It is strange that the Government of India did not occupy the Gilgit-Baltistan area, despite the opportunity available during the final days of 1947-48 war. Even now, there has been no effort to reach out to the people of this region, who have been subjugated and exploited
A recent video footage shown on television across the globe, has highlighted the atrocities committed by the brutal Pakistani forces on the residents of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. It reminded one of the gory tales of the atrocities committed in the erstwhile east Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
Global community is now evincing a keen interest in this area, its people and their plight. The fact is that the people of this region have been leading a life of subjugation ever since 1947, but received no media coverage that could highlight their miserable plight. The print media occasionally tried to portray their problems, but very little heed was paid by the global community. Even the citizens did not take much notice of the same, despite the fact that the residents of this area were citizens of the Dogra kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir that acceded to the Union of India in October 1947.
During partition, Gilgit and Baltistan were an integral part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. In a treacherous conspiracy, Major WA Brown, a British commander of the Gilgit Scouts, mutinied against the Maharaja of Kashmir and brought the area under illegal administrative control of Pakistan in November 1947, after the Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession with India.
Many military historians wonder as to why India did not occupy the area, despite the opportunity available during the final days of the war. After the ceasefire, in 1949, Pakistan, in a master stroke, kept Gilgit, Baltistan, Hunza and Nagar under its direct control, rather than include them in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or the so-called Azad Kashmir.
For reasons unknown, the Government of India, turned a blind eye to this legal and historic blunder by Pakistan. Thus, the people of these areas, mainly Shias, were left at the mercy of the Sunni-dominated Pakistan, which has through a well executed plan, changed the demography of the region.
In 1970, the area was named as ‘northern areas’. The nadir was reached in 1974, when ZA Bhutto scrapped the Citizenship Act, allowing outsiders to freely buy property and settle in the region. Terror camps were also established in the area, much against the wishes of the locals.
Pakistan ever since continues to be the illegal occupier of Gilgit-Baltistan, exploiting its mineral and hydraulic wealth and denying the people, basic human and fundamental rights. There are no legal institutions, no medical facilities and no professional colleges. The revenue generated from tourism and other assets in the area is not utilised for the development of the area/welfare of the local residents.
The Government of India made no effort to reach out to the people of this region. Pakistan, on the other hand, played the religion card to its advantage, by creating hatred against Hindus and India, through the state-controlled media and school textbooks. India was portrayed as an enemy of the Muslims and Islam, and Pakistan as a citadel of Islam.
Reality dawned on the people in 1988, when more than one lakh Pakistani troopers and militants, under the command of then Brigadier Pervez Musharraf, brutally attacked them and subjected them to rape, loot, arson and forced conversion. Former President and former Pakistan Army chief Pervez Musharraf was given the title,‘Butcher of Shias’.
This incident compelled the people there to realise the actualities and have a re-think about their adopted country. They were also chary of joining hands with PoK, fearing Kashmiri domination. They continued to live like slaves and subjugated people. The area also became a victim of terrorism. To compound their miseries, the footfall of Chinese soldiers and natives also increased manifold with the active collaboration of Pakistani establishment.
Chinese investment in the area is illegal since the entire area is disputed. In a brazen contempt of international conventions, Pakistan has also illegally ceded a part of the area to China. Senge Sering, a scholar-activist from the area, has expressed surprise that nobody in India talks about Gilgit-Baltistan and Chinese illegal investments there.
Pakistan uses the people of Gilgit-Baltistan as cannon fodder, to achieve its politico-strategic interests in the region, particularly in Kashmir. In 1998, Gen Musharraf once again was the architect of a meaningless Kargil war, that not only led to the loss of about 4,000 innocent natives, but also to the displacement of hundreds and thousands of people, who till date remain internally displaced and economically deprived.
Pakistan continues to hold hostage the innocent people of the region for its economic and strategic reasons. The status of the area, though disputed, has been kept ambiguous by Pakistan. Through a sham ordinance in 2009, the area was re-designated as Gilgit-Baltistan and made a Province of Pakistan, with its own Governor and Chief Minister, but without representation in Pakistan’s highest decision-making elected body.
It was to be headed by a nominated Governor. Gilgit-Baltistan Council, headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, was also formed as a supreme body. The Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, an elected body, has 24 elected and nine nominated members. It has an elected Chief Minister. The arrangement has been termed by the natives as ‘colonial’. Thus, the subjugation, exploitation, discrimination and federal domination continue unabated on the hapless residents of the area.
People there want freedom from the oppressive Pakistan regime. They look up to India and seek its support. New Delhi must provide moral, psychological and financial support to the residents of the area. After all, they are our people living under illegal Pakistani occupation. People-to-people contact and local trade should be encouraged through the opening of trade routes across the Line of Control. India must object to Chinese investments and presence in the area.
Whenever, Pakistan raises the ‘K’ word, it should be sternly reminded that the Kashmir issue is not confined to the Sunni-dominated Valley that comprises 11 per cent of the geographical area of the State and is inhabited by only 22 per cent of its total population, but also other areas and ethnic groups that form the majority in Jammu & Kashmir State, including Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK. The State Subject Act should be restored and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan must have complete control over their land and resources.
(The writer is a retired Army officer and security & strategic affairs analyst)