Gilgit, Baltistan and POK - Have we given them up?
Lt. General Chandra Shekhar AVSM PVSM (Retd.)
Boundary disputes have been perennial features of the developing countries, particularly of those who have inherited unresolved borders, due to historical reasons at the time of their independence from colonial rulers. India has disputed land borders with China on our vast Northern mountainous frontier, as a result of the historical legacy of non-demarcated borders, and with Pakistan over the unresolved issue of Jammu & Kashmir after the Indo-Pak war of 1947-48. The Sino-Indian border dispute is a complex issue and has defied a solution in spite of the 16 rounds of talks held at the level of the Special representatives of the two countries. It is a subject of ongoing negotiations while the cooperation in other fields is being sustained.
1. Pakistan used its military in 1947-48 to grab Kashmir once the state acceded to India. Just as we had attained military ascendancy in dealing with Pakistan in J & K and regained control over the bulk of the state, our political leaders held us back and took the issue to the United Nations for settlement. The acceptance of the UN resolution and the consequent cease-fire on the Line of Control, left various territories under Pakistani control in areas- Mirpur-Muzzfarabad (POK) and Gilgit, (Northern Areas). We continue to pay the price for that decision even today, without any acceptable solution in sight.
2. Today, the Kashmir dispute has acquired multiple dimensions and is defined by the complex intersection of an external dispute on the issue of sovereignty and the internal dimension of the Kashmiri people, who are divided between India and Pakistan and either demanding self-rule -“azadi” or joining one of the political parties. These issues have to be examined at the political, diplomatic, military, economic and social fronts between all the stake-holders. Talks have to be revived, so as to arrive at a mutually agreed solution, while cross-border terrorism and fundamentalist forces within the state have to be dealt with firmly. The media, civil society, and the intelligentsia also have a significant role in shaping public opinion and strengthening the nation's will. However, while seeking support from the world community to put a squeeze on the funding and abetment of the cross-border terrorism by Pakistan, we have to ourselves address the problem within the J&K, as also in the territories under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. The international strategic environment, the nuclear factor in the Indian sub-continent, and the changed military equation between India and Pakistan may have relegated military action as the last option. Nonetheless, we need to convey a strong message to all concerned, not in mere words but by actual demonstrated deeds that the policy of restraint should not be misconstrued as a weakness—which appears to have gained ground across the borders due to our undue focus on only political dialogue.
3.The boundaries of J&K state extended to the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan before Independence of India. They were annexed by Pakistan in 1947-48. Gilgit Agency had been leased to the British by the Maharaja of J&K. The lease lapsed on 15 Aug 1947 and the Gilgit Agency reverted to the state jurisdiction. The British agent was pro -Pakistan and was replaced by Brig Ghansara Singh of the J&K State forces, who fought valiantly till the Gilgit garrison was overrun by the Pakistani forces. Baltistan was the western province of Ladakh till it was annexed by Pakistan in 1948. The Gilgit-Baltistan territories, now known as 'Northern Areas', share borders with China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. These are presently ruled directly by the Northern Area Council, which has no legislative powers. The de-facto powers always rested with the rulers in Pakistan and in 2009 Pakistan declared Northern Areas, as its province, which is constitutionally illegal. However, we have not seriously objected to this unacceptable development. Pakistan has further ceded 5100 sq km in 'Shaksgam' valley to China and the 580 km long Karakoram Highway has been built by China to the hinter-land in Pakistan to link the port city of Gwadder. There are reports that the Chinese are upgrading it to an all-weather highway and are also constructing 22 tunnels, besides constructing medium-sized dams to harness electricity.
4.The people of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and Northern Areas are constitutionally and legally citizens of India, as these were part of the J&K State which acceded to India on 26 Oct 1947. Presently POK is ruled by the so-called “Azad Kashmir Council”, which actually has no legislative powers, and is controlled by Pakistan with the Pakistani Prime Minister as its Chairman. The Council has six elected and six ex-officio nominated members. Although the POK has a figure-head President from amongst the six nominated members, the real power is with the rulers in Pakistan. The elected members are also manipulated by Pakistan, and have no meaningful powers delegated to them.
