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

With Pakistan set to make Gilgit Baltistan its fifth province, any Indian move to wrest it militarily is sure to trigger an unwinnable two-front war.

This is the first in a three-part article on Gilgit Baltistan and India

The word ‘vistaarvaad’, or expansionism, is a new accusation in India’s official discourse on relations with China. When he addressed Indian troops at Nimu in Ladakh on July 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared: “The era of expansionism has come to an end. This is the era of development. History has proved that expansionist forces have either lost or were forced to turn back.”

Modi’s visit to Nimu took place against the backdrop of a terrible clash between the armies of India and China at Galwan Valley at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh on June 15, in which 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed.

Modi used the word ‘expansionism’ again in his Independence Day address to the nation. He said, “From LoC [Line of Control, with Pakistan] to LAC [Line of Actual Control, with China], whenever India’s sovereignty has been challenged, our soldiers have answered them in their own language (unhee ki bhaashaa mein)…Whether it is terrorism or expansionism, India is fighting both.”

On both occasions, he did not explicitly mention China. But his message was clear — he was blaming China for not just occupying territory on the Indian side of LAC but seeking to add to its possessions. His accusation came at a time when, in a parallel development, the Trump administration has also been slamming China for its “expansionist” policies towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. The political affinity between Modi and Trump, which has been on ample display in the past four years, has further magnified the charge against China as an expansionist power.

China certainly has much to answer for its bellicose actions at Galwan, Pangong Tso, Depsang and at other places along the LAC. So does Pakistan for aiding and abetting forces of terrorism and religious extremism targeting India – in the bargain itself becoming a major victim of these forces. Modi was certainly right in saying that the era of expansionism is over. In the 21st century, the collective conscience of the world revolts against the idea of any country claiming, occupying, or wanting/threatening to occupy, areas (land or maritime) that are not its own, as well as any country that tries to retake by force areas that it believes are part of its historic territory but which are now under the de facto control of another. But is China alone guilty?

Renewed focus on Gilgit Baltistan

I would argue that Modi’s warning on expansionism must apply equally to those who dream of forcibly taking – or retaking the areas of Gilgit Baltistan, which have been with Pakistan since 1947-48. Let there be no mistake: If his government tries to take control of Gilgit Baltistan, India, in Modi’s own words, will “lose” or be “forced to turn back”. This is because India would be risking a simultaneous two-front war with Pakistan and China.

This is not baseless speculation. The region is very close to the LAC in Ladakh, where India is building an all-weather road, air and logistics infrastructure. It is also where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which India has stiffly opposed, passes through. CPEC has vital economic and strategic importance for China under its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Therefore, any Indian plans or pronouncements on Gilgit Baltistan are bound to compel both Pakistan and China, which already have a robust partnership, into responding in a resolute and coordinated manner.

After the scrapping of Article 370 of the Indian constitution and the simultaneous bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two separate Union territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — on August 5, 2019, the Modi government has been making all-out efforts to bring Gilgit Baltistan into focus. In his speech in parliament on August 6 last year, Union home minister Amit Shah declared, “When I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it… We will give our lives for this region.” Defence minister Rajnath Singh said, “The next dialogue will be about terrorism and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, and nothing else.” External affairs minister Dr S. Jaishankar stated India’s intention even more clearly when he said, “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is part of India, and we expect one day that we will have physical jurisdiction over it.”

File photo of Union home minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PTI

“India must be prepared for a two-front war,” Gen. Bipin Rawat, India’s former army chief and current chief of defence staff, had said in July 2018. In September last year, he stated that the army is prepared for “an operation to retrieve Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) from the clutches of Pakistan, if the government wants so”. Gen. V K Singh (retd), another former army chief who is now a minister in Modi’s cabinet, endorsed this by saying that the government has a “special strategy” for PoK, adding, “However, such things are not discussed in public.”

Tilak Devasher, a member of the National Security Advisory Board and author of several books on Pakistan, has suggested that “India should move beyond cartographic assertions and weather bulletins” about Gilgit Baltistan.

Speaking at a function in June on the India-China border issue organised by Organiser, the weekly organ of the RSS, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav said, “Our claim is not just the LAC. Our claim goes beyond that. When it comes to J&K, it includes PoK (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) and when it comes to the UT of Ladakh, it includes Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin.” He was only reiterating what Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the RSS, the mother of India’s ruling party, had said in 2016 — “Whole of Kashmir including Mirpur, Muzzafarbad, Gilgit and Baltistan are an inseparable and integral part of India.”

We thus see a clear pattern in how the Modi government has been sharpening its focus on Gilgit Baltistan since 2014.

From 370 and Gilgit Baltistan to China standoff in Ladakh

Many analysts have hinted at India’s likely military plans on Gilgit Baltistan as a possible trigger for the recent India-China standoff at the LAC. Writing in The Wire, Prem Shankar Jha observed,

“Ignoring 75 years of history, the Modi government had already vowed to take back Gilgit, along with the rest of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.” He added: “China needs CPEC and BRI for its very survival, so one can only imagine the alarm that the Modi government’s talk of retaking Gilgit Baltistan must have created. In the resulting threat re-assessment, their eyes have inevitably fallen on Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), and on the modern road and bridges that India has constructed over the past six years linking it to Durbuk, Pangong and Leh. DBO, which is at an altitude of 16,000 feet (5,000 metres) is only 13 kms over relatively flat country from the Karakoram pass. Therefore, in the thin air of this high altitude, it is within easy reach — not only of the Bofors 155 mm howitzers, but also of the much more portable 110 mm howitzers.”

An even more direct allusion to the connection between Gilgit Baltistan and the India-China confrontation at the LAC in Ladakh on can be seen in the article by the pro-establishment commentator Sanjay Dixit, which is full of praise for the prime minister and national security adviser, Ajit Doval. The duo, he writes, “have sized up the situation correctly…  [I]t is certain that the way to conquer Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not through Muzaffarabad but through Khapalu and Skardu [in Gilgit Baltistan]. India will have to militarily conquer PoK not through the Jhelum, but through the Shyok [river, in Baltistan, adjacent to Ladakh]….Let us hope for taking the Khapalu, Skardu, and Shigar [all in Gilgit Baltistan] area in the Indian Union soon. After that, Shaksgam Valley, ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963, would be thrown open.” (Emphasis added)

The unfortunate Galwan valley incident has precipitated the worst ever crisis in India-China relations since the war in 1962. It took 14 long years after the war to re-establish diplomatic ties, and 12 more years before an Indian prime minister travelled to Beijing to signify full normalisation of relations. Were a new armed conflict to take place at the LAC, it could similarly push back the relations between the Himalayan neighbours for a long time to come. This could cause alarming instability in Asia and the world. What will India, Pakistan and China gain by following an ill-advised path that leads to an unwinnable war?

People’s will vs legalistic territorial claims

This is the reason why we need to question India’s expansionist claims on Gilgit Baltistan with honesty and objectivity. Doing so may seem preposterous, even downright ‘anti-national’, in the eyes of many Indians cutting across party lines, since India has always claimed the entire territory of Jammu and Kashmir as its own. This claim did not begin in 2014, when Modi became prime minister. It has been India’s consistent stand ever since 1947, when Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the instrument of accession to join the Indian Union on October 26 of that year. The same has been reiterated by successive Indian governments, most of which were led by the Congress party. Indeed, both houses of parliament unanimously passed a resolution on February 22, 1994, which made three points.

(a) The State of Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India and any attempts to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted by all necessary means;

(b) India has the will and capacity to firmly counter all designs against its unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity; and demands that –

(c) Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression.

It is significant that this resolution did not mention China. The omission of China tells its own story. India has rarely demanded that China, a superior military power, vacate all of Aksai Chin as persistently and forcefully as it has asked Pakistan to return all the territories it has occupied. Rather, as even the ongoing talks on de-escalation of the situation in Ladakh have shown, India would be satisfied if China returned to status quo ante — that is, if it remained on its own side of the LAC.

Before we come to the specifics of Gilgit Baltistan (which was earlier referred to as the “Northern Areas” in Pakistan), four general points need to be made.

First, just because successive governments have legalistically made a certain territorial claim, the claim does not become intrinsically true and valid. Similarly, the consistent counter-claim of a rival country to the dispute also does not vest it, ipso facto, with truth and validity. Whenever there is a wide gap between claims and counter-claims, their truth and validity should be examined on the basis of relevant historical facts and universally recognised principles.

Second, and this itself is an important, universally recognised principle, the purpose of any such examination should be to contribute to the fair, amicable and peaceful resolution of disputes. Wars fought for the purpose of territorial acquisitions, and the militarist mindset that makes such devastating wars possible, are abhorrent to the modern sensibilities of humankind. When militarism is motivated by religious hatred or nationalist/racial superiority, the negative consequences linger for a long time.

Third, if dispute resolution and conflict prevention are to be the main purpose of the policies of the countries concerned, then they must be willing and ready to make reasonable compromises, without which peaceful reconciliation of claims and counter-claims is not possible. An important guarantor of enduring reconciliation, especially when religious, racial or national identities are at work in territorial disputes, is that compromise-based solutions should be of the kind that promote syncretism, harmony and shared sovereignty – and lessen historical divide and discord – in multi-religious and multi-racial communities, regions and nations.

