By Nilova Roy Chaudhury*
While the Indian government has kept the entire relationship with Pakistan on hold over the issue of “cross-border terrorism”, Islamabad has moved to consolidate its hold over the strategic territory of the erstwhile Northern Areas of Gilgit Baltistan (G-B) which India, on paper and through a declaration of Parliament, claims as its own.
In fact, other than registering its protest by refusing to associate with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) because, in Pakistan, the core element of BRI, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), runs across what India terms Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK), New Delhi has not managed to even mark its presence in the areas of the erstwhile state of Kashmir, which are not only vitally important for India’s security, but culturally, were once centres of Hindu and Buddhist scholarship.
Senge H Sering, Director of the Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan in Washington, said the region has been a seat of learning for Hinduism for 550 years and it is from there that Buddhism spread across India, Central Asia and China. He said the Karakoram highway brought about forced demographic changes, particularly after the massacre of 1988, in which 16 villages were attacked by militants and people forced to convert to Islam.
Speaking at a recent seminar on G-B at the Indian Council for World Affairs (ICWA), Sering said Pakistan sees the CPEC as a game changer and is desperately keen to ensure that peace and harmony prevail in the region. He urged the Indian government to reach out to the people of G-B “as they cannot ignore that they are Indian citizens.” He also stressed that G-B should establish direct relations with India.
The focus of the Indian government’s ‘tough’ Kashmir policy has been on eliminating terrorism and restoring peace in Jammu & Kashmir. Keeping New Delhi’s focus on the terrorism ball, by sending in infiltrators regularly, Islamabad, preparing to get work on the CPEC going, has managed to move politico-legally to strengthen its hold over parts of the state under its occupation since 1947. Short of declaring it another state of Pakistan, Islamabad has taken steps to more closely integrate the region with the Pakistan nation. This is despite the fact that in none of the Constitutions of Pakistan has any mention that G-B is an integral part of the country.
Gilgit Baltistan, which borders the Pakistani province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the west, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the north, the Xinjiang region of China to the east and northeast and Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast, across the Line of Control, is where territories of three nuclear-powered nations converge. The territory of present-day G-B was made a separate administrative unit by Pakistan in 1970 and called “Northern Areas”. In 2009, it was granted limited autonomy and renamed Gilgit-Baltistan via the Self-Governance Order signed by then Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. However, real power rests with the governor and not with chief minister or elected assembly.
Over the years, through the issue of executive orders, Pakistan has attempted to amalgamate G-B into its federal structure. Despite being aware of what is happening, India has chosen to look away, as if accepting the fact that there is nothing, short of initiating full-fledged hostilities, that it can do.
“Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is not a topic that is widely debated in the sub-continent,” said Satinder K Lambah, former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan. “Though India considers the region of Gilgit-Baltistan a legal and constitutional part of Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, the fact remains that it is one of the most neglected areas of South Asia,” said Lambah at the ICWA seminar.
The ambiguous status of the region has ensured that socio-economic and political development has eluded the less than two million people who call the sparsely populated G-B home. For years, the socio-economic statistics of G-B have been manipulated by Islamabad.
For example, Ashok Behuria, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), said more than 85% of the G-B population survive on subsistence farming, whereas official date maintains that 23% of the populace are subsistence farmers. Although the region is rich in natural resources, like Balochistan, which is a province of Pakistan, the benefits are not trickling down to people and what is happening in G-B can be compared to colonisation.
In April 2014, the Standing Committee of the Pakistan Senate mentioned the constitutional deprivation of G-B. Taking not of this report, in 2018, the G-B chief secretary recommended interim provincial status to the region. Under the garb of developmental projects, Pakistan and China are “forcibly exploiting natural resources and thousands have had their land snatched and occupied by the military,” said Shukla of the ICWA, who has worked extensively on the region.
On May 22, 2019, the Pakistan National Security Committee headed by the Prime Minister Imran Khan met and, along with other issues related to regional security, a separate session was held pertaining to reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan. Issues about G-B were related to implementation of the judgement of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on 17 January 2019, where the apex court sought government action to provide for rights of the citizens of the area expeditiously.
The Supreme Court held that the origin of the Kashmir issue lay in the “accession of Kashmir to India by the Hindu ruler of a Muslim majority state, which was contrary to the expectations of the population and to the basis professed to be preferred by the British for accession by the Princely States.”
Almost sealing the deal to incorporate G-B into Pakistan, Imran Khan announced the establishment of a National Development Council on June 18, of which the Gilgit Baltistan chief minister is an invited member, along with other provincial heads (including the ‘Prime Minister of AJ&K’ or PoK, which Pakistan calls ‘Azad Jammu & Kashmir) and the Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa.
Despite the tough anti-terrorism rhetoric, the Indian government appears to have, at the very least, ignored and allowed a most valuable asset to slowly but surely slip away from its grasp. With its single-minded focus on cross-border terrorism, the government does not appear to have a coherent plan to counter the steadily advancing strategic encircling by Pakistan and China.
*About the author: The writer is Editor, India Review & Analysis. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor