The past, present and future of Gilgit-Baltistan

With the last legal formalities of the election over, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have tacitly risen in constitutional stature after over seventy years of silent loyalty. Under the assumption of provincial status, the territory has undergone a historical shift that has afforded the masses a level of autonomy that it has not seen for the best part of two centuries. We must not miss this crucial narrative amongst the hostile political climate that has pervaded what is a truly historic development.

Since 1947, successive governments had long avoided granting such a status to this region to abstain from giving any semblance of permanence to the boundaries defined by the Line of Control, but in doing so had neglected the aspirations of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. In breaking from previous state policy, the government has taken the bold step of conferring provincial status upon Gilgit-Baltistan while being cautious enough to term it as ‘provisional’ in view of relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions.

Such an assiduous approach is in stark contrast to the other side of the LOC where, never mind the present day chaos due to the abolishment of Article 370 and Section 35A, even events from the supposedly happier times of 1962 demonstrate how India had to contort electoral processes to achieve its occupational aims in Kashmir. At a time when there was no insurgency, following the 1962 Jammu and Kashmir legislative assembly elections, the Congress backed Jammu and Kashmir National Conference had won 70/73 seats. There was rampant agitation against brazen government rigging to the extent that the then Indian Prime Minister, who happens to be ‘an internationally acclaimed’ democrat, Jawaharlal Nehru advised, in a letter to the Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad, “to lose a few seats to bonafide opponents” to make the election look fairer. Compared to the leaders India has today, Nehru seems almost angelic. In the decades since 1962, India’s moral and political hold over Jammu and Kashmir has only gotten weaker whilst its military occupation has only gotten more stringent.

The immaculate vistas of Gilgit-Baltistan became a part of Pakistan under very peculiar circumstances. Although it was part of the Dogra state of Jammu and Kashmir, Gilgit was leased to the British in 1935. Upon the Lapse of Paramountcy on the 15th of August 1947, the relationship this region had with the Dogras, the British and the newly created dominions of India and Pakistan was rather ambiguous. Nevertheless, on the 1st of November in the same year, the Dogra governor of Gilgit, Ghansara Singh was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the Gilgit Scouts led by the Scotsman Major William Brown. The Pakistan flag was raised on the Governor’s house and Gilgit acceded to Pakistan under the aegis of Major Brown. The Mirs of Hunza and Nagar, who maintained abstruse constitutional relationships with the Maharaja acceded to Pakistan around the same time. Most of the regions now comprising Baltistan joined Pakistan a little later in 1948 following the decisive victory of the Pakistan Army and Gilgit Scouts at the siege of Skardu in the First Indo-Pak war.

These episodes of our early history have an unparalleled significance in our eventual establishment as a secure tract of land whose integrity – barring the extraneous secession of East Pakistan – has yet to be breached. Contemplating a dark world where the Gilgit Scouts had not acted in such an audacious manner, one soon realises that India, assuming lordship of the whole region, would have had unfettered access to Afghanistan and the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Of course, without strategically important parts of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, access to Gilgit-Baltistan through Indian Occupied Kashmir would have been difficult if not near impossible. However, this is hardly an impediment. In the absence of any strong military challenge to their sovereignty in the occupied territories, the Indians could have hastily reinforced the roads running through the Kargil sector as they had famously done in Gurdaspur where a road was built on the only traversable path from India into Jammu and Kashmir in the matter of months around August 1947, an affair that aroused much suspicion among many of our founding fathers. With their access to Afghanistan and NWFP, Indian intrigues would seek to exploit Afghan disdain for their eastern neighbours while simultaneously fomenting the nascent Pashtun nationalism of the day. Without a border with China, Pakistan would likely never have realised the ‘Iron Brotherhood’ for which she was otherwise destined. This means no Security Council vetoes in our support, no CPEC and in the current climate, nobody to trade with. Indeed, it would have been a bleak reality where Pakistan would have had no choice but to become a satellite state of India, joining the rest of South Asia in servility and submission. Luckily, all of the above is restricted to the realms of fiction and geopolitical fantasy but let that not disguise the significance Gilgit-Baltistan holds for the nation even today.

Understandably so, India licks its lips at the thought of Pakistan somehow being deprived of its ‘Karakoram Crown’. It has recently reiterated its fallacious assertion that Gilgit-Baltistan is its ‘integral part’. India makes this claim on the basis of the region’s history as part of the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. They claim that with the lapse of British Paramountcy, Gilgit no longer had a relationship with Britain and thus came back into the possession of the Maharaja and by extension, with the Maharaja’s accession, became a part of India. While espousing such a line of argument however, India ignores the fact that the province of Berar, once part of the Princely State of Hyderabad was also leased to the British before the Lapse of Paramountcy; however upon India’s independence, rather than the province once again becoming a part of the Nizam of Hyderabad’s possessions, it became a part of the Central Provinces with no questions asked. Such an apparent contradiction in India’s stance over the rights of Princely rulers to reclaim their erstwhile leased provinces presents a veritable contradiction in their stance on Gilgit-Baltistan. More significantly, it is worth noting that this contradictory policy obscures India’s claim on Gilgit-Baltistan whether or not one recognises the validity of the Instrument of Accession by which Jammu and Kashmir is said to have joined India. These parallels, which are one of many in the events that eventually gave India and Pakistan their final shape on the world map, present a candid reminder of why Pakistani historians often look upon this time period, when territories were acceding and being awarded to one of the two dominions, with such frustration. With the short attention spans of today, even in the high corridors of world power, it is understandable how comprehensive yet seemingly long-winded historical arguments like the comparisons between the destinies of Gilgit and Berar, carry little weight and are often buried under piles of historical study – concealed by public apathy and restricted to the hobnobbing of engrossed scholars and those that happen to chance past such chronicles. To us, the inheritors of the smaller estate, such archival sketches depict a wistful reminder: while our country may meticulously strive to take principled positions, others with more power and clout can avoid doing so with no consequences.

Coming back to present day, the fact that even after decades of neglect the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have so graciously been mainstreamed into Pakistan is a reminder of the timelessness of the two nation theory. While India still struggles to force Kashmiris into their union and grows increasingly intolerant in its efforts to do so, Pakistan is slowly strengthening itself and its democracy from within. Strong democratic institutions and practice will not only lead to greater satisfaction and a sense of cohesive nationhood for those belonging to outlying regions, but will also correct the various power imbalances that are a result of Pakistan’s turbulent political history. This election, regardless of the harsh polemics adopted by the contesting parties, is a step in the right direction. After all, none of the prime participants of this election, PTI, PPP and PMLN, which are largely mainstream parties in the rest of the country, anchor their vote bank around ethnicity, religion or sect and definitely do not have any militant arms unlike ruling parties elsewhere in South Asia.


Sources:

Lamb, Alistair “Kashmir: A disputed Legacy 1846-1990” (1991)

Geelani, Gowhar “Kashmir: Rage and Reason” (2019)