Fourth, in most cases, no compromise fully satisfies all the stakeholders. Therefore, the fairness of any solution is to be judged by whether it broadly harmonises the will and aspirations of peoples and nations, enhances their sense of security, promotes their equitable development, and opens up new vistas of trust, affinity, cooperation and joint progress.

These four points — and not “my-country-is-always-right”, “my-religion-is-always-right” and “my-race-is-always-right” attitudes — must guide our examination of the disputes in Jammu and Kashmir, and the ways to resolve them.

History of Gilgit Baltistan as ‘region’ of J&K

The Indian discourse on Jammu and Kashmir has traditionally ignored Gilgit Baltistan, often conflating its separate and distinctive identity with that of Kashmir – or, more accurately, with “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)”. This is clear from the fact that in almost all official documents and statements on its dispute with Pakistan (including in the 1994 parliament resolution), India has used the term “Pakistan occupied Kashmir”, and not “Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan”. For example, the constitution of the state of Jammu And Kashmir, before it ceased to exist on August 5 2019, made no mention of either Gilgit or Baltistan, nor did its sixth schedule (on regional languages) include many of the languages spoken in Gilgit Baltistan. In other words, India has always invisibilized Gilgit Baltistan within the term “PoK”.

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

The princely state of Jammu and Kashmir had four distinct natural regions. As V.P. Menon put it,  “In the south lies Jammu; in the centre is the Happy Valley of Kashmir which contains the summer capital srinagar; to the north is Gilgit; and between the Kashmir Valley and Tibet is the province of Ladakh.”

Gilgit Baltistan, formed after partition, is an amalgamation of Gilgit and Baltistan. Its population is 1.8 million, according to the Pakistani census of 2017. The Gilgit part comprises the areas of the former Gilgit Agency and some former princely states such as Hunza and Nagar, which border China. Its population is entirely Muslim, mainly of Shia and Ismaili sects. Baltistan, bordering Ladakh to the south-east and the Siachen Glacier to the north-east, is situated in the valleys of the Indus and Shyok rivers, and their tributaries. It is mainly inhabited by Baltis, who are Muslims of Tibetan origin. Gilgit is the capital of the entire region, with Skardu in Baltistan as the other administrative centre.

Most Indians are so unfamiliar with Gilgit Baltistan that they do not even know its existence or location. Most MPs and members of the national executive of the BJP, which is most vocal in asserting that all of Jammu and Kashmir is an “atoot ang” (inseparable part) of India, would be unable to name the places, languages, historical personalities or cultural signposts of Gilgit Baltistan, even though its area (72,971 sq km) is over six times larger than that of the rest of ‘PoK’ (13,297 sq km).

This ignorance is not surprising. In the course of India’s freedom struggle, leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru visited Kashmir. But no major leader visited Gilgit or Baltistan. Kashmiri Pandits (like Nehru himself) and Kashmiri Muslims (like Shaikh Abdullah) were symbols, among many other symbols, of India’s bond with Kashmir. However, modern India has no such organic links with Gilgit Baltistan. Yet, the upsurge of ultra-nationalism has made many Indians insist that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s incomplete agenda of reunification of India must be completed by retrieving the entire territory of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir — at any rate, the territory in Pakistan’s possession.

‘What Nehru, Patel and Menon said about Gilgit Baltistan

The real question is: what is true nationalism? In his penetrating thoughts on what constitutes a nation, the venerable Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) writes: “Experience has shown that legal nationality is not enough. A nation might have its state and well-defined territory and yet lack the substance of nationality. That substance is defined as ‘national consciousness’ or ‘national sentiment.’ Without a sufficient measure of this consciousness, there is no nation. John Stuart Mill ‘saw the essence of nationality in the mutual sympathy of its adherents and in their desire to be united under a government of their own, produced through a community of history and politics and through feelings of pride and shame, joy and grief connected with experiences of the past.’”

Further, JP makes a profound point by quoting Ernest Renan, the great French philosopher, “The existence of a nation resembles a plebiscite repeated every day.”

As we shall see, there is no shared “national consciousness” binding post-1947 India and the people of Gilgit Baltistan together into a common nation. As regards that other higher test of what constitutes a nation — “The existence of a nation resembles a plebiscite repeated every day”— its people emphatically rejected Maharaja Hari Singh’s accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India. Gilgit pledged its allegiance to Pakistan (after maintaining an independent status for a mere 16 days — between 1 and 16 November 1947). Within a few months thereafter, Baltistan became a part of Pakistan in the course of the first Indo-Pak war in 1948.

Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, who signed the Instrument of Accession that made Kashmir a part of India. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

There is sufficient evidence to show that the leaders of India’s freedom struggle, including Sardar Patel, did not show the kind of seriousness or resolve to get Gilgit Baltistan into the Indian Union as they did with regard to Kashmir. In his book The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, Narendra Singh Sarila gives two examples. On February 20, 1948, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to V.K. Krishna Menon, the Indian high commissioner in the UK: “Even Mountbatten ‘has hinted at partition of Kashmir‘, Jammu for India and the rest including lovely Vale of Kashmir to Pakistan. This is totally unacceptable to us…Although if the worst comes to the worst I am prepared to accept Poonch in and Gilgit being partitioned off.”

Here is the second example:

“Lord Mountbatten was anxious to settle the Kashmir dispute before he relinquished the governor-generalship in June 1948. At his behest, V.P. Menon [Sardar Patel’s closest aide] and Sir Gopalasamy Ayyangar, the minister without portfolio, drew up a plan for partition of the state, complete with maps (which left Gilgit to Pakistan). It is difficult to believe that Indian ministers remained ignorant of this exercise… V.P. Menon, on 23 July 1948, told the chargé d’affaires of the US embassy in Delhi that ‘the Government of India will accept settlement based on accession of Mirpur, Poonch, Muzaffarabad and Gilgit to Pakistan.”

On August 5, 2019, India ‘materially altered’ situation in J&K

Thus, as Manoj Joshi notes, “from the outset, India was less than categorical about its desire to resume control of the Gilgit Baltistan area.” Yet, as mentioned earlier, the past six years of the Modi government have seen a muscular approach to reclaiming the region. In May this year, India warned Pakistan not to change the status quo of Gilgit Baltistan, in response to Pakistan’s Supreme Court allowing an amendment to the government’s Gilgit Baltistan Order of 2018 to conduct general elections in September.

The Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement, “The entire Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, including the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, are an integral part of India by virtue of its fully legal and irrevocable accession. The Government of Pakistan or its judiciary has no locus standi on territories illegally and forcibly occupied by it. India completely rejects such actions and continued attempts to bring material changes in Pakistan occupied areas of the Indian territory of Jammu & Kashmir. Instead, Pakistan should immediately vacate all areas under its illegal occupation.” (emphasis added)

A few things are notable about this statement, as well as the other afore-mentioned statements by India’s political and military officials. The Simla Agreement of 1972, which is still binding on both India and Pakistan since neither has formally repudiated it, clearly states: “Pending the final settlement of any of the problems between the two countries, neither side shall unilaterally alter the situation…” The Modi government has already materially altered the “situation” in Jammu and Kashmir by stripping it of its constitutional status and autonomy, dividing the state into two Union territories, and thereby bringing them under direct control of the Central government. Yet, it is warning Pakistan not to bring “material changes” in Gilgit Baltistan.

The Simla Agreement also mandates that “pending the final settlement”, both sides “will refrain from the threat or use of force” and “both shall prevent the organisation, assistance or encouragement of any acts detrimental to the maintenance of peaceful and harmonious relations.” This commitment, too, has been broken by both sides.

India’s new map showing Gilgit Baltistan as part of Ladakh is arbitrary

On November 2, 2019, the Modi government released maps of the newly formed UTs of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The UT of Ladakh consists of two districts of Kargil and Leh. The rest of the former State of Jammu and Kashmir is in the new UT of Jammu and Kashmir. The map of UT of J&K includes areas in Pakistan occupied Kashmir such as Mirpur and Muzaffarabad.

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

Significantly in the context of our discussion, the Leh district of the new UT of Ladakh depicts areas such as Gilgit, Gilgit Wazarat (district), Chilhas and the Tribal Territory of 1947. Earlier these regions were never shown as part of the Ladakh division of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir or the district of Leh. The inclusion of these areas in Ladakh is completely arbitrary. Indeed, there is hardly any country in the world whose maps have, since 1947, recognised these areas to be part of Ladakh.

District map of the former Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. As may be seen, Ladakh comprises just Leh and Kargil districts. Map: Census of India, 2011

Why then has the Modi government included Gilgit Baltistan in Ladakh UT? Does the decision have anything to do with its military and strategic calculations in that area, targeting both Pakistan and China? Whatever the calculations, one thing is obvious. India’s desire to ‘recover’ Gilgit Baltistan always rested on weak grounds. These grounds have become weaker by India making the region a part of Ladakh.

