In Gilgit-Baltistan, geography trumps politics. And China, India and Pakistan are in the new Great Game

by Jyoti Malhotra

Donald Trump or Joe Biden? All eyes are on one of the most momentous event of our times over there in America. But back here in South Asia, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s promise Sunday that Gilgit-Baltistan will provisionally become Pakistan’s fifth province is so crucial that it bears some explanation – especially since it has led to stern criticism by India, which maintains that the move amounts to changing the character of the “undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir”, all of which belongs to India.

So what does Imran Khan’s announcement mean? Is this a reaction to Narendra Modi’s move to revoke Article 370 last year and integrate J&K into India? Has the Pakistan PM finally abandoned Pakistan’s long-held position of Jammu & Kashmir being “disputed territory”?

Let me explain.

Why Gilgit-Baltistan Matters

Imran Khan’s decision is really a defensive move on the Great Game chessboard that began in 1877 when the British persuaded the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir to establish the Gilgit Agency and nominated a Political Agent to watch over and prevent the expanding ambitions of the Russian empire from reaching the warm waters of the Arabian Sea.

That chess game seems to have reached all the way into August 2019 when the Modi government decided to revoke Article 370, which gave special status to the former state, converting it into two Union Territories, thereby enabling their direct rule from New Delhi.

So here is the Pakistani argument: If Delhi can rip apart the fig-leaf and unilaterally bring J&K and Ladakh under its rule, why can’t Pakistan do the same with Gilgit-Baltistan?

Moreover, there’s China, whose $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) enters Pakistan at Gilgit-Baltistan, and traverses the country southwards until it reaches Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea. For years, the Chinese have been pushing Pakistan to give Gilgit-Baltistan legal status so as to protect this all-important corridor, which is a key link in President Xi Jinping’s most important instrument of international influence, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Certainly, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose manifestos have always loudly proclaimed the end of Articles 370 and 35A, never fully thought through the international implications of the move. Or if New Delhi’s foreign policy establishment warned the politicians, it clearly seems as if no one really listened.

But in this part of the world, geography trumps politics.

Geography Over Politics

This is Silk Road country, where trade caravans reached goods and people over centuries into nation-states with malleable frontiers, enriching all their economies. The Uyghurs of Xinjiang, the Sunni Muslims of Leh and south Kashmir, the Shias of Kargil and Skardu and Gilgit, and the Ismailis and Noorbakshis of Gilgit-Baltistan lived and died under the shifting empires of China, Tibet and the Dogra Maharaja.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, there are Kashmiri Muslims and Punjabi Kashmiri Muslims – as well as Shins, Kashgaris, Yashkuns, Pamiris, Pathans, and Kohistanis – with their distinct languages and traditions. Then, in the 1980s, Zia-ul Haq promulgated an order to allow people from elsewhere in Pakistan to settle in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and Gilgit-Baltistan, thereby changing the demography of the region – much like the Modi government is doing today by changing J&K’s land laws.

A quick glance at a map of the region will display Gilgit-Baltistan’s incredible potential and geostrategic importance. No wonder this was the heart of the Great Game a hundred years ago.

In West Gilgit-Baltistan – part of the undivided J&K state until 1947 — lies the tongue of Afghan territory, the Wakhan Corridor. Northwards are the five ‘stans’ of Central Asia – five Muslim states Russified by the Soviet Union and still trying to discover themselves since that disintegration in late 1991. While north by north-east, nestling close to China’s Xinjiang, lie the jumble of mountain ranges with names that smell of thunder and other celestial beings. Kara-ko-rum. Al-tai. Tian-shan.

Crossroads of Empire

Imagine the scene in 1947. No wonder Hari Singh, the Hindu maharaja of Kashmir, dithered and sought a Standstill Agreement between the warring parties, India and Pakistan. Why would anyone want to give up this enormous kingdom where everyone had lived comfortably – sort of – until now?

