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Who Is Responsible for the Gilgit-Baltistan Dispute?

 
 

With the inception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which enters into Pakistan through Gilgit Baltistan (which India considers part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir), the debate over the “other side” of the Kashmir dispute has reignited once again. Since the announcement of CPEC, Islamabad has been mulling the idea of granting province-hood to the region, which has continued to be directly governed from the capital under varying provisions. As a reaction, an angry New Delhi has come across as a vocal opponent of CPEC, accusing Pakistan of usurping the region and complicating the Kashmir dispute by deliberately inviting the Chinese to invest in the region.

After the first Indo-Pak war over Kashmir, when the UN resolutions created a temporary ceasefire line separating the state into Indian and Pakistani administered regions pending a referendum, New Delhi felt victimized over the issue being made into a stalemate. Meanwhile, Pakistan, benefiting from Sino-Indian tensions, negotiated a boundary agreement with China in 1963, which was followed by a massive cross-border infrastructure push, manifesting as the Karakoram Highway.

A recent development, which comes as some support to an embattled New Delhi, has the potential to make the debate surrounding Gilgit-Baltistan’s status more intense in the coming days. On March 23, a motion introduced by British Conservative leader Bob Blackman was tabled in the House of Commons, condemning Pakistan’s continuing control over the region.

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“Gilgit-Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, India, which is illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, and where people are denied their fundamental rights including the right of freedom of expression,” the motion read. Further, the motion even noted that the “attempt to change the demography of the region was in violation of State Subject Ordinance, and the forced and illegal construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further aggravated and interfered with the disputed territory.”

Although Blackman is popularly known for speaking out in support of Kashmiri Hindus, his stand on Gilgit-Baltistan might open a Pandora’s box, much to the chagrin of the British if history is to be revisited. The main issue, which remains of the highest concern, is whether the British establishment is ready to acknowledge its partisanship in ceding Gilgit to Pakistan, following which Baltistan was also lost.

In 1947, on the cusp of the creation of independent India and Pakistan, Gilgit’s lease was canceled and the region was handed over to the Maharaja on August 1. A Dogra governor was theninstalled. A British officer appointed under the Maharaja was instrumental in ousting the Dogra governor stationed at Gilgit. Titled Operation “Datta Khel,” the strategy to oust the governor, pacify Dogra troops stationed near Gilgit, and hand over Gilgit to Pakistan was planned well in advance by Lieutenant Colonel Roger Bacon, the outgoing political agent at that time. Major William Brown, the commandant of Gilgit Scouts, and Captain Mathieson (his second in command) executed the plan with precision. Rather than being reprimanded, Brown was awarded the prestigious British MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) honor by the British government in 1948.

In his controversial memoir Gilgit Rebellion: The Major Who Mutinied Over Partition of India, Brown expresses his outrage for the Maharaja and accuses the Dogra administration of being a usurper of Gilgit. He justifies the decision to oust the Dogras as a part of the larger cause to unite the Muslims of Gilgit with their brethren from the newly formed Pakistan, and most importantly to protect the legacy of explorers like Sir Francis Younghusband, whose explorations in high Pamirs and Karakoram were instrumental in extending colonial India’s frontiers beyond Gilgit. Brown’s justifications seem ironic since it was only the British obsession that prompted the Maharaja to expand northward so that frontier territories like Hunza, Chitral, and principalities neighboring Gilgit could be controlled to pre-empt Russian infiltration in the heydays of Great Game. The Maharaja’s rule in turn has been controversial among the Gilgitis, who resented it. Ultimately, it was the strong British support that helped sustain the Dogra presence as Gilgit was administered by a British political agent between 1877 and 1881 and once again from 1889 onwards. There have been ongoing debates over the overlapping jurisdictions of the Maharaja and British to understand the legal validity of the Maharaja’s control, but this still does not absolve the British of playing a key role in the rebellion.

Further, the coup also crushed the nationalist movement, which was being spearheaded by Mirza Hassan Khan, the captain of 6th Infantry of the Jammu and Kashmir State Forces stationed near Gilgit city. Brown has left no stone unturned in criticizing Hassan Khan in his account, likening his movement with a minor aberration in Gilgit’s otherwise pro-Pakistan sentiment. With the only existing narrative being Brown’s, it remains unknown to what extent the people from Gilgit-Baltistan sided with Mirza Hassan Khan. Later Khan had to spend several years in prison for supporting the cause of an independent Gilgit-Baltistan.

Brown was ultimately successful in persuading the local Rajas and the Mirs of Hunza and Nagar to join Pakistan once it became clear that this wouldn’t pose a challenge to them. However, given the recurrence of numerous nationalist movements followed the recurring crackdowns by the authorities, there are reasons to believe that separatist sentiment still exists, even if not at a widespread scale.

While Islamabad may be readying to make the region its fifth province, it is imperative that the issue be scrutinized, with past British policies being the focal point. Discussing this historical background does not underplay the importance of the Parliament’s recent motion, but it is important to note how the motion glosses over Britain’s complicity in handing Gilgit to Pakistan. If the British administration is serious in pursuing a resolution to the dispute, the key lies in acknowledging London’s involvement in the events leading up to the Gilgit rebellion. The first step should be reevaluating Brown’s role.

Prateek Joshi is a researcher specializing on South Asia’s strategic affairs and trans-Himalayan geopolitics.

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