Gandhi, Nehru and Patel on ‘irrevocable’ nature of J&K accession

India anchors its claim on Gilgit Baltistan in its own assertion that the entire area of Jammu and Kashmir is “an integral part of India by virtue of its fully legal and irrevocable accession”. The accession is by no means “irrevocable”. UN Security Council Resolution 47 (adopted on April 21, 1948), which was in response to a “complaint” lodged by India “concerning the dispute over the State of Jammu and Kashmir”, notes that “both India and Pakistan desire that the question of the accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India or Pakistan should be decided through the democratic method of a free and impartial plebiscite”. India has neither withdrawn its complaint, nor declared that it is no longer bound by the UNSC resolution. By agreeing to a plebiscite, India had, in effect, accepted in 1948 itself the revocable nature of the accession.

It is worth recalling here that Mahatma Gandhi firmly held that the Maharaja’s accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India was subject to the will of Kashmiris being ascertained. Only a saint uninfected by the virus of narrow nationalism could have uttered the following courageous and categorical words: “The people of Kashmir should be asked whether they want to join Pakistan or India,” Gandhiji said in his prayer meeting on July 29, 1947. “Let them do as they want. The ruler is nothing. The people are everything. The ruler will be dead one of these days but the people will remain…I am not going to suggest to the Maharaja to accede to India and not to Pakistan. This is not my intention. The real sovereign of the State are the people of the State. If the ruler is not the servant of the people then he is not the ruler. This is my belief and that is why I became a rebel because the British claimed to be the rulers of India and I refused to recognise them as rulers.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Photo: Wikimedia

Jawaharlal Nehru, in his speech in parliament on June 26, 1952, said: “Do not think you are dealing with a part of U.P., Bihar or Gujarat. You are dealing with an area, historically and geographically, and in all manner of things with a certain background… Let us suppose there was a proper plebiscite there and the people of Kashmir said, ‘We do not want to be with India.’ Well, we are committed to it, we would accept it. It might pain us, but we would not send an army against them; we would accept that however much hurt we might feel about it and we would change our Constitution about it. We do not think that would happen – that is a different matter” (emphasis added).

Even Sardar Patel’s views on this matter were the same. V.P. Menon, who served under Patel as secretary in the Ministry of States and who secured the Instrument of Accession from Maharaja Hari Singh on October 26, 1947, writes in his authoritative book Integration of the Indian States: “With the Instrument of Accession and the Maharajah’s letter I flew back at once to Delhi. Sardar was waiting at the aerodrome and we both went straight to a meeting of the Defence Committee which was arranged for that evening. There was a long discussion, at the end of which it was decided that the accession of Jammu and Kashmir should be accepted, subject to the proviso that a plebiscite would be held in the State when the law and order situation allowed.”

Menon’s – and hence Patel’s – acceptance of the centrality of ascertaining the will of the Kashmiri people is also evident in Narayani Basu’s recently published book V.P. Menon: The Unsung Architect of Modern India. She writes: “An Indian soldier, stationed in Srinagar, talked to VP when he, Nehru and [defence minister] Baldev Singh arrived in Kashmir for an inspection tour in November 1947. [The soldier] said to Menon that the Indian troops were apparently risking their lives only to make Kashmir safe for being handed over to Pakistan after the plebiscite. Alarmed, VP assured the soldier that this might well happen, since all India wanted to do was to fight for the will of the people rather than terrorism [unleashed by the raiders sent by Pakistan] as the ultimate arbiter of Kashmir’s destiny.”

It is highly revealing that in all the discussions on holding the plebiscite, Indian leaders – Patel included – hardly ever spoke of a plebiscite in Gilgit Baltistan. This is because, unlike today’s BJP leaders who invoke Patel’s name to justify everything they have done to, and in, the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir so far – and want to do in future by trying to wrest the territories occupied by Pakistan and China – the “Iron Man of India” never insisted on taking back Gilgit Baltistan. Quite to the contrary, there is ample documented evidence to show that he was quite prepared to let Muslim-majority parts of the state, including Kashmir, go to Pakistan.

The plebiscite could not be held mainly because the conditions specified by the UNSC resolution for conducting were not fulfilled by Pakistan. Now, the very idea of conducting a plebiscite has become impractical and obsolete after the passage of over seven decades, when so many unalterable material changes have taken place in all the constituent units of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. This is even more so because a large area of the state — namely, 38,000 sq km of Aksai Chin in Ladakh and 5,180 sq km of the Shaksgam Valley in Gilgit Baltistan — is now under the control of China. However, the fact that the plebiscite could not take place then, and cannot take place now, does not prove India’s contention that the accession of the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is “irrevocable”. Nor does it extinguish the will of the people living in the constituent units of the now-extinct state to decide their fate.

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].