5. In 1994, both the Houses of the Indian Parliament passed a unanimous resolution reiterating that the entire territories of J&K state have been and are an integral part of the Indian Union and Pakistan must vacate the areas under its illegal occupation. However, we have failed to take any meaningful steps on the ground to regain our lost territories even when the strategic situation was favourable to us. At the political and diplomatic level, India has not projected its case effectively at the international forums, and has not shaped world opinion to force Pakistani withdrawal from the illegally occupied territories.
6. Even on the question of abiding with the UN resolutions, it is Pakistan that has not withdrawn its military from the POK, rather than constantly being reminded by Pakistan and its friends, that India has not fulfilled the agreement. The human-rights violations and the atrocities by Pakistan in the Northern Areas, and the ongoing sectarian strife there, are also hardly ever projected. National interests are paramount and should not be compromised by pursuing weak policies and failing to build capabilities to enhance comprehensive national power. We should emulate China and pursue policies like the Chinese have done for settlement of their boundaries with their neighbours, where they continue to voice their claims without any inhibitions. In fact, they have persisted in their claims to our state of Arunachal Pradesh, purely on historical grounds of Tawang monastery maintaining past linkages with Tibet and it being the birth place of the sixth Dalai Lama , despite there being no other physical presence or Chinese influence on the ground. The Chinese have even denied visas to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh for sports and cultural meets in China, stating that they cannot represent India and protested to the World Bank against release of development funds. We, in contrast, have not protested sufficiently against similar Chinese development activities even in the territories that are constitutionally ours, including those in POK or in Gilgit-Baltistan.
7. As far as the Kashmir valley is concerned, our handling of public opinion and the political situation has been far from satisfactory. We have not only alienated the populace, but our policy of appeasement and soft-peddling has allowed the separatist elements to gain ground. Giving importance to the 'Hurriyat' leadership and allowing them to engage with the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) and Pakistan amounts to encouraging and officially sanctioning anti-national elements. If one was to compare the tough approach of the Chinese to a person of the stature of the 'Dalai Lama', with that of our ready accommodation of the wishes of the Mufti 'Mirwaiz', the contrast is obvious. So far as the situation in the POK is concerned, the absence of development, poor governance and the lack of democracy are hardly ever highlighted either by our Central or the State governments. In fact, as per the constitution of J&K there are a total of 26 seats earmarked for the POK region. The government of J&K has never elected or nominated anyone from the displaced personnel of POK now residing in the Jammu and Kashmir valley, as floating constituencies to keep our claims alive. Similarly, the refugees who fled to Jammu region from Sialkot, Mangla dam, Mirpur and Kotli continue to remain stateless without any rights to acquire any property or qualify for government jobs in the J&K state. The Central government has granted full Indian citizenship to those who migrated from East Pakistan before 1972, whereas similar status has not been granted to people in the J&K region who have been residing in the state since 1947. The discrimination is obviously unjust and unfair.
8. Article 370, provides special status to the state of J&K in the Indian Constitution and the demographic balance is protected by not permitting any outsiders to settle in the state. However, no such balance or fair-play is being maintained by Pakistan for the POK or the Northern Areas. In fact, Pakistan is actively encouraging and even sponsoring settlement by Pakistanis in the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, which has a Tibetan heritage and a majority of its population comprising of Shias, have their customs and language more akin to people-of the Kargil region. We need to pursue a more pro-active military and diplomatic strategy. We need to be firm and forthright in projecting our stand on national issues and not weaken our case, just so that we may be seen as 'the nice guys'. In international diplomacy, aggressive posturing for a rightful cause is appreciated and accepted. Silence is taken as acceptance of the status quo. In case the territories under Pakistani occupation cannot be restored, the least that should be done to begin with, is to seriously undertake a realistic reappraisal of their status, taking into account the ground realities, at the highest political level. Or else, we may quite conceivably lose these areas altogether.