By: Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd), Editor, GSDN
As the British decided to exit India in 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir, aspiring to keep the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) as an independent nation, did not accede to either India and Pakistan. Pakistan laid claim on Kashmir since it is a Muslim majority region. It ignored the fact that the criterion of division along religious majority applied only to the regions directly colonized by the British and not to princely states like Jammu & Kashmir.
Operation Gulmarg was launched by Pakistan on the intervening night of October 21-22, 1947 with Srinagar as the main target. Maharaja Hari Singh signed the Instrument of Accession with India on October 26, 1947 thereby acceding to the Indian Union. While the whole of the erstwhile J&K State acceded to India, portions of it came to be illegally occupied by Pakistan and has been under Pakistan’s unlawful control ever since. The area of Gilgit-Baltistan is of great strategic importance and plays an increasingly important role in the security calculus of nations in the region.
Over the decades, Pakistan has repeatedly ceded parts of Gilgit-Baltistan to China in return for Beijing’s help in infrastructure development and support in international forums. Under the pretext of “liberating” the region from India, Pakistan has not only turned Gilgit-Baltistan into a colonial-inspired administrative entity, but also excluded the region from its constitution, deprived the people of their political, legislative, and judicial rights, and subjected them to demographic
Sectarian Divide & Identity Crisis
Gilgit-Baltistan is made up of ethnic and sectarian groups that are considered minorities in Pakistan. Shia Muslims, Ismailis, and Noor Bakshis have been the most populous communities, and they have mostly coexisted peacefully in this region. Despite the fact that the region’s indigenous peoples have common ethnic, linguistic, social, and cultural ties, the Pakistani state has incited and fuelled interethnic strife in order to achieve its own security goals.
In 1974, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, abolished the State Subjects Rule, which prohibited outsiders from obtaining land in the area, as part of his efforts to Islamize the area. The action was taken in an attempt to confront the Shia population, who made up the majority in Gilgit-Baltistan, and their developing sense of sectarianism. In addition, he supported and enabled Sunni immigrants from other regions of the nation to relocate to the Northern Areas. Centuries of peaceful coexistence between the Shia and Sunni populations in the Northern Areas were progressively destroyed by the inflow of non-natives.
In May 1988, groups of Sunni zealots from the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), supported by locals, raided Shia villages on the outskirts of Gilgit, killing many. These attacks were followed by other violent incidents against Shias in 1990, 1992, 1993, 2001, and 2005. These events and the violence have created a sectarian divide between the small parts of Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (POJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, with a majority Sunni population in PoJK and a majority Shia population in Gilgit-Baltistan. While the parties in POJK want to merge Gilgit Baltistan with them, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan want to reunite with India because of its fraternal treatment in Pakistan.
In 2009, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) under President Asif Zardari issued the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, which stated that the region would remain part of the Northern Areas as Gilgit-Baltistan. The Order was later revoked and replaced by the 2018 Order when the government led by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi introduced the Order after the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in December 2013, which abolished the legislative powers of the elected assembly in Gilgit-Baltistan. The 2018 ordinance ensured that real authority rested with none other than the country’s prime minister. The earlier assertion that the council, headed by the prime minister, had primary authority was abandoned. The 2018 decree ensured that the region has no control over roads or highways, as it is the starting point of CPEC, and that highways remain under the exclusive jurisdiction of the government. It also removed taxation powers, which increased the region’s financial dependence on Islamabad.
According to reports, since January 2001, the traditional population ratio of 1:4 (non-natives to natives) has shifted to 3:4. Non-Shia populations continue to grow in regions historically controlled by Shia, such as Skardu and Gilgit. The Pakistani government has attempted to alter the demographic character of Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, making the indigenous population a minority. Non-natives have been allocated significant swaths of land in the Gilgit and Skardu districts. Other strangers have purchased large tracts of property because they are better off economically than the locals. The increased settlement of Punjabi and Pashtun outsiders has instilled fear among the locals.
Pakistan’s fixation with Kashmir reflects its goal for territorial acquisition rather than meeting the aspirations of its people. The fact that it chose to invade Kashmir rather than wait for the people to decide its future proves that its reasoning about “respecting the will of the people” was not very valid to begin with. Its seven-decade-long efforts to dilute the population and extract maximum benefits from the land of Gilgit-Baltistan are proof of its nefarious intentions.
It is imperative for India to engage with the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan and the nationalist groups that expect moral support from India, so that the downward spiral in the life and living of the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan is put to an end. If India reaches out to these groups, it is likely that more voices will rise in support of Gilgit-Baltistan’s reunification with India, a viewpoint that has gained traction recently despite Pakistan’s efforts to suppress the voices. It is also important that New Delhi works to draw international attention to the atrocities in Gilgit-Baltistan in every possible international forum. By highlighting the situation in Gilgit-Baltistan, India will not only give a voice to the people of the region, but also shine a light on that region of Jammu & Kashmir illegally occupied by Pakistan, which seems to have been forgotten by everyone.