“Uska hal bhi hoga [That problem too would be solved],” said the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Chief Mohan Bhagwat on Sunday, referring to the so-called Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin, parts of Jammu and Kashmir that are not with India. Whether occupied by Pakistan or China, they had to be brought back, he added.
Parliament had twice passed a unanimous resolution proclaiming that Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or POK, was an integral part of India and even though it was somewhat complicated, the government would find a way out, Bhagwat said, while speaking at a meeting in Agra whose aim was to encourage Hindu couples to procreate more, in the face of a “demographic imbalance” caused by what the RSS characterised as a disproportionate increase in India’s Muslim population.
Bhagwat was following up on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks on August 12 at an all party meeting on the situation in Kashmir. There was a need for the government to highlight the plight of the people of POK to the world community, Modi had said. Revisiting the theme in his Independence Day address, Modi expressed his appreciation for the positive response he had got for his August 12 remarks from “the people of Balochistan, the people of Gilgit and the people of POK”.
That has been enough to set the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
Many Indian officials have, somewhat grandiosely, claimed that Modi’s remarks were the “uncoiling of history” with a specific strategic objective. But whether, in seeking to upend a studied Indian policy to formalise the partition of the state, the Modi government has thought through its endgame is difficult to determine.
To take first things first, and in view of the concerns expressed by Bhagwat over the decline of the growth of Hindu population at the same meeting, the BJP-led government may like to consider that recovering POK would add roughly 6.4 million, mainly Sunni Muslims, to the current 13 million population of J&K and decisively tilt the political balance against the BJP and like-minded parties, in the state. It would further contribute, albeit marginally, to the rise of the proportion of Muslims in the national population as well.
If this populace is not hostile to India – and that is a very big assumption – regaining the so-called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan will be a major strategic gain for the country, enabling India to dominate Pakistan on one side, cutting off its links with China, and giving it access to friendly Afghanistan and onwards to Central Asia.
Of course, these are assumptions, but surely they should figure in the calculus of policy-making given what appears to be some sort of a strategic design.
India’s case on Gilgit-Baltistan rests on the accession of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir to India in 1947. From 1852, the British had maintained a Resident in Srinagar and a Political Agent in Gilgit Wazarat, a tract of semi-autonomous states like Nagar and Hunza, north of the Kishenganga, to keep a watch on the Russian empire.
In March 1935, after the Soviets established control of Central Asia, the British took the territory on a 60-year lease from the Maharaja and it was administered by a British officer and policed by the Gilgit Scouts.
On August 1, 1947 the British terminated the lease and handed the territory back to the Maharaja. On October 31, two officers of the Gilgit Scouts, Major William Brown and Capt SA Mathieson, along with Subedar Major Babar Khan, a relative of the Mir of Hunza, led a revolt of the state forces and the Gilgit Scouts, arrested the new governor Ghansara Singh and hoisted the Pakistani flag at the residency.
Karachi later claimed that the Rajas of Nagar and Hunza had acceded to Pakistan, but the only record of Gilgit’s accession seems to have been a wireless message to Pakistan, requesting that they send a political agent to take charge from the republic that had been set up in the wake of the coup. In any case, none of this was legally tenable since they were part of J&K, and the only authority who could legally accede to anyone was Maharaja Hari Singh, who signed the Instrument of Accession to India.
Non-Muslim soldiers, many of them Sikhs or Gurkhas were killed or captured and the Muslim rebels constituted irregular forces, later supplemented by Pakistani regulars who attacked Skardu, Dras, Kargil and Leh. Skardu held out heroically for eight months before surrendering, the Indian Army managed to clear the Pakistani forces from Dras, Kargil and Leh before the ceasefire came into force on December 31, 1948.
Pakistan also claimed legal rights through the so-called 1949 Karachi Agreement signed with Chaudhry Ghulam Abbas, the supreme leader of “Azad Kashmir”. No copy of this agreement can be found in the Pakistan government records. The “Azad Kashmir” government never had any control over the region, and so handing it to Pakistan was a sleight of hand to disguise outright annexation of territory that legally belongs even now to the State of Jammu and Kashmir, whose capitals are Srinagar and Jammu.
The extent of official British complicity is not clear. Brown apparently received a high British award in 1948. But, as brought out by C Dasgupta in his 2002 book, War and Diplomacy in Kashmir, it is also visible in the coordination of the British High Commissioners in Karachi and New Delhi who got the British commanders of both forces to ensure that the Indian Air Force did not interdict Pakistani air supply missions to their forces in Gilgit.
Since Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s time, the Pakistani armed forces have pushed in Sunni settlers and encouraged sectarian conflict in a bid to coerce the Shia residents of the region. In May 1988, Sunni tribals from the North Western Frontier Province (known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since 2010) were allowed to rampage around Gilgit, killing more than 150 people before the police stepped in.
Such episodes of violence have been repeated since. These tensions were enhanced after the opening of the Karakoram Highway, as it led to Sunni settlers from the NWFP and Punjab setting up businesses in Gilgit and altering its sectarian balance. In the 1990s, Sunni dominated areas in Chilas, Darel and Tangir hosted camps for those fighting against India in the Kashmir Valley. Subsequently, the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Harkatul Mujahideen established camps in the region. In 2005, Aga Ziauddin, the Imam of the main Shia mosque in Gilgit was killed, again leading to a cycle of violence in which more than 20 people were killed.
