The protracted issue of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is considered one of the most intractable challenges faced by independent India. Ever since the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the foundations were laid for the long-standing conflict in and around the regions of Jammu and Kashmir that persists till today. The Kashmir issue has been the primary cause of diplomatic, political, and military stand-off between India and Pakistan. Both the countries have fought at least four wars over the territory, and each state continues to assert claims over its entire area. Under the Lapse of Paramountcy, the Instrument of Accession was a provision given by the outgoing British administration to bestow the princely states in British India a choice to remain independent or join either of the emergent dominions – India or Pakistan. Soon after the partition of India in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh of Jammu and Kashmir signed the Instrument of Accession, thereby acceding to the Indian Union. Pakistan-occupied Jammu-Kashmir (PoJK) historically belonged to the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This territory has been under Pakistan’s unlawful control ever since the Pakistan Army orchestrated the tribal invasion of the territory in October 1947.
PoJK comprises the Ghulam Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan (earlier named as Northern Areas) and has remained an amorphous entity for seven decades now. The Trans Karakoram Tract, comprising Shaksgam from Baltistan and Raskam from Gilgit, which Pakistan ceded to China in 1963, is also a part of PoJK. Both Ladakh and Jammu-Kashmir, have been a part of India’s political and cultural domain, and spiritual consciousness since the Mahabharata period. These linkages manifest visibly in the Ganpatyar, Shankaracharya, Sharda Peeth, Mangla Devi & Kheer Bhavani Temples located in this region. Because of its location, PoJK is of immense strategic importance. It shares borders with several countries – the Punjab and North-West Frontier Province provinces (now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in Pakistan to the west, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan in the north-west, Xinjiang province of China to the north and India’s Jammu and Kashmir to the east.
On the fatal night of 21-22 October 1947, Jammu and Kashmir was invaded by Pakistani raiders from Pashtun areas, supported by the Pakistani Army. Violence and terror were unleashed on Hindus and Sikhs of Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Bhimber, Kotli, Poonch and surrounding areas. Thousands of Hindus and Sikhs perished, and thousands of young women, girls and children were kidnapped and taken captive by raiders. The lucky ones, who managed to flee reached Jammu later lived on as PoJK refugees. The violence did not stop even after the Indian Army was deployed in the area. For two years, until ceasefire was announced, the Indian army protected the refugees, often under siege, surrounded by Muslim areas and Pakistani Army. The woes of non-Muslims worsened after a cease fire was announced and the areas came direct under Pakistani occupation. As of today, there are no estimates of Hindus or Sikhs left in the region and the entire population is assumed to have either been expelled or killed. A figure of 1.5 lakh seems the base figure of missing Hindus and Sikhs from PoJK. It is interesting that Pakistan, to this day, complains of the expelled and/or killed Muslims of Jammu, but no mention is made of the unfortunate Hindus and Sikhs of PoJK by any organisation or government .
Since then, the Pakistan occupied territories are a tale of deliberate neglect, political suppression, deprivation of free speech and liberty, systematic demographic changes, sectarian violence and protests, illegal detentions, tortures and extra-judicial killings, disappearances of innocent people, arbitrary dismissals of elected governments, electoral rigging and demands for an end to repression of the locals at the behest of Islamabad’s arbitrariness. PoJK remains a land of strict curbs on political pluralism, freedom of expression, worship and association. The media is muzzled, as are publication of books. Those opposed to the accession to Pakistan risk arbitrary detentions and torture. There is pervasive fear of the Pakistani military, ISI and terror organisations acting on the government’s behest or independently.
Gilgit-Baltistan (PoGB), which has more ethnic affinity with the people of Ladakh’s Kargil district, has been the most neglected, isolated, and disenfranchised portion. Its status has been kept ambiguous and undefined ever since Pakistan forcibly and illegally occupied it in 1947-48. Neither the Constitutions of Pakistan in 1956, 1962, 1972 or 1973 ever recognised the multi-lingual Gilgit-Baltistan region to be a part of Pakistan. Even the 1974 Interim Constitution of Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (PoJK) did not acknowledge Gilgit-Baltistan to be a part of the occupied state. For the last 45 years, the region has been witnessing sectarian clashes. In UNHRC sessions, residents of PoJK and Gilgit-Baltistan have been raising cases of human rights abuses by the Pakistani establishment. Shina and Baltis living in the areas of Gilgit Baltistan are also victims of Pakistan aggression. Pakistan has destroyed Shina and Balti culture brutally. Scripts of both languages are no longer available. A strong movement has started in Baltistan for revival of their local language called Balti. There is a complete ban on teaching Balti in Baltistan.
Discrimination based on religion is rather rampant in Pakistan and all territories under its illegal occupation. In the June 2018 report, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) drew attention to the provision in PoJK’s Interim Constitution, which in similarity with Pakistan’s Constitution, defines who may be considered to be a ‘Muslim’ and uses this definition to discriminate against the minority communities. The amended Interim Constitution of 2018 has made no changes to this discriminatory provision and declared the minorities to be non-Muslims. Other than this, the strict blasphemy laws have also been widely criticised as being discriminatory and draconian. According to the report by Law and Society Alliance, the PoJK Interim Constitution (13th Amendment) Act, 2018 entitles the Pakistani government to authoritatively suppress dissenting voices. It states, “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir shall be permitted to propagate against or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to the ideology of the state’s accession to Pakistan.” Further, members of nationalist and pro-independence political parties claim that they regularly face threats, intimidation, and even arrests by local authorities or intelligence agencies, for their political activities.
The literacy rate in PoJK and Gilgit-Baltistan is at a dreadful stage. The report cites the Pakistani non-profit organisation Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, Islamabad (PIPS) to say that the literacy rate in the area is an abysmal 14% for men and 3.5% for women. The condition of healthcare is no better in PoJK. The number of hospitals in PoJK is only 73. The situation is far worse in GB where the number of hospitals is only 33. According to the latest data available, the unemployment rate in PoJK is higher than the national average of Pakistan, measuring 10.3 per cent.
Besides, Pakistan has been engaged in systematic plunder. Large swathes of forests in PoJK have been cut down by the Pakistan military in collaboration with the local timber mafia and transporters, robbing PoJK of Rs 51.84 billion each year. According to one estimate forest wood worth Rs. 480 billion has been stolen by Pakistan so far. Not only this, but Pakistan also milked other natural resources and minerals of the region for its own benefit. Also, the construction of Diamer Bhasa Dam can inundate areas and lead to floods. The list of atrocities, human rights abuses, and lack of freedom of speech and the theft of natural resources committed by the state is too long. Yet, it is India that is portrayed as an evil and enemy of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The truth is that if it was not for Indian soldiers who bravely fought, pushed back and eventually defeated the Pakistani invading armies in 1947, the fate that the people of PoJK and PoGB are enduring today would have also doomed the people from Srinagar, Rajouri, Baramulla and Uri to Leh and Kargil.
For many years Pakistan has raised several terrorist camps in these areas and trained many terrorists for infiltration into Jammu-Kashmir and other parts of India. Inhabitants of the Gilgit region, for several years, have been voicing their concern that their region is under Taliban attack from the Waziristan region and being used as safe havens for Jihadis, supported by the Salafi elements in the Pakistan Army. The people who are living here are also fed-up from these terrorists’ activities and narcotics farming. Terror camps that were being run here openly with the active support of the Pakistani Army have bred hundreds of Sunni Jihadis, who are now operating across PoGB, killing Shia Muslims. The present situation in PoJK is alarming and it needs world attention.
The Instrument of Accession, signed in India’s favour by Hari Singh, the then Maharaja of Kashmir in October 1947, is the most authentic and significant legal backing, based on which India must leverage its claim not only on J&K, but also on PoJK. Pakistan must vacate the areas of PoJK which it had illegally occupied and hand over the same to India being a legitimate claimant of the area or the country must be ready to face the dire consequences. Strategically, it makes sense for India to try to obtain Pakistan-Occupied Jammu-Kashmir. By gaining the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, India would obtain access, albeit difficult, to Afghanistan via Wakhan Salient. It would secure control of the important Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan and China. It would enhance India’s upstream dominance of waterways flowing through Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan. Furthermore, reiterating its claim on PoJK may confer India options towards dealing with the growing China-Pakistan nexus, thereby blocking China’s intent and forays into PoJK. Its inroads in POJK are part of a larger game plan to expand its influence spanning almost the entire South Asia encircling India – Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Thus, there is greater need than ever before to retrieve the subject of PoJK from the backburner and bring it head on during strategic discussions and policy formulations.
(The author is Dean, Students’ Welfare, Central University of Jammu.)