Gilgit-Baltistan review: Alok Bansal's book a great starting point in understanding the elusive region

It seems there is more interest in the plight of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in Europe than there is in India. Last week, members of the European Parliament met to discuss the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, observing that not only was it likely to be a reinvented East India Company enterprise, but that it passed through disputed areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. One of the participants in the meeting made an interesting point. Fernando Burges highlighted the negative effects of the CPEC on the livelihoods of the region’s indigenous people who have been forced to not only accept the project with no compensation, but also have been imprisoned under the pretext of anti-terrorism laws when they protested. That probably explains a recent decision to deploy more troops into the area, after a spate of violence that saw the torching of several schools by “militants”. Who these militants are, the state is unable to say.

So here is the thing about Gilgit-Baltistan. It virtually doesn’t exist. Its people live in a black hole where they are neither part of Pakistan or part of the ‘other’ apparently independent Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), which is that thin sliver of land which adjoins much of our own state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Constitution of Pakistan doesn’t recognise its existence in Article 1 which outlines the “territories’ of the Republic, though it rather archly leaves open the possibility of accession of unnamed territories or states. Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is, therefore, a land which has no guaranteed rights at all, not over property, life or liberty. Remember the political debate over Article 35a of the Indian constitution which gives Jammu and Kashmir the rights to decide on who is a permanent resident and the rights which go with it? Such a debate would never occur in GB, since its people have no such luxury of decision. Meanwhile, try typing ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ on any search engine. The results will be negligible. Not only has Pakistan successfully thrown these areas behind an iron curtain, it has succeeded in getting India and most other countries to forget the very existence of this other Kashmir. That’s unforgivable in India, where the issue of Kashmir has become critical to foreign policy decisions. The present government be credited with bringing the issue to centre stage, however briefly, during Prime Minister Modi’s independence day speech in 2016, where he ‘thanked’ the people of GB for their good wishes. But nothing very much seems to have happened thereafter.

 Gilgit-Baltistan review: Alok Bansals book a great starting point in understanding the elusive region

Gilgit-Baltistan and its Saga of Human Rights Violations, by Alok Bansal

One recent event promises to rectify this blissful ignoring of an entire state that is part of Kashmir to a certain extent. A book 'Gilgit-Baltistan and its Saga of Human Rights Violations', by Alok Bansal, Director of the India Foundation, provides one of the few sources for someone wanting to know a little more about this troubled non-state. With a series of achievements as long as your arm, Alok has long been “engaged” with this region. His book provides a much needed historical backdrop, and then proceeds, rather rapidly, to the present with an exposure of the little-noticed sectarian and terrorist violence, as also the increasing graph of protests against Pakistani exploitation of the “area” (Pakistan government notifications always call it an “area” since they can't call it a province or a state).

The historical backdrop is well worth reading, especially for the talking heads on television channels who regularly rail against or for Kashmir policies. Apart from detailing the extreme chicanery of the British, it provides a detailed summary of the legal status of the various units that make up GB; like Gilgit Wazarat under the direct control of the then Maharaja of Kashmir, Hunza and Nagar who’s rulers paid annual tributes of gold to the Kashmir ruler, and other smaller rulers, including Chitral, which is no longer part of GB but has been hived away to be part of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with full legal status. The reason for that is unsurprising. Chitral is a border district at the tri-junction of China, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, its strategic value to the Pakistan army is far too vital to allow any diffusion of authority.

In this recounting of the past are occasional gems that should be carefully absorbed. The popular narrative that the whole Gilgit rebellion was egged on by the British Major Brown is disaggregated to show the truth. In fact, Brown tried to protect non-Muslim lives and was arrested twice by the rebels. He found it useful to claim credit for the rebellion later. Then there is recounting of the bravery of Lieutenant Colonel Sher Jung Thapa in the defence of Skardu and the “inexplicable” failure of the Indian Air Force to undertake supply missions to relieve the garrison. The author also covers the truth about the UN Resolutions, something that cannot be repeated enough at a time when Pakistan is still parroting this line at international forums. Here, it is worth quoting from the UN Resolution of 14 August, 1948 which stated clearly, “As the presence of troops of Pakistan in the territory of the State of Jammu and Kashmir constitutes a material change in the situation… the Government of Pakistan agrees to withdraw its troops from that State”. Further, “Pending a final solution, the territory evacuated by the Pakistani troops will be administered by the local authorities” under the oversight of the UN Commission. And finally, it states clearly, “When the commission shall have notified the Government of India that the tribesmen and Pakistani nationals (have withdrawn)… and further, that the Pakistani forces are being withdrawn from the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the Government of India agrees to begin to withdraw the bulk of its forces from that State in stages to be agreed upon with the Commission”. That is the language of the Resolution. Old ladies should embroider this on tablecloths and napkins and present it to schools and colleges, and perhaps even government departments. That might reduce the complete lack of awareness of this vital aspect of the Kashmir conflict somewhat.

Here’s another nugget of information. Earlier, the Dogra rulers had enacted a “State Subject Rule” to preserve the unique identity of this region that barred outsiders from seeking permanent residence in the princely states. That’s still prevalent in our side of Kashmir. It was however abolished by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in GB. The result is that there has been a 63.1 percent rise in population in GB between 1998-2011, attesting to the influx of outsiders. In May, the outgoing government tried to install a new “Government of Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018" which stated, among other things, that “All Pakistanis recognised by the Pakistan Citizenship Act of 1951 as well as residents and those holding GB domicile will be citizens of the area”. In other words, the government intended opening up the area to all mainland Pakistanis, which would have caused the flood of immigration to increase to a point where the locals would have been completely marginalised. And incidentally, all opposition to the CPEC ended.

The author gives a succinct account also of the administration which is entirely dominated at the top by Pakistani bureaucrats. He cites instances where even the quota for locals are reduced by Punjabis and others using fake documents. Those few who get into senior positions in the bureaucracy are prevented from serving in the region, for fear that they may favour their own people. Then there is the omnipresent Pakistan army, with its “Monitoring Teams” – abolished in the rest of Pakistan — but active here to control all aspects of governance, including transfers, postings and promotions. Needless to say, locals are almost absent in the Pakistan army, but are recruited into the former Gilgit Scouts – now called the Northern Light Infantry. The NLI distinguished themselves in the Kargil adventure. While two soldiers were decorated, the death of the majority was simply denied. After all, in the Pakistani narrative, Kargil was undertaken by “freedom fighters”. The book also has as many documents as are available from open sources, and it is undoubtedly useful to have them in one place, for easy reference. The tragedy is that there is so little. GB continues to be a black hole of information.

While this book offers a great start, there is much more to be done. The key issue raised in the European Parliament relates to the unhappiness of locals with the CPEC, an aspect that needs to be examined in detail. Locals often complain that no official of GB was ever part of any decision making CPEC forums. Available information in the CPEC “Master Plan” simply marks the Northern Areas for “resource exploitation” apart from being a logistics channel. The question then arises as to whom the “resources” belong to in the first place, and to whom the Chinese must apply legally to use the local land. These and other questions arise when examining the feasibility and legality of the larger CPEC itself. Meanwhile, the study of GB offers much to intrigue. It is also backbreaking labour, given that it involves piecing together minute bits of information, to form a larger analysis. A little help from the government would be invaluable. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is. So far, it's been just talk.

Updated Date: Nov 19, 2018 17:40:18 IST