Ambassadors of Philippines and Norway, and wives of Malaysian and Indonesian ambassadors, lost their lives in a Pakistan Army helicopter crash in Gilgit- Baltistan yesterday. Before this, Gilgit Baltistan was in the news last month when Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the construction of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from China’s Xinjiang province to Gwadar port in Balochistan. A major portion of CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan. As CPEC is the showpiece of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s highly ambitious ‘One belt, one road’ initiative, Gilgit-Baltistan has assumed great geo-strategic importance.
But what is Gilgit-Baltistan? While it is under Pakistani control, Gilgit-Balstistan’s constitutional and legal status remains ambiguous. Gilgit-Baltistan does not find a mention in Pakistan’s constitution. It is neither a part of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir nor is it a province of Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan Supreme Court pronounced in 1994 that these areas “are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of ‘Azad Kashmir’”. Figure this out!
This huge territory, more than six times the size of so-called Azad Kashmir and part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, was known as the Northern Frontier during the British rule. It came under Pakistan’s control after November 4, 1947 when the British Commander of Gilgit Scouts, Major William Alexander Brown declared accession to Pakistan.
Major Brown, who was awarded the MBE by the British and the Star of Pakistan by Rawalpindi, was an employee of the Maharaja of Kashmir. In his book The Gilgit Rebellion, Major Brown says that “as a liberal member of the world’s paragon of democracy, I considered that the whole of Kashmir, including Gilgit Province, unquestionably go to Pakistan in view of the fact that the population was predominantly Muslim. Partisan, traitor, revolutionary, I may have been, but that evening my sentiments dictated that if the Maharaja acceded to India, then I would forego all the allegiance to him”.
The 24-year old Major might have seen himself as the paragon of democracy but the territory he brought under Pakistan’s control hasn’t seen any democracy since. In April 1949, the region was dissociated from Pakistan-occupied Azad Kashmir, named ‘The Northern Areas of Pakistan’ and put under the direct control of a joint secretary in the Federal Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas Affairs.
The next major blow to the Shia-dominated region came from Prime Minister ZA Bhutto in 1974 when he abrogated the State Subject Rule, the law that protected the local demographic composition. Wittingly or otherwise, Pakistan encouraged Sunnis from other parts of the country to acquire land and settle in Gilgit-Baltistan. It destroyed the social fabric of the region and triggered sectarian feuds that continue till today.
Worse was to follow under General Zia-ul Haq when he unleashed anti-Shia forces in the region. Shia-Sunni and Shia-Nurbakshi riots, staged allegedly with state connivance, caused extreme socio-political polarisation in Skardu in the early 1980s. The final blow came in May 1988 when tribal Lashkars, after receiving a nod from the establishment, abducted local women and massacred thousands of Shias in Gilgit.
In 2009, Pakistan government promulgated the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order. Designed to create the impression of liberal self rule, this executive order is another in the series of paradoxes that characterise Pakistan’s policy towards Gilgit-Baltistan. Devoid of any constitutional authority, it provides for a 33-member Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, and a local administration headed by a Chief Minister. The real powers, however, continue to be vested in the Gilgit-Baltistan Council which is headed by the Pakistani Prime Minister and has a majority of members nominated by him. Even then, as in the case of the Interim Constitution of PoK, all office bearers in Gilgit-Baltistan have to sign an oath of allegiance to Pakistan. Incidentally, India had protested the 2009 executive order, calling it “yet another cosmetic exercise intended to camouflage Pakistan’s illegal occupation” of parts of Jammu and Kashmir.
But even elections to this toothless assembly have not been held on time. The assembly’s term got over in November last year and the region has since been handed over to a caretaker government. Elections are scheduled in June, and PML-N is making a strong push for power this time. Emasculated politically and troubled ethnically, Gilgit-Baltistan has also suffered the consequences of increasing Islamist militancy in Pakistan. Many Taliban who escaped from Swat and adjoining areas found shelter among Sunni extremists in Gilgit. More than 300 suspected Islamist terrorists were expelled from Gilgit in October 2008. Shia passengers have been pulled out of buses and killed by Sunni terror groups while even foreign mountaineers have not been spared.
Independent voices from Gilgit-Baltistan have been suppressed by Pakistan and the region is often forgotten, not only globally but also in India, while discussing Kashmir. Though the Indian parliament had passed a unanimous resolution in 1994 expressing “regret and concern at the pitiable conditions and violations of human rights and denial of democratic freedoms of the people in those areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which are under the illegal occupation of Pakistan”, Indian civil society can do more to provide a voice to the people suffering in Gilgit-Baltistan.
But all this pales in comparison to the geostrategic importance of this region, particularly vis-à-vis China. The contested Siachen glacier lies there. Gilgit-Baltistan is the only land connection Pakistan has with China, and it adjoins the 225-km long Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the exaggerated reports of Chinese military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are at least 35 ongoing Chinese projects in PoK. Meanwhile, the Karakoram Highway which had been unusable for the last five years following a landslide, has been repaired by Chinese engineers and is likely to be reopened in November. The construction of the CPEC will mean increased Chinese involvement and presence in the geo-strategically important region.
As Prime Minister Modi visits China this week, dealing with the recent strengthening of the China-Pakistan linkage will be on his agenda. It will help to remember that Gilgit-Baltistan remains the weakest join in the Pakistan-China link.