Pakistan’s ploy to merge Gilgit-Baltistan with the mainland is another attempt to divide the state, which neither has any legal standing nor a moral basis
When heated debates and discussions on whether Bharat-Pakistan dialogue should continue or not, Pakistan is silently conspiring to merge the strategically significant region of Gilgit-Baltistan, making annexed parts of its occupied Kashmir as its fifth province. Though this redefining attempt of the Constitutional Status of the mineral reach province is not new, the timing and method definitely invokes certain questions. The trigger for recent actions has been China’s unease over taking the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) through an undefined region the efforts in this direction started way back in 2007. The then Pakistan’s ambassador to Brussels, Saeed Khalid in a letter to Baroness Emma Nicholson had asserted that ‘Northern Areas’ of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) now known as Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) were not part of the Jammu and Kashmir state in 1947 and therefore the UN resolutions on Kashmir did not apply to any part of Gilgit-Baltistan and thus their integration with Pakistan was not prohibited. The letter had attempted to explain the rationale of keeping GB, separate from the other part of J&K under its occupation called ‘Azad Kashmir’ even though the courts there had ruled that GB was its integral part.
Historical Background of Gilgit-Baltistan
GB, a sparsely populated mountainous region with an area of 28,000 square miles, slightly smaller than North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and more than six times the size of ‘Azad Kashmir’ is strategically important as it links Pakistan to China and CPEC, where China has talked of investing 46 Bn $ passes through it. Almost two billion population of the region is divided into various sects and sub-sects, who had lived peacefully before externally injected fundamentalism drew them on the warpath. It is essential to analyse the historical background of this Shia majority region as well as the circumstances that led to Pakistan’s control over the region, to call Pakistan’s bluff.
Historically, the political entity called GB and the area under its control never existed as a single separate unit. The region evolved as two separate political entities Dardistan or Gilgit and Baltistan, who had close interaction with Kashmir Valley, Ladakh and Jammu. All parts of J&K, including Dardistan and Baltistan were part of the Kushan Empire. According to Buddhist tradition, Kanishka, who ruled from 78 AD to 140 AD, held the third Buddhist council in Kashmir and Huen Tsiang on his visit to the Valley found that the memory of the ruler was fully alive in the kingdom. During the subsequent Hindu Period, under Lalitaditya, (724-761 AD) and the Karkota kings all the regions of the J&K State were integral parts of the Empire.
Even during the Muslim period, close relations were maintained by the rulers in all regions of the state. In fact Rinchin, (1320 -1323) the first Muslim king of Kashmir, was a prince of Ladakh. Sultan Shihab-ud-din, known as ‘the Lalitaditya of medieval Kashmir’, ruled not only over all parts of present day J&K but extended his empire all the way to the banks of
Subsequently, the region became part of the Mughal Empire, then of Afghan empire and finally the Sikh empire in 1819 AD. However, by this time the peripheral regions of the state had become independent of the central authority in Srinagar and thus the Sikh rule was initially confined to the Kashmir Valley whereas the Jammu region was given to Raja Gulab Singh as a jagir by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1820. After the signing of Treaty of Amritsar in 1846, the British encouraged Gulab Singh, to spread his political influence in the Northern Areas so as to establish a safe buffer state between Russia and British India. By 1866 the entire region had come under the control of the Dogras and the rulers of Hunza and Nagar had become vassals of Kashmir.
However, The British forced Maharaja Hari Singh the then ruler of the state of J&K, to lease Gilgit and surrounding region to them for 60 years in 1935. It is this lease which many Pakistanis cite to claim the distinct stature of Gilgit-Baltistan. However, it must be clarified that the Britishers never questioned the sovereignty of Maharaja over the region, his authority was maintained by way of flying his flag at the official headquarters of the agency and appointment of certain state officials in Gilgit.
After the termination of lease, Maharaja appointed Brigadier Ghansara Singh as the governor of Gilgit, who took over control from the British political agent Lt Col Beacon on August 1, 1947. However, the Gilgit Scouts and most civilian employees refused to cooperate with him till they were guaranteed higher rates of pay. In the meanwhile, a significant section of Maharaja’s troops positioned in Gilgit region were subverted by Pakistani agents and propaganda.
Finally, in the early hours of November 1, 1947, the governor was arrested by Gilgit Scouts and this led to the end of Maharaja’s authority in Gilgit. Though it is widely believed that Gilgit Scouts and its British Commander Major Brown played a major role in annexing Gilgit for Pakistan, a careful analysis will indicate that it was elements from Maharaja’s forces, most of whom were outsiders (from Mirpur in Jammu region) who were in the forefront of this military adventure. After hoisting Pakistani flag in Gilgit, the subverted troops from the J&K State forces and Gilgit Scouts moved towards Gurez Valley and Baltistan. Despite facing a severe setback, the Maharaja’s troops at Skardu fought back. They finally surrendered on August 14, 1948 almost nine and a half month after the fall of Gilgit. Thus, the entire Gilgit and Baltistan came under Pakistani control.
Since then Pakistan has ruled the region like an Imperial power and through Residents and non local bureaucrats. In 1963 Pakistan gave away 2500 square miles of the territory of the former state of Hunza to China as part of Sino-Pak Agreement, despite opposition by Mir of Hunza.
Being wary of the Shia majority in the region, Pakistan has attempted to change its demography and towards this end abrogated the ‘State Subject Rule’, which prevented naturalisation of outsiders in J&K. Since then large number of Sunni Pakhtoons have been brought and settled in this region. This was violently opposed by the local residents. To eliminate all semblance of resistance to its rule, Pakistan has urged the Sunni minority to demand statehood for the region and is now trying to gobble it.
Alienation of Locals
In the recent past there has been a serious sectarian divide and there have been numerous reports of mass persecution of people following different strands of Shiaism. The local residents in retaliation have targeted the symbols of government authority like police personnel and government officials. These are nothing but manifestation of people’s alienation with the government. Recently, members of Gilgit Baltistan United Movement have not only accused Indian government of not doing enough for them but have also demanded reservation in Indian educational institutions for the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan shows the level of their alienation with Pakistan. Even in the aftermath of the earthquake in October 2005, when the entire Pakistani nation had supposedly come together to face the natural disaster, there were riots in GB and curfew had to be imposed in most towns of the region.
Upgrading the Constitutional status of the region is another ploy by Pakistan to further divide J&K which does not stand even on the legal grounds. Legally, there is no dispute pending with the UN Security Council, as clarified by the previous Secretary Generals, and therefore, there is no scope for international intervention on the issue. Constitution of Pakistan has never claimed or given any Constitutional status to the region in the last 67 years. While Bharat has always regarded entire J&K as integral part of the nation, constitutionally and politically. The separatist voices within J&K, even from Pakistan Occupied J&K region, who generally speak the language of Pakistan, have also vehemently opposed the idea as it would weaken their claim of separate ‘Kashmiri identity’. PoJK Prime Minister Abdul Majeed has warned the Sharif government against any attempt to make Gilgit-Baltistan fifth province of Pakistan as this will have implications on the dispute over J&K, according to him. Thus, Pakistani attempt of merging the region has no legal standing on any count.
All these factors such historical reasons, local sentiments and legal standing suggest that GB is legally and constitutionally Bharateeya Territory and any attempt to change the status quo must be opposed in all international and bilateral fora.
Alok Bansal (The writer is Director, India Foundation & author of the book Gilgit Baltistan: The Forgotten Part of J&K)