Gilgit and Baltistan: Strategic Relevance

Gilgit and Baltistan are parts of India, as  much as the rest of the J & K state is, but this region does not seem to figure too prominently on our collective radar screen. Instead, we seem to have made the sanctity of the LOC an article of faith and never “violate” it even though Pakistan began its invasion on India on October 22, 1947 and has continued to violate the LOC since the cease-fire 56 years ago. The implication is that we are prepared to negotiate on the basis of the LOC as a boundary. Our media or our weather bureau seems to have forgotten this area also. Weather maps of the region do not show conditions in Gilgit, Skardu or Diamar like PTV, which never fails to tell us the weather conditions in Srinagar and Baramullah in ‘Maqbooza’ Kashmir. These are symbolisms but are important ones.


Although most of us know the strategic importance of J&K and the symbolism attached to multi-religious but predominantly Muslim J&K, to our ideals of secularism and nationhood, strategic issues connected with Gilgit and Baltistan are quite often not very central in our thought processes. Maybe one could get a better idea if one imagined that what we showed on our maps reflected reality on the ground. If we had what we show on our maps then the reality would have been something like this.


India would have had a border with NWFP – something that Pakistan could not tolerate given its sensitivities about the Durand Line, and the fear that India could play up this issue, and the traditionally friendly India-Afghan relations would be a disadvantage for Pakistan. All the waters of Indus and its tributaries would have substantially flown through Indian territory making the feudal farmers of Pakistan Punjab even more dependent on India. Domel, Muzaffarabad and the Haji Pir Bulge would have been in India’s control making GHQ Rawalpindi more vulnerable. India would have had access to Afghanistan through the Wakhan corridor – not the easiest of routes, but not unsurpassable, and definitely not at the mercy of Pakistan.


The Karakoram Highway would not have existed and Pakistan would not have got its clandestine supplies from China and North Korea. China would not have had access to Gwadar and be able to connect Kashgar with Gwadar; nor would it have kept Pakistan supplied with lethal material clandestinely through the Karakoram Highway to counterbalance India. There would not have been any terrorists hiding in the Neelam Valley to be launched into India and there would not have been any Kargil adventure nor the need for any troops on the heights of Siachen. There would not possibly have been displaced Mirpuris from the Mangla Dam reservoir area to migrate to the UK and form the core of anti-Indian protest in Europe. But even more crucial than the POK area, has been the Gilgit Baltistan area, and this is the one that does not figure in our strategic thinking, because this is the one that sits on the routes to China and Central Asia. The Karakoram Highway and the strategic Gwadar port close to the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf provide China vital access to the sea-lanes in the area. The US as inheritor of British imperial interests, in pursuit of Cold War first and then its new doctrine of pre-emption, would need this corridor to have access to the troubled Xinjiang.


For long, Indians have felt suspicious, and said so very often, that it was imperialist designs that got us into this situation. In two recently published books based on British Government, documents now made public set this doubt at rest. Clearly the entire exercise beginning with the impetus for the creation of Pakistan was the handiwork of British acting through their Viceroy in India. Tactical errors by the Congress when they resigned from the provincial governments at the start of the Second World War, in protest against dragging the country into their war without consulting the elected representatives, did not help.


Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s “War and Diplomacy in Kashmir 1947-48” depicts the two crucial years, when India lost POK and Gilgit Baltistan, not because of the superiority of the Pakistani forces, but because of three men essentially and the tangled web they wove. It was Mountbatten in Delhi, Bevin in Whitehall London and Noel-Baker in New York, who was particularly more loyal than the King. While in New York, Noel Baker zealously overplayed his hand in his blind love for Pakistan that even embarrassed Attlee. Bevin would give incomplete and slanted assessments, and in New Delhi,   Mountbatten and his British officers in the Indian Army, invariably tried to underplay Pakistani transgressions, instead sought concessions from a trusting Nehru, and at the same time remained silent when it came to remotely blaming Pakistan. The ploy was the same – how could the raiders be asked to leave unless India also vacated. The same argument in different forms is applied today. This indirectly encouraged Pakistani obduracy and adventurism in Kashmir. Gradually India was pushed towards calling off operations into areas that later became to be known as Pak Occupied Kashmir and the Northern Areas; gradually India was inveigled into the UNSC route, and to find to its horror, that the tables had been turned on an unsuspecting but idealistic and newly independent government.


The stage for all this had been set in a way by the years preceding India’s independence. Nirendra Singh Sarila’s recent book “The Shadow of the Great Game- The Untold Story of India’s Partition” describes this vividly. Jinnah, and thereby Muslim League, was  encouraged in his demands partly as punishment for “Hindu” Indian National Congress refusal to help the Empire in its war in Europe. The readiness of the British to help create Pakistan was more than just annoyance and pique. Imperial strategic interests are not determined solely by this sort of sentimentality. Both these books should be read by all those interested in learning how empires are managed.


The creation of Pakistan was an exercise in the preservation of imperial interests in the region. At that the time, (in the early years of the war when the British did not anticipate they would have to quit India so soon) the main perceived threat to British interests, was the growing might of the Soviet Union, and Britain was worried about a possible Soviet thrust into Chitral, Gilgit and Swat. China did not figure in imperial calculations at that time because Chiang Kai Shek was an ally. It was argued, that a friendly Muslim Pakistan, would be a better bet at handling the expanding Russian Empire, and more likely to co-operate with British military and foreign policy matters, rather than a Hindu India sitting far way from the actual scene of action. British withdrawal would severely impair that country’s ability to protect its interests in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean region – the vital sea and trade routes—and this breach could be filled by a pliant new Muslim state. The Indus valley, western Punjab and Balochistan were vital to the preservation of British security interests in the region. Besides, after Pakistan was created, the British did not want to be seen doing anything anti-Muslim, lest it further exacerbated the wrath of the Arab Muslim world, which was already angered by the creation of Israel.


From then on, it was a familiar story repeated on each occasion – Pakistan became intransigent and we know the reactions in 1965, 1971, 1999 and even in 2001. Each time there was a reluctance to blame Pakistan, and each time there was pressure on India to show restraint. We must also remember that in 1965 and 1971, neither country was a nuclear power, and so there was no question of there being a nuclear powder keg. Cold War interests reigned. Later, interests emanating from a desire for global dominance meant that the West turned a blind eye to Gen Zia ul Haq’s feverish and clandestine schemes to acquire the nuclear weapon in the 80s because Pakistan was the base country for the jehad against the Soviet Union.   Then later, the AQ Khan nuclear sales have been sought to be underplayed because Pakistan is a vital ally in the war against terror. In essence, the situation today is very much the same as it was 60 years ago. Pakistan has continued its well organised and carefully calibrated war against India, with the West trying to shackle India in various ways, insisting that concessions should come from India, the bigger country. It was Attlee who urged India to exercise restraint in 1947 and it was Blair who made similar requests in 1999 and 2001. All this is history that may not have fully played itself out and likely to be repeated as the New Great Game warms up.


We need to pay more attention to this area of “Pak Occupied Gilgit and Baltistan,” as the Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), refers to his land. The people of Baltistan (Skardu and Astore) have had close ethnic, religious ties with people of Ladakh; the Shias and Ismailis of Gilgit and Baltistan have had close ties with the Shias of Kargil and have been oppressed by the Sunnis of Pakistan. The Shias were 85 percent of the population in 1948 but are now down to 50 percent. Pakistani authorities have systematically settled Sunni Wahabbis in Gilgit and Baltistan through unfair land allocations or employment. Shias resent the education syllabus thrust on them.


The Northern Light Infantry, which was mainly manned by locals, is now increasingly manned by ‘outsiders’ because the locals, mostly Shias, are no longer trusted. All prominent bureaucratic positions are held by Sunnis from NWFP and Punjab. There is no freedom of expression and journalists are frequently locked up for reporting dissent. There are no writ petitions, no appeals to Supreme Court against any arbitrary action by the State.   There has been no economic development in the area except for the construction of the Karakoram highway. No political activity is permitted. There are a few brave individuals like Abdul Hamid Khan of the BNF who carry on their campaign against Islamabad. More and more Gilgitis now seek self-determination and not a merger with Pakistan. And that their views must be taken into consideration for any discussions on the Kashmir question.


Anti-Shia violence continues in Gilgit and Baltistan and more than 80 persons had been killed in 2005 by October in clashes with State forces as Shias protested against state oppression or demanded better conditions. The practice of anti-Shia pogrom started in the 80s, and one of the persons who led a brutal campaign against the Shias in Gilgit in 1988, was Brig (now Gen) Pervez Musharraf, who was then based in Khapalu.


India needs to refocus attention on this region of Gilgit and Baltistan in the new globalisation context. If we are to be dependent on the uncertainties and unreliability of Pakistan for our energy supplies, it is also necessary to look elsewhere. Land routes from Russia and Kazakhstan through Kashgar could also reach India. Undoubtedly this means some negotiations with China on the boundary and trade issues. It means a new approach, less dependent on a volatile West Asia and a neighbour with whom the trust deficit remains high and will remain so for a long time to come. It means looking at the boundary question differently.   It also means that we should now put 1962 behind us without forgetting the lessons of realpolitik. China may be described as a competitor or a threat on different occasions but it is equally an opportunity. It means giving shape to the Russia-India-China strategic triangle – among the three largest landmasses in the world, the largest markets in size and diversity, countries with the highest rates of growth, a Russia that would need manpower imports in the years ahead,   and which could remain militarily and economically strong without total dependence on sea lanes controlled by others. This is what an Asian Century should be all about.



The writer is former Chief of RA&W. The article first appeared in Indian Defence Review Vol 20(4).   

©Security Research Review Volume 2(2) 2006.