GILGIT, THE FORGOTTEN LAND
you ever tried to publish a map of India omitting the regions North
and West of the Line of Control in Kashmir? Just try and see what happens!
Without mentioning so-called "Azad Kashmir", the Northern
Areas located North of Kargil and Leh districts of Ladakh are rightly
considered as an integral part of the Indian territory as this region
belonged to the Jammu and Kashmir State when it acceded to India on
October 26, 1947.
Forty-seven year later,
in 1994, the Lok Sabha reiterated: "The State of Jammu & Kashmir
has been, is and shall be an integral part of India and any attempts
to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted by all
necessary means; India has the will and capacity to firmly counter all
designs against its unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity."
The Indian Parliament also demanded that Pakistan vacate all occupied
parts of the State.
Ten years later, the
position of the Government of India is the same. But in stark contrast
to this policy, the reality is totally different; the districts of Gilgit
and Baltistan (also known as Balawaristan) are totally ignored by the
Government of India. This could perhaps have been more acceptable if
the population of this area was content under Pakistani rule or if it
enjoyed basic democratic rights and amenities. Unfortunately, it is
not the case.
During their recent
meeting in New York, General Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
"addressed the issue of Jammu and Kashmir and agreed that possible
options for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the issue should be
explored in a sincere spirit and purposeful manner." That is fine;
however, while different confidence building measures (such as the opening
of a bus route between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad) are contemplated along
the international border and the LOC as a prelude to "core"
negotiations, nothing has been said about the Gilgit-Baltistan regions
during the "historic talks" in New York; ditto during the
Agra summit and the SAARC meeting in January 2004: Both sides remained
silent on the issue.
This is the sad comment
on the discrepancy between a stated policy and "real politics".
The Northern Areas, which are spread over an area of 28,000 square miles,
comprise the five districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Diamer, Skardu and Ghanche.
The people of Balawaristan (approx. 1.5 million) belong to several ethnic
groups, including some close to the Ladakhis in Skardu (Baltistan).
However, most of these populations are Shia Muslim which explains, in
large measure, their gloomy fate.
The imposition of the Sunni faith on the Shia population
was the background for the riots engineered in 1988 in the region by
Zia-ul-Haq (Mr Musharraf was already involved in the bloody repression).
Since then, regular uprisings have been reported: The latest in June
2004, when rioters damaged many public buildings in protest against
the imposition of Sunni textbooks.
This is one of the
most strategically located regions in Central Asia. Further, these areas
have been the base for most of the attacks on Indian territory since
1947. The latest one in April-May 1999 on the Kargil heights planned
by the Pakistani Army used the Gilgit Light Infantry (this created a
lot of resentment against Pakistan, as hundreds of local jawans lost
their lives in Mr Musharraf's adventure with no gain for the region).
During the 19th century,
the Gilgit Agency was part of the territories of the Maharaja of Jammu
and Kashmir but was directly controlled by the British Resident in Kashmir.
After Soviet Russia took virtual control over Sinkiang in 1935, British
India signed a 60-year lease with the Maharaja giving British India
the sole responsibility for the administration and defence of the area.
It was only in June 1947 that the lease was cancelled. Though the control
over the Gilgit Scouts was then handed over to the Maharaja, a British
Major remained the Commandant of the Scouts.
On November 3, 1947,
two days after a local revolt against the Maharaja's representative
had erupted, the British Major hoisted the Pakistani flag in Gilgit.
At that time, Mountbatten the "Indian" Governor-General, negotiated
with his Pakistani counterpart (MA Jinnah) the fate of Kashmir. Nothing
was said about the takeover of Gilgit. Two weeks later, a political
agent was sent from Pakistan to rule the region which till today is
directly under the Federal Government in Islamabad. The Minister of
Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas administer these areas which are
totally neglected; they have no university, professional colleges or
Recently, the Daily
Excelsior wrote: "The northern areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir
hold the distinction of being the only region whose status is not specified
in the constitution. Consequently, the people of this region do not
have the citizenship of Pakistan and are far behind the rest of the
world in matters of fundamental rights, justice and economic development.
The Pakistan Government is of the view that since northern areas are
not a part of its territory, it cannot give constitutional rights to
The Shia population
is not only deprived of basic amenities like electricity, drinking water
and elementary health care facilities, but is today threatened with
becoming a minority in their own district with Islamabad encouraging
the migration of Pathans and other Sunnis to the region. While India
took the very welcome initiative of inviting Pakistan journalists to
visit the Valley and Jammu, no journalist, whether foreign or Indian,
is ever allowed to visit Gilgit or Skardu. Why such double standards?
Why can't a group of Indian journalists visit the area and interact
with the people there?
When the Pakistani
Ambassador is allowed to give lavish receptions to the Hurriat Conference
or other dissident leaders of the Valley, why can't the Indian Ambassador
in Pakistan call the leaders of Balawaristan and listen to their grievances?
Even scholars are not permitted to visit the region. In an interview
a couple of years ago, a Ladakhi Muslim historian told me that he had
been invited for a conference in Islamabad where he met some Balti scholars.
They requested him to visit Skardu, but the Pakistani Government denied
One could multiply
the examples; two years back, the MORI survey in the Valley and Jammu
changed the perception of many of the Western chancelleries in Delhi.
Why can't a similar survey be allowed in the Baltistan-Gilgit area?
In this context, Nehru made an interesting remark in 1956. The question
was about Chitral, a region which had unclear links with the State of
Jammu and Kashmir during the 20th century. Nehru wrote: "What in
practice we might do later is another matter, and, as a matter of settlement,
we may give up what we possess in law. But, there is no reason why we
should not mention our legal claim or clarify a legal position."