All the violence has led to a powerful nationalist movement, demanding self rule and independence calling the region “Balawaristan”. While India has not in the past asserted its legal claim to the region strongly enough, it does have the duty to draw the attention of the world to the blatant violence and ethnic cleansing policies being pursued by the Pakistani government, on grounds that it is the legal claimant of the region, as well as in terms of international humanitarian law.
The Pakistan Supreme Court had, in 1999, directed Islamabad to provide fundamental rights to the region, and to draw up a system that would enable the people to have an elected government. So finally, a decade later in August 2009, a Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order was passed by the Pakistani Cabinet and signed by President Zardari. It gave self rule to the region, now renamed Gilgit-Baltistan, and created a Legislative Assembly and a council to oversee this. However, as the origin of the order revealed, Gilgit-Baltistan remained an administrative, not a constitutional part of Pakistan.
Thereafter chief ministers and governors have been appointed for the region, but real power rests, as it always has, in the hands of the Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan in the federal cabinet.
The Modi government’s new perspective was evident when Pakistan announced elections in Gilgit-Baltistan under the new dispensation in June 2015. New Delhi objected to the procedure saying that the region “is an integral part of India”. It denounced the sham efforts at providing self governance for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, noting that the fact that a Pakistani federal minister was the governor of the region “speaks for itself”.
However, those who today claim that India should have recovered all of the state of Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan control before agreeing to a ceasefire need to read the Official History of the war, Operations in Jammu & Kashmir (1947-48), published by the Ministry of Defence.
It was with enormous grit and sacrifice, and some ingenuity, that India managed to secure Poonch and recover Kargil and Dras on the eve of the ceasefire to ensure our ability to hold Ladakh, the official history reveals. Repeated efforts to move beyond Uri were foiled. The people of the so-called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan were hostile to India. It would have possibly taken several years of fighting to recover the entire territory.
Whether or not it would have been wise to do so was a matter of judgement of the leaders of the day, and the hawks of today should note that the decision was not just Nehru’s, but also involved Sardar Patel.
Coming back to the present. Today, there is a shift. People in Gilgit-Baltistan are not too happy with Pakistani rule but, even so, while some leaders may thank Modi for raising their cause, it would be folly to see this as an invitation to liberate them from Pakistani rule. What they are looking for is what a section of the Valley is seeking – self rule.
The China factor
And let us not forget, there is another factor that is now in play: China.
It is a major presence in the region, by virtue of being a neighbour. In 1963, Pakistan ceded 5,180 sq kms of the Shaksgam Valley to Beijing. In the late 1960s, China began constructing the Karakoram Highway to link Kasghar in Xinjiang province of China with Abbotabad in Pakistan, through the Khunjerab pass.
Earlier in 2009, India had also formally objected to China undertaking projects in the region, noting that:
“Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of parts of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir since 1947”
and that the Chinese side was fully aware of
“India’s position and our concerns about Chinese activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir”.
You can be sure that any Indian move to recover the region for India will be resisted not only by Pakistan, but China as well, which is digging into the region so as to create a cushion between the jihadi bad-lands of its ally Pakistan.
So, the Chinese have been active in a range of hydro and road-building projects such as those relating to the Neelum Valley, Diamer Bhasha dam, the extension of the Karakoram Highway, the Sost dry port, the Bunji dam etc.
Last year when, during the visit of Xi Jinping to Pakistan, China announced massive investments in what is now called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, India protested again because the corridor passed through Gilgit-Baltistan. The corridor will comprise of oil pipelines, roads and a railway linking Gwadar in Balochistan with Kasghar.
Need for clarity
Indian policy towards Jammu & Kashmir and its relationship to Pakistan has never been explicitly spelt out. New Delhi made a commitment to hold a plebiscite and gave the state special status under its constitution. It has also signalled that it is willing to accept a de facto partition of the state. This was most clearly manifested by the acceptance of the ceasefire of December 31, 1948, when it secured the current boundaries of the state which would
- Include Kashmiri-speaking Muslims
- Allow Pakistan some depth in relation to its Punjabi heartland.
The Indian view was also shaped by the demographics of the state. Having safeguarded Ladakh, the Valley of Kashmir and the Jammu and Poonch areas, the government probably felt that leaving the balance to Pakistan would satisfy it. After all, when all of India had been partitioned, why not partition the state as well?
Later in 1972, Mrs Indira Gandhi pushed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to make the ceasefire line the international border during the Simla talks. The wily Bhutto went along with the argument and agreed to change its nomenclature to the Line of Control and promised to follow it up by hardening it into an international border.
In 2007-2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his readiness to freeze the boundaries as they were, and soften them to enable the two parts of Kashmir to interact.
By doing what he is doing, Modi may be simply raising the pitch on Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan as a tactical device to soften up Islamabad. In that case, he cannot be faulted, given Pakistan’s recalcitrance in refusing to abandon terrorism as an instrument of state policy.
And in all fairness, Modi’s recent remarks are, indeed, fairly innocuous.
But the more sinister sounding background briefings about the “uncoiling of history” do suggest the need for caution. If you are seeking to overturn the policy of the past, you better think through the consequences in all their starkness, including the risk of an India-Pakistan war, with an important supporting role played by China.
As the Balochis and the Gilgit-Baltistanis who are looking to Modi for succour, they may have to be told, at some point of time, that this could well be another jumla – an empty promise.
Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.