• Ashu Maan

THE FATE OF GILGIT-BALTISTAN

The British Crown ruled India (first through East India Company and later directly) for two centuries. Strict supervision and play them off one against the other,” Rudyard Kipling wrote this in his 1888 story, The Education of Otis Yeere (Kipling, 2008). The above line by Kipling personifies the British Raj’s governance strategy for India after the revolt of 1857. India got its independence in August 1947, but it came with a price as it was partitioned on religious lines into India and Pakistan. The culmination of the British Raj and the subsequent partition saw inescapable communal violence, which was simmering for decades, largely due to the divide and rule approach strategy of the British Raj. The Partition has left a lasting impact on multiple aspects of Indo-Pakistan relationship, especially the Kashmir issue. Since Independence, Kashmir has been the focal point of 3 of the 4 wars fought between India and Pakistan (Wars of 1947, 1965, and 1999).


In the aftermath of the Partition, Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir, had the option; to merge with India or Pakistan or remain an independent State. The Maharaja decided to remain independent but soon faced mutiny and armed attacks sponsored by Pakistan (DW, 2020). The threat of losing the whole of Kashmir to Pakistan compelled the Maharaja to seek help from the Indian government in October 1947. The Maharaja agreed to the accession of Kashmir to India on October 26th, 1947, and signed the instrument of accession which legally made Jammu and Kashmir a part of India (GOI, 1947).


After signing the instrument of accession, the Indian Army and Air Force engaged with the invaders and later the Pakistani army in 1948 (Britannica, 2020). Finally, in 1948 under the ambit of the United Nations (UN), a ceasefire was agreed upon by both countries, following which a plebiscite was to be held in Kashmir after Pakistan withdrew from the territories it occupied in Kashmir (UN, 1948). Pakistan never vacated the occupied territories, and the plebiscite never happened. Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) consists of areas such as Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Bhimbar, and Gilgit-Baltistan.


This essay focuses on Gilgit-Baltistan and its history since 1940. Gilgit-Baltistan is the former Gilgit Agency, Gilgit Wazarat, Astor Wazarat, and Skardu Tehsil of Ladakh Wazarat of the Jammu and Kashmir State (Stobdan, 2005). Gilgit-Baltistan’s history can be studied in three parts: Gilgit on lease to the British by Maharaja, the state-sponsored sectarian divide, and the political limbo.


Gilgit on lease to the British by Maharaja


The British government fearing Soviet expansionist moves leased Gilgit Agency from the Maharaja in 1935 for 60 years. Prior to the lease, the Gilgit Wazarat continued to remain under the direct control of the Maharaja and was administered by Wazir-i-Wazarat (Bansal, 2018). Even though the British Government took total control of the administration of Gilgit, Maharaja’s authority was maintained by the way of flying his flag at the official headquarters of the Agency, and only the Maharaja was authorised to grant mining licenses and leases (Chohan, 1997).


The British government cancelled the lease on August 1st, 1947, and August 1st, 1947, and returned the area to the Maharaja before Independence. Scholars in Pakistan have argued that the return of the Gilgit Agency to the Maharaja was flawed and Gilgit-Baltistan legally belongs to Pakistan. However, their assertion overlooks the fact that even when the British controlled the Gilgit Agency the flag of Maharaja continued to fly, and his birthday was celebrated as an official holiday in the Agency. These views seem to be part of an effort to provide legitimacy to Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan. Another fact that proves the apertures in Pakistani scholars’ assertions is that Gilgit Agency constitutes a very small portion of the present-day Gilgit-Baltistan, and even during the period of British control the territory on the left bank of Indus, including Baltistan, was under the supervision of the Maharaja and he always maintained a detachment of his army at Bunji.


State-Sponsored Sectarian Divide


The social, religious, and cultural structure of Gilgit-Baltistan is the amalgamation of nearly two millennia. The region has seen the rule of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic dynasties. Although contemporarily almost a hundred percent of the region follows some sect of Islam, their language and cultural practices still embodies their syncretic past.


Despite a history of peaceful coexistence, the region has been rife with sectarian violence since the 1970s. The commencement of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan coincides with four major events: the Iranian Revolution, the start of Afghan Jihad, a coup by Zia-ul-Haq, and the opening of the Karakoram highway. Various scholars have debated the cause of the sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. Muhammad Feyyaz argues that the Iranian revolution coupled with Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamization project was a major factor in the advent of sectarian violence (Feyazz, 2011) in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan alike. Vivek Mishra states the Karakoram Highway and the Afghan jihad as major reasons for the sectarian conflict (Mishra, 2018) in the region. Alok Bansal in his book Gilgit-Baltistan and its Saga of Unending Human Rights Abuse states that the sectarian conflict may have started due to some underlying reasons, but it was kept alive by the government to keep a divide between the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, so they do not demand political rights which they have been devoid of since 1947 (Bansal, 2018). Nevertheless, the common variable among all the cited reasons is the inherent divide in Islam and intolerance for a conflicting point of view or beliefs which complimented the above factors in creating a deep sectarian rift.


