Gilgit-Baltistan! The Great Game

gilgit baltistan

Ever since Pakistan has signalled its wish to make Gilgit-Baltistan fifth province, not only have Pakistan’s own political outfits been in a state of disarray, but it has reportedly become a major ‘issue of concern’ in India’s military and political leadership. Various aspects of adopting a new military strategy are being deliberated upon.

In the border region of Ladakh, where India and China have been seen amassing their latest combat technology after recent engagements of hot pursuit policy, the intensity of international diplomatic activities and people’s movements to stop the recent border confrontation has considerably increased. The people of Jammu and Kashmir are silently mourning the loss and fragmentation of their land that once used to be called the ‘Kingdom of Kashmir’.

When the question is raised in many political forums as to why Gilgit-Baltistan now needs to be made a fifth province, the immediate response given is to question why India needed to end the constitutional sovereignty of Kashmir when it had almost become one of the states of India. Another question is, why India speeded up the process of leaving more than twelve million people without their basic rights of life, livelihood and land that were guaranteed by the Indian constitution at the time of its accession.

Looking at its geo-political landscape, the region of Jammu and Kashmir is, in fact, the strategic triangle of Asia that connects West Asia, Central Asia and South Asia together. It has regained its position as an ‘area of interest’ when China begun its economic expansion projects and invested more than sixty five billions of dollars on the construction of the highway that would carry its exports to the Arabian Sea. However, some experts believe that China has launched a new version of the “Great Game” in the region that might turn it into the battle field of the world’s major powers.

According to the latest estimates, Gilgit-Baltistan’s population, mostly Shiite Muslims, is 1.5 million. Its land, 73,000 square kilometres, is six times larger than that of Azad Kashmir, part of Jammu and Kashmir, controlled by Pakistan. The region has the potential of producing forty thousand megawatts of hydro-electricity as per recent estimates.

It is currently surrounded by three nuclear powers, where for the first time since the 1962 war in Ladakh, fighting, killing and military reinforcement between India and China have reached a peak. Pakistan’s problems have grown manifold by being caught up in between the two emerging economies and is also facing Indian threat of war over Azad Kashmir as pledged by its home minister in Indian Parliament. The internal anxiety and the deployment on the borders are pushing Pakistan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its fifth province as part of a military strategy that might have Chinese support to go ahead with it.

The military standoff between India and China at the Line of Actual Control has created an atmosphere of fear and terror among the local population who as per reports are internally pressurising Pakistan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its province and declare war against India. At the same time, people living across the Line of Control are getting killed on a daily basis in the constant bombing and firing that has escalated in recent months.

It needs a mention here that even before the formation of the new states of India and Pakistan in August 1947, the people of Gilgit had decided to merge with Pakistan under the supervision of the then British Military Commandant Major Brown. The policies of the Hindu Maharaja were the reason of discontent among the population against whom there was often an atmosphere of insurgency in Gilgit. On November 4, 1947, at the insistence of the Gilgit Scouts, Major Brown formally hoisted the Pakistani flag and appointed a political agent under the direct control of federal government, who was later made subordinate to the Azad Kashmir’s establishment.

In 1948, the local militia of Gilgit Scouts captured Baltistan and annexed Skardu to Gilgit. Thus, it became the part of Pakistan along with Azad Kashmir.

The government of Pakistan separated it from Azad Kashmir in 1970 under the Karachi Agreement and declared it part of the Northern Territories. The region remains cut off from mainland Pakistan with no political and citizenship rights. Surprisingly, the region has the best literacy rate without proper institutions and educational infrastructure.

Many give credit to Asif Zardari who allowed the region to have its own assembly by his presidential decree in 2009 but the majority of the population has always complained about the inequitable treatment of the federal government that has deprived them of their political, citizenship and economic rights.

Their woes go back to the era when Gilgit Scouts, comprising of locals, had launched a campaign against the Dogra rulers for their anti-Muslim policies before the first public uprising of July 1931 in Kashmir which witnessed killing of twenty two people during the trial of Abdul Qadeer. However, Dogra rulers would not meddle much in Gilgit or Baltistan or Ladakh due to the reasons of being too remote, mountainous, inaccessible and severely cold.

According to historians, these remote mountainous terrains were symbolically included in  Dogra rule which the British had given to Maharaja Gulab Singh after winning the war against the Sikhs. Even the British Residents would find it hard to travel to hilly terrains and left Maharaja to control them.

