power to ensure that the Gilgit province joined Pakistan.”

The pro-Pakistan sentiment in Gilgit, actively supported by Major Brown, also put an end to the voices that called for Gilgit’s independence from Pakistan, India and the Dogra king. Furthermore, he also prevailed upon the rulers (Mirs) of the two dependencies of the Gilgit Agency – Hunza and Nagar – to join Pakistan in the first week of November 1947. According to a diary entry by George Cunningham, then governor of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and one to whom Major Brown reported, the accession of these areas to Pakistan happened without any communal violence and “within two days all the Hindu and Sikh shops were open as usual”. There is also no record of popular resistance to their accession to Pakistan, or of people’s demand for accession to India, at the time. This basic fact – namely, their sense of belonging to Pakistan – has remained unchanged in the past seven decades, even though it is undoubtedly true that they have been agitating against successive Pakistani governments’ failure to grant them equal constitutional status.

Baltistan became a part of Pakistan through a different route. When British rule ended on August 14-15, 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh, unlike most other rulers of princely states, refused to join either India or Pakistan. His indecision provided an opportunity to the rulers of Pakistan to plan an invasion of Muslim-majority Kashmir with the aim of forcibly capturing it. When the invaders, mostly tribal irregulars, were almost on the outskirts of Srinagar, Hari Singh fled to Jammu in panic, where, on October 26, he signed the instrument of accession to join India. This paved the way for the government of India to send its troops to defend Srinagar and drive the invaders back. In the ensuing war, Pakistani soldiers, along with Gilgit Scouts and tribal irregulars marched towards Baltistan and captured Skardu in May 1948. The local populace supported the fighters since they were eager to force the Dogras out. This is how Baltistan came under Pakistani control when the war ended with a UN-mediated ceasefire in January 1949.

Did Hari Singh have the right to speak for all of J&K’s regions?

We should briefly examine here even the legal aspect of Maharaja Hari Singh’s decision to accede his state to join India. This, after all, is the original and only plank on which successive Indian governments have pressed their case for the return of Gilgit Baltistan and PoK. In the case of Gilgit Baltistan, the legality angle is extremely weak and questionable for several reasons.

First, can the democratic conscience of humanity in modern times accept the right of the ruler of a highly heterogeneous state, over several parts of which his rule was both tenuous and dubious, to decide the destiny of millions of people with a single signature, penned when he was in a moment of fright, and without conducting any kind of consultation with them?

During this fateful period, the maharaja was not in effective control of any of the constituent units of his state except his own native Jammu. Indeed, he had alienated even Muslims in Jammu, thousands of whom were massacred. The tyrannical Dogra rule was hated in Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. The end of British suzerainty – i.e. its protective shield –emboldened the people of these areas to rebel against the maharaja’s rule. A major rebellion occurred in Poonch between June and October 1947. As Christopher Snedden, author of The Untold Story of the People of Azad Kashmir, writes, “Maharaja Hari Singh lost his guarantor, the British. No longer could he impose his will, almost with impunity, on the people of J&K, knowing that the British would support him or, at worst, ignore his actions.”

Therefore, the legal validity of such accession can be accepted and justified only by those who consider that Hari Singh was the “owner” of the land of Jammu and Kashmir, and not the benign “ruler” of its people. The Dogra kings laid claim to Gilgit Baltistan (in addition to Kashmir) on the grounds that these were once under the control of the Sikh rulers, whom the British defeated and thereafter sold this territory to Gulab Singh. It is understandable if despotic kings used such logic of proprietorship in the bygone era, but does it behove democratic and republican India to do the same in 2020 and claim, “Gilgit Baltistan is India’s because the maharaja signed the instrument of accession 73 years ago”?

Second, as far as the Dogra king’s sovereignty over Gilgit is concerned, this was contested by the British themselves, since they were the effective rulers of that region. Even the territory that the British took on a 60-year lease from the Maharaja in 1935, which they retroceded to him after the announcement of the Partition Plan on June 3, was limited only to Gilgit Wazarat (district), and not to the entire area of Gilgit Baltistan.

Much of the discussion on Gilgit is marred by the confusion between ‘Wazarat’ and ‘Agency’. As Bangash writes: “While the maharaja of Kashmir always claimed that the whole Gilgit Agency formed his state, the Indian government was very clear that this was not the case. After the Kashmir darbar submitted a long note to the Indian government, New Delhi concisely and clearly put an end to the confusion. Colonel Fraser, resident in Kashmir, wrote to Maharaja Sir Hari Singh on March 5, 1941, the final decision of the viceroy on the status of the constituent units of the Agency: “1) Hunza and Nagar: though these are under the suzerainty of the Kashmir State, they are not part of Kashmir but are separate states; 2) Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, and Yasin: Though these are under the suzerainty of Kashmir State they are not part of Kashmir but tribal areas.”

The last Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Unknow author/public domain

Modern India (also Pakistan) is the successor of British India, not the natural successor of the princely states. The Indian Independence Act ended the suzerainty of the British Crown over the princely states on August 15, 1947. Just as the British could not dictate to the maharaja to join India or Pakistan, or remain independent, the maharaja too had no power to determine the destiny of those areas whose legal status, as clarified by the British government of India in the above-mentioned letter in 1941, was that they were under the suzerainty and not sovereignty of the Jammu and Kashmir state.

Third, the decision of the ruling Mirs of Hunza and Nagar to sign their instruments of accession to Pakistan on November 3 was understandable because “their economies and people were inextricably linked with the Gilgit Agency”, whose end signified to them the prospect of living under direct Dogra Raj. “They kept in constant touch with Major Brown in Gilgit and when Major Brown called the Mir of Hunza to confirm if he had earlier in the day on October 30, 1947 affirmed his support for Hari Singh in his accession to India, Hunza clearly came out in favour of Pakistan and said: ‘There is only  one  way  for  us  to  go  and  that  is  to  Pakistan  and  we  shall  join  Pakistan.’”

This version, narrated by Brown in his book, need not be taken at face value. There is some evidence to suggest that he was not acting on his own, but was implementing the policy of the British government, which did not want India’s borders to stretch up to Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the moot point is that neither the British government nor Indian leaders like Nehru and Patel challenged the decision of Gilgit to join Pakistan on November 2, and the accession by the Mirs of Hunza and Nagar to Pakistan the following day. In fact, as Menon himself has recorded in his book, “Accession to India would have provoked adverse reactions in Gilgit and certain areas contiguous to Pakistan.”

Also Read: MEA Doesn’t Want 1947-49 Kashmir Files of Then Indian Army Chief to Be Public

Menon gives another compelling reason for Gilgit, Hunza and Nagar to join Pakistan. “[A]t least at that time, the road communications were with Pakistan” and there was not a single road or rail route that connected Gilgit with India.

All this conclusively shows that today, India has no defensible grounds to insist that Gilgit Baltistan be ”re-united” with it. And any assertion on the part of ministers in the Modi government that “we expect one day that we will have physical jurisdiction over it”, or statements by generals that the Indian army is prepared for an operation to “retrieve” Pakistan-occupied territory “from the clutches of Pakistan” qualifies to be called by its rightful name — vistaarvaad, or expansionism.

The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at [email protected].