Contrary to the PTI government’s contention, granting provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan involves a contested political process with multifarious implications for the stakeholders.
There are four stakeholders — India, Pakistan, the peoples of the former Himalayan state and Gilgit-Baltistan — of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute whose genesis is rooted in the colonial politics shaped by the so-called Great Game i.e. the conventional western fear of the rise of the East. If Gilgit-Baltistan is an integral part of the simmering Kashmir conflict then why the people of GB are one of the stakeholders different from the people of J&K is an important question to ask. The answer to this question lies in the historical facts which have never been thought to us in our history books.
Many historical accounts suggest that the British Empire wanted to transform the Gilgit agency into a buffer zone to protect its imperial interests in the border regions through a proxy regime. Therefore, the legacy of geostrategic control of current Gilgit-Baltistan goes back to the colonial times where people were reduced to the object of control in the grand politics of the Great Game. Unlike other 564 princely states of the Subcontinent, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was carefully crafted by the British colonial masters with the sole objective to exert political and administrative control of the Eastern territories. Created from the ashes of the Sikh Dynasty in 1846, the state of Jammu and Kashmir was an artificial political conglomeration of multiple ethnic and religious identities.
The apprehensions of the British Empire of the westward expansion of Tsarist Russia dominated the thinking of political and administrative control of the northeastern territories of British India. The British wanted to install a submissive ruler with weak political recognition as an alternative to the defeated Sikh dynasty to exert direct control on rugged mountainous regions with the little economic and human cost of political management. The British found an appropriate proxy ruler in the garb of Gulab Singh who did everything the British could not do easily to control the northeastern territories of the British Empire. In his recorded discussion with B.K Nehru, the former governor of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Kiran Singh son of Hari Singh, the last ruler of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir said: “The state was a wholly artificial creation, its five separate regions [Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Gilgit and Baltistan] being joined together by the historical accident that Raja Gulab Singh had conquered all the territories over which Maharaja Hari Singh was ruling at the time of Independence and Partition. Those five different entities had nothing in common with each other.”
This is an apt description given the historical realities of how colonial powers used local collaborators to expand their political writ and administrative control with minimal cost. Like other artificial feudal principalities of the colonial period in the Subcontinent, the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir was a political arrangement meted out as a containment strategy against the perceived and real threats of Tsar Russia.
The British supported Gulab Singh in his military expeditions to conquer the region of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh who they saw as a malleable proxy to protect the British interests in the region. These military expeditions met strong resistance from the local rajas in particular the rajas of geographically significant regions of Hunza and Nagar. Therefore, the British had to directly invade Hunza and Nagar in December 1891 to suppress the resistance against the proxy Dogra regime. Many experts of history and politics in Gilgit-Baltistan are of the view that the region faced double colonial oppression of the British and the Dogra raj. They see that if Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of the colonial state of Jammu and Kashmir then India and Pakistan were also part of British India and therefore they should also be reintegrated as one state.
Like India, Pakistan also considers Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of the dispute despite the fact that the Independence Day of Gilgit from the Dogra raj of Jammu and Kashmir is officially celebrated in Pakistani administered Gilgit-Baltistan on November 01 each year. What does the celebration mean if the area is still part of an unresolved dispute? If this is celebrated as a day of accession to Pakistan then it would be equally valid to recognize the Indian claim of legitimate control over the state of Jammu and Kashmir because Maharaja Hari Singh signed an agreement of accession with India on October 26, 1947. Furthermore, if the unconditional accession of Gilgit to Pakistan on November 16, 1947, was something to celebrate then why was the area not granted full citizenship rights? Why was Gilgit-Baltistan discussed as part of the dispute in the Karachi Agreement of April 1949 between the Government of Pakistan and the representative of the Government of AJK? If one accepts the official stance of the successive regimes in Pakistan of considering Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of the Kashmir dispute then why was it ruled through the infamous Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) of the colonial era? Why are the people of Gilgit-Baltistan deprived of the political privileges and fundamental rights granted to all the territories of the dispute under the UN resolutions? Who will answer these fundamental questions being posed by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan i.e. India, Pakistan or the UN?
There are no simple answers of course and therefore we must dwell upon some historical facts to make sense of the complexity of the Gilgit-Baltistan case before being carried away by the political euphoria of provisional provincial status.
The Indian Independence Act 1947 provided three options to the rulers of the princely states i.e. they could either join India or Pakistan and if they wished they could retain their independent status. Maharaja Hari Singh opted for retaining the independent status amidst the mounting challenges of communal politics. With rising communal riots in the western districts and invasion by Pakistani tribesmen on Muzaffarabad on October 22, 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh was forced to sign an instrument of accession with India as the last resort.
According to the letters of Lord Mountbatten (the first Governor-General of India) and the writings of V.P Menon, the instrument of accession was a temporary arrangement till the restoration of order in Jammu and Kashmir. The order could never be restored and the matter was taken to the United Nations by India in January 1948.
It is interesting to note that in 1947, the British wanted to decouple Gilgit-Baltistan from the Kashmir dispute because they wanted to ensure that Delhi did not have physical access to communist USSR and an impending socialist China. Contrary to Indian claims, it was not a Pakistani intrigue to occupy Gilgit-Baltistan, rather it was the political agenda of Major William Brown who represented the British interests and led the Gilgit rebellion of Nov 1, 1947.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan did not feature anywhere when they were annexed with Dogra Raj, they were never consulted when their area was being annexed with Pakistan. Would the people of Gilgit-Baltistan be consulted this time or the colonial legacy will continue to shape the political future of 2 million people?
Amir Hussain is an Islamabad-based policy and development expert. He is a political commentator and analyst and writes columns on various political and social issues in The News and High Asia Herald. He can be reached at: [email protected]