Dr. Karan Singh, son of Maharaja Hari Singh and the first Sadri Riyasat of the State of Jammu and Kashmir says, “This whole region of Jammu and Kashmir was like an artificial state created with distinct religions, languages ​​and cultures, with no resemblance to each other”.  He further says that “putting them together was a historic accident. Maharaja Gulab Singh had conquered them and brought them together but they have nothing in common”.

Elaborating  further, Kashmiri historian Pandit Prem Nath Bazaz writes, “The Dogra rulers considered Jammu only as their home constituency and considered Kashmir as a mere colony, which reflected their imperialist mindset. That is why people in Ladakh, Gilgit, Baltistan, Kargil, Dras and Kashmir used to rebel and campaign against their policies and denigrate them every time they would find chance”.

Aziz Ahmed, a human rights activist from Kashmir, while lamenting at the policies of the successive governments after the independence of India and Pakistan says that the fabric of the United Jammu and Kashmir has been torn apart and its fragmentation had been done deliberately under one or other pretext. Now the so called democratic governments have replaced Maharajas who are depriving the people of this region of their rights by changing borders to demography’s to landscapes. The height of this tragedy can be viewed in the statement of pro-India leader Farooq Abdullah who praises China for its action in Ladakh. Maybe now China will help in determining the future of our Nation”.

Historically, the region of Jammu and Kashmir has been as important as the Bosporus Strait in Turkey, a sea corridor between East and West on which the military, economic and political transactions and trade of most of these countries depend.  One of the major goals behind the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire was to eliminate this lifeline of the Turks so that trade with the East of the Western world would not be hindered and have no hegemony of Turkish empire. Same is the position of Jammu and Kashmir.

The hilly terrains of Gilgit-Baltistan between the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Pamir mountains give an edge over other countries in the region. The peaks give a good view of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Kashmir, Ladakh, Xinjiang and Wakhan.

China has realized its geo-military significance. The communist leadership is not accustomed to spending huge sums of money without any valid reason. But, it cannot be guaranteed that it will honestly help Pakistan in its ‘acquisition of Jammu and Kashmir’ against India in case of war. The only ‘feel good factor’ is that Chinese projects will facilitate cheap transportation of goods and employment opportunities for the local population.

Ever since India broke up Jammu and Kashmir in two union territories and turned Ladakh into a separate entity, China’s concern has intensified. Ladakh coming under the direct control of the central government means an increase in military deployment, intelligence gathering and political instigation. China believes that this will become hotbed of conspiracies against it, and India will accelerate its role in spreading chaos in Xinjiang and reviving the Tibetan independence movement, for which India has the support of some world powers who are hell bent upon  undermining China’s global status and get it embroiled in strategic warfare to subvert its growing political influence.

Husain Ansari, a local political activist in Gilgit, says that “India’s military focus is on Gilgit-Baltistan, which could link it with Afghanistan and provide close transit to Central Asia. The Indian government has systematically invested in Gilgit and Baltistan Diaspora living in Europe and America, thus showcasing them in many international forums as leaders demanding Azadi from Pakistan which is totally false propaganda. Many so called activists are sent here to foment trouble and spread anti-Pakistan sentiments. There are a few voices raised in favour of independence but the majority of the population has been trying for a long time to become a Pakistani province and achieve citizenship rights. But the governments and political parties have always let them down”.

When such sentiments are heard by Kashmiris in the valley they do not only despise their own leadership in Kashmir but loath equally Pakistani politicians for playing gimmicks with the life and livelihood of more than twenty million people of this whole region. According to a Kashmiri journalist, “Since there is no such thing as patriotism or nationalism in some Pakistani leadership and their politics is limited to grabbing power. Gilgit-Baltistan, even if Pakistan loses it and India captures it and turns it into a Hindu-majority state like it is been done in Kashmir today, Pakistani politicians will rejoice that the army is being humiliated for the second time after Bangladesh. When the architects of the nation have such mindset, there is only some invisible power to protect the borders of this country. May be this invisible force has come to the fore in the form of China and it might prevent India from trying to seize it in any case because at the moment it is not only its own investment at stake but also the image of emerging super power that has to pass this hard test of strength.  And, China has to show its dragon teeth to India”.

Nayeema Ahmad Mahjoor is an ex editor of BBC and Penguin author of ‘Lost in Terror’



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