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Gilgit Baltistan: Pakistan’s Growing Travails and India’s Inexplicable Silence

Anwesha Ray Chaudhuri was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 28, 2012

    Gilgit Baltistan (GB) has recently been in news after armed gunmen dressed in army fatigues killed 18 Shias on the Karakoram Highway in Kohistan area while they were on their way back from pilgrimage from Iran. With the political situation in GB like a dormant volcano that could explode anytime, this commentary explores the growing disillusion of the region’s population with Pakistan and what India can do under these circumstances.

    Historically, Gilgit Baltistan was part of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. The first India-Pakistan war of 1947-48 led to the de facto division of the state between India and Pakistan. Subsequently, Pakistan further divided the portion of the state under its control—Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK)—into “Azad Jammu Kashmir” (AJK) and Northern Areas (NA). The NA, comprising of Gilgit and Baltistan, came under the tight control of the Pakistani authorities. But the region was never incorporated into Pakistan and still awaits constitutional representation since Pakistan has linked the issue of representation and political rights to the larger issue of the resolution of the Kashmir issue with India.1

    Unlike Pakistan which is Sunni-dominated, