India has opposed Pakistan’s plans to hold an election in Gilgit-Baltistan region and to make it the neighbouring country’s fifth province, saying Islamabad could not make material changes in areas under its illegal occupation as Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of India
Pakistan, yet again, has stated that Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) will be merged into Pakistan as the fifth province of Islamabad. The timing of this oft-repeated announcement seems to have Chinese considerations, aimed as a response to India depicting GB as a part of Leh District of the Union Territory of Ladakh. Unknown to most, pre-1901, GB and Ladakh were one unit called Northern Frontiers of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). To understand the present Pakistani position, the issue of GB has to be understood.
GB comprised of Wazarat of Gilgit, Gilgit Agency & Wazarat of Ladakh. Baltistan was a part of Ladakh. Strategically, the most important area was Gilgit Agency which was leased by the British for 60 years from Maharaja Hari Singh in 1935. Gilgit agency comprised of territory on the right bank of Indus River in Gilgit region and the vassal states, who paid tribute to Maharaja.
Most important of these were Hunza, Nagar and Punial, whose significance arose from their strategic location at the crossroads of main trade routes to South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, and China. Even today the Karakoram Highway passes through the territory of Hunza, and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being established along with it. During the colonial period, for the defence of Gilgit agency the British raised a lightly armed force called Gilgit scouts, which included natives of the region, whose numbers from every sub-part and vassal state were fixed. The area was remote, mountainous, sparsely populated and was consequently; quite inaccessible from October to March, once the snow fell.
The myth often propagated by Pakistan is that since Gilgit Agency was leased to the British, Maharaja had no authority over it. The truth is that with the end of paramountcy, the British had dissolved all existing treaties and leases with princely states. Consequently, on July 28, 1947, the British issued a Gazette Notification reverting Gilgit agency back to Maharaja wef August 01, 1947. As per declassified records, as early as May 1947, Gilgit Agency was to be reverted to Maharaja, and the residents were happy about it. The Gilgit Scouts had also negotiated their terms of employment with Maharaja’s government. This counters the myth that the local population wanted to accede to Pakistan.
Another myth about the region is that its accession of the region to Pakistan is legitimate because the rulers of Hunza and Nagar acceded to Pakistan. The fact is that Hunza and Nagar never had the status of independent states under the India Act 1935 and were vassals of Maharaja. Once Maharaja acceded to the Dominion of India, their territory automatically became part of it. In fact, the rulers of Hunza and Nagar were in Srinagar, when Maharaja acceded to India.
After the agency reverted to Maharaja, Brigadier Ghansara Singh was appointed as the Governor and arrived with a treasury for Gilgit. There was, however, delay in setting up administration in Gilgit, as the Maharaja was busy in quelling uprisings in Poonch. This delay coupled with posting of a battalion of J& K militia from Poonch to Bunji, whose officers had met Jinnah and had been subverted; set the stage for ‘Gilgit Mutiny’. The Muslim officers and JCOs of Gilgit scouts were contacted by these subverted officers to hatch a conspiracy.
As soon as the news of Maharaja’s accession reached Gilgit, the conspirators struck by arresting the Governor and even the Muslim commanding officer of Maharaja’s battalion.
Once the Pakistani Army and the Government took over, the non-Muslims were persecuted. The employees of the J&K Government were kidnapped and forced to work under Pakistan. The women were converted and forcibly married off to Pakistani army officers. There was a complete blackout of information from this area. The first news of killings and conversions of non-Muslims in Gilgit came via Hindu traders of Kashgar.
In February 1948, the Pakistani Army invaded Baltistan. The non-Muslim population took refuge in Skardu Fort under Major Sher Jung Thapa. For six months, Skardu withstood a siege by Pakistan army, however, the inability of the Indian army to link up with Skardu, resulted in eventual surrender of Skardu Garrison on August 14 1948. Subsequently, in gross violation of UN resolutions, Pakistan divided the occupied territories into ‘Azad Kashmir’ (Mirpur-Muzzafarabad) and ‘Northern Areas’ (Gilgit-Baltistan).
A declassified top-secret report of Indian high commission of 1951 mentions that the Population of GB had become disillusioned by Pakistani occupation within a few months.
In 1963, 5160 sq km area of Shaksgam Valley was ceded to China, despite protests by the ruler of Hunza. In 1974, Pakistan removed the state subject rule of Maharaja Hari Singh and allowed Sunnis from Punjab and NWFP to migrate and settle in this Shia majority region. The Migration was further accelerated by the building of Karakoram Highway that connected Gilgit to Kashgar and facilitated easier access. Sectarian violence was unleashed on a broad scale, and 1988 saw intense Sunni-Shia Riots. In the absence of any support from India, the residents yearned for independence and sought to throw away the Pakistani yoke, by striving for an independent Balwaristan.
Pakistan’s Constitution does not recognise Gilgit Baltistan as a part of Pakistan, and the Judgements of the Supreme Court have further reinforced it. Post CPEC, China has become a party to the issue and would like to see GB become a part of Pakistan, so to provide legitimacy to CPEC. Amending the Constitution to include GB is not a big thing for Pakistan as the constitutions have been made and dumped at will since the creation of Pakistan.
The dilemma Pakistan faces is that in case it merges GB, it has to abandon UN Resolutions, the ‘plebiscite’ narrative and the idea of Annexing Kashmir. India has a law on its side to prove the illegality of Pakistan’s occupation of GB.
The ancient cultural links of GB with rest of India are etched in stone, in the form of more than 2000 rock carvings and petroglyphs scattered all around the trade routes. Yungdrung, the swastika, is venerated by all Baltis as a sign of prosperity. The attempts are being made to revive ancient Tibetan script for Balti language. These links need to be highlighted, and this cultural heritage, under threat of being submerged in CPEC projects needs to be protected. The 1994 Parliamentary Resolution needs to be revived in letter and spirit. Territories are not lost by occupation, but when they are forgotten. Let India reclaim its forgotten territory of Gilgit Baltistan.
(The writer is social media activist associated with Jammu Kashmir Study Centre)