But when the Qabalis, or so-called tribal militias – some say, Pakistan army irregulars in tribal clothing – crossed into J&K on 22 October 1947, Hari Singh threw in his lot with India and signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October. One week later, on 1 November, the Gilgit Scouts under their British commander mutinied against the Maharaja and declared a separate provincial government – Imran Khan commemorated the territory’s 73rd “independence day” while speaking in Gilgit Sunday. On 1 January 1948, Jawaharlal Nehru’s India took the Kashmir dispute to the United Nations (UN). By mid-1948, Indian Army troops had pushed back the Pakistan Army and taken back large parts of Kashmir.

Hari Singh’s kingdom was broken up, to be administered in different ways: India gave J&K and Ladakh special status under Article 370, Pakistan gave Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, or Azad Kashmir as it is called in Pakistan, its own prime minister, president and unicameral legislature.

Gilgit-Baltistan was given some sort of nominally independent status but neither formally merged, nor given a legislature – it was directly ruled from Rawalpindi/Islamabad. It sat at the crossroads of empire. It was too important to be left fully alone.

Moreover, Pakistan feared, as did PoK’s leaders, that its case at the UN for self-determination of the “disputed territory” of J&K would get diluted if there was any hint of either PoK or Gilgit-Baltistan’s formal merger with Pakistan.

All this changed dramatically on 5 August 2019.

China’s Move

The Modi government’s decision to revoke Article 370 for domestic political reasons has led to a slow earthquake — the new contours of this region, still not fully understood, are emerging only now.

First, if Modi could, in one stroke, go beyond the UN resolution and integrate its own part of J&K, then why couldn’t Pakistan do the same with Gilgit-Baltistan?

Significantly, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa met all the key opposition parties in September to explain what was coming – certainly, in Pakistan, nothing can be done without it being masterminded by the Army.

Second, China, as we have seen, has been pushing the Pakistanis to give Gilgit-Baltistan some sort of legal status so as to protect CPEC which runs across it. According to the widely respected American journalist Selig Harrison, the Chinese have military personnel stationed in Gilgit-Baltistan for some years now.

Third, China put out in June that India unilaterally changed the status quo by revoking Article 370, thereby posing a “challenge to the sovereignty of China and Pakistan and made India-Pakistan relations and China-India relations more complex.”

Certainly, China knows better than to aggress into someone else’s territory; moreover, China could have asked India — and been explained — the meaning of the 5 August move if it was really so worried.

The Chinese took the easy way out. It read, in the legalistic change of the status of Jammu & Kashmir, the message that New Delhi could take stronger action in neighbouring Aksai Chin, because it controlled it directly, instead of via Srinagar. Except, of course, it is China which has controlled Aksai Chin since 1963 and has built several key highways through it connecting to Tibet.

‘Map-Making Must Come To An End’

There is another message in Imran Khan’s move that has got little attention so far – by formally recognising Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan is also slowly abandoning its long-held position of Kashmir as ‘disputed territory’.

Imran Khan, via the Army, is acknowledging that Modi’s move to integrate Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Ladakh into India is not going to be undone. Therefore, Pakistan has no option but to keep the part of Kashmir that it has controlled since 1947 – PoK and Gilgit Baltistan.

Modi’s move, in fact, is an assertion of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former external affairs minister Jaswant Singh’s much-quoted line in the wake of the Kargil conflict: Map-making in the subcontinent must come to an end.

Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh reiterated that message to Pervez Musharraf in Agra in 2001 and afterward, again and again – but Pakistan didn’t listen. Almost 20 years later, as China asserts itself in South Asia, it seems to be telling its ‘client state’, Pakistan, the same thing.

Let’s take a look at the map again at this point: China is in control of vast territories in India’s Ladakh, the adjacent Shaksgam valley, which Pakistan illegally ceded to China in 1963 after India lost the 1962 conflict with China, and Gilgit-Baltistan next door through CPEC.

The Chinese aren’t coming, they are already here.