This[1] [2] ideology is responsible for the plethora of sectarian violence in Pakistan and not just in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Shias’ and Sunnis in Pakistan had a harmonious relationship from 1950 to the 1970s which was fueled by defining Islam in ‘exclusive’ terms (finality of Prophet) and declaring Ahmadiyas as non-Muslim (Behuria, 2004). After that, Zia-ul-Haq (Chief of Army Staff) carried out a coup in 1977 and started the Islamisation of Pakistan. Zia was a proponent of Deobandi Sunni ideology which is very close to ‘Wahabism’. After getting power in Pakistan, Zia started the Islamisation of laws. This period also saw the start of sectarian violence against the Shia minority in Pakistan. The initiation of sectarian violence led Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and other Gulf countries to promote the Sunni-Wahabi sect of Islam and the involvement of Afghanistan in Pakistan’s internal politics further complicated the sectarian conflict (Ahmar, 2008).


Zia’s Islamisation project got a boost by the opening of the Karakoram highway in 1979 to the public. The opening of the highway coupled with the earlier removal of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto saw an attempt by the Pakistani administration to change the demographic profile of the only Shia majority region administered by Pakistan. Sunni clerics and hardliners from mainland Pakistan started flooding the region. Groups like Sipah-e-Sabha spread their tentacles in the region and the Shias and the Ismailis were made to submit to their puritanical aggression (Ahmed, 2002). In 1988 Sunnis killed and lynched the Shias, burnt their crops, and even their cattle were slaughtered by hordes of Sunnis brought in by Parvez Musharraf (Shaheen, 2000). The violence of 1988 and State complicity can be seen in the following words of the local media quoted in The Friday Times:[3] [4] “Zia exploited a minor issue of moon-sighting and observance of Ramadan fasting and masterminded the murder of 700 innocent people that included women, elders, and children…a huge Lashkar of 80,000 Sunni extremists was sent by Zia-ul—Haq’s government to annihilate the Shias. Villages inhabited by the Shias- Jalalabad, Bonji, Darot, Jaglot, Pari, and Manawar were completely ruined. Even their animals were slaughtered. The Lashkar had travelled a long distance from Manshera to Gilgit and the government did not stop it. Instead, it put blame on Research and Analysis Wing and the Central Investigation Agency(Shehzad, 2003).

The International Crisis Group report on the incident states that the Sunni militants killed, looted, and pillaged with impunity (ICG, 2007) while the authorities sat back and watched. The 1988 violence erupted a vicious cycle of barbarity that continues till date. Since 1989, there have been 3,072 cases of sectarian violence in Pakistan, leading to 5,602 deaths and 10,780 (Satp, 2018)injuries. Incidentally, with a population of only a fraction of Pakistan, the death toll due to sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan stands above 2000 people.


The Political Limbo


Pakistan occupied Gilgit-Baltistan due to the kerfuffle caused by the Maharaja’s refusal to join either India or Pakistan coupled with the mutiny by the commanding officer in Gilgit. According to the 1848 UNSC Resolution 47 on Kashmir, Pakistan was supposed to withdraw its forces from Kashmir (which included Gilgit-Baltistan) and any other subjects who are not original inhabitants of the area, so that a plebiscite could take place. Pakistan refused to withdraw and its subsequent actions in PoK regarding demographic change has made the resolution redundant.


The Gilgit-Baltistan House passed a joint resolution in March 2021 for interim provincial status (Khan, 2021)to the region. The resolution came after the announcement by the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in December 2020 to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan after the assembly elections (TimesNow, 2020). This was not the first time a leader of Pakistan promised provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. Gilgit-Baltistan has been devoid of political and natural rights by the Pakistani establishment since it occupied the region.


The first sign of Pakistan’s attempt at gaining political control of Gilgit-Baltistan was on November 16, 1947, when it sent Sardar Mohammad Alam as a political agent (Brown, 2014)to the region. After the UN resolution on Kashmir in 1948, Pakistan was in control of the former Gilgit Agency, Gilgit Wazarat, Astor Wazarat, and Skardu Tehsil of Ladakh Wazarat of the Jammu and Kashmir State (Stobdan, 2005). Initially, Gilgit-Baltistan was under the administration of the so-called Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). The federal government wrested control of Gilgit-Baltistan through the Karachi Agreement on April 28, 1949. The agreement was signed between the Government of Pakistan, the Government of AJK, and the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference. The agreement provided Pakistan with complete control over Gilgit-Baltistan (then called Northern Areas by Pakistan) and control over the defense, foreign affairs, and communications of AJK. The fact that the agreement was signed by the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference which never had any presence in the region and the illegal occupation by Pakistan makes the Karachi Agreement illegitimate.

The agreement lacked popular support or constitutional legitimacy (Khan M. I., 2005), as the contracting parties neither represented the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, nor the Maharaja. Liaquat Ali Khan (the first Prime Minister of Pakistan) decided that Gilgit-Baltistan should not be incorporated into Pakistan’s democratic structures. The region was devoid of any political representation as it was ruled directly by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs (Jones, 2004) in Karachi. The British era Frontiers Crime Regulation (FCR) was applied to the region and local rulers were co-opted in the administration. The application of FCR in Gilgit-Baltistan shows the intent of Pakistan to fully control the region with an iron fist just like the British.


To make matters worse Pakistan in March 1963 signed an agreement with China that gave away around 5180 square kilometers of the territory of the former State of Hunza to China. Amid growing calls for political representation, General Yahya Khan in 1969 established Northern Areas Advisory Council (NAAC). NAAC was a 16 members advisory council that was chaired by the federal government resident and later by the Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA). The council, although elected directly by the people, had no real power (Lambah, 2016)and only served in an advisory capacity. The NAAC was a farce exercise done to ease the growing tension between the government and the public and gave no real political representation to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. During the 1971 war, Indian Army troops belonging to Nubra Guards and Ladakh Scouts liberated 804 square kilometers of territory in Baltistan (Bansal, 2018).


The 1972 Presidential Ordinance abolished the Jagirdari System and the institution of Rajas in the region. The Ordinance also renamed the resident as Commissioner for Northern Areas. Subsequently, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto promulgated the Northern Areas Legal Order 1974-75. The order abolished FCR and brought the region under the jurisdiction of the Pakistan Penal Code (Devasher, 2019). The NAAC was converted to the Northern Areas Council. The new council consisted of 14 directly elected members but it was still chaired by the Commissioner for Northern Areas and was still devoid of any legislative or executive powers (Iqbal, 2017). The new NAC was a mere symbolic exercise and the real authority still rested with the federal government.


In 1982 the “AJK assembly” adopted a resolution which called Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir and should be included in AJK. Zia-ul-Haq in a 1980 interview with MJ Akbar asserted that Gilgit-Baltistan was not a part of Pakistan and was disputed as the rest of Jammu and Kashmir (IPS, 2004). But in 1985 Zia asserted that Gilgit-Baltistan was an integral part of Pakistan and would be represented in the National Assembly. In 1999 the NAC was renamed as Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC).


Subsequently, the posts of Speaker and Deputy Speaker were created in 2000 and 2002. The first tenure of NALC lasted from 1999-2004 during which time the Council failed to legislate on anything. The Council passed 18 Resolutions, however, none of which were executed by the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Affairs (executive chair of the NALC). Thus, the NALC like its predecessors NAAC and NAC failed to give any real political power to the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan and was relegated to representation without power.


Gilgit-Baltistan got its first hope of executive power by the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009. The Order provided for a local administration headed by a Chief Minister, to be elected by the 24 directly elected members of the legislative assembly and 6 women and 3 technocrats to be elected by the members. The Order also gave power to the legislative assembly to present and approve the budget and introduced a judicial setup. The Order empowered the assembly to legislate on 61 subjects, but the Gilgit-Baltistan council headed by the Prime Minister had greater powers than the legislative council and power to legislate on 55 subjects like Defence, external security, communications, mining etc. (Bansal, 2018), which were of far greater significance.


The 2009 order was superseded by the Gilgit-Baltistan Order of 2018. This Order made the Prime Minister of Pakistan the Executive of the region and entrusted in him the power to solely legislate on 68 subjects which included tourism, forests, and minerals. The Order also empowered the Prime Minister to veto any legislation passed by the legislative assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan.


Currently, Pakistan may be pressurised by China to maintain order in Gilgit-Baltistan as a substantial part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor which passes through the region. But even if Pakistan grants provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan (as promised by Imran Khan), it is unlikely to bring order to the region as the flaws are inherent and if history is any guide, order and Pakistan are antithetical.


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About the author: Ashu Maan is currently pursuing Masters in Diplomacy, Law, and Business. Ashu has a keen interest in China’s rise post World War II and Cold War and issues pertaining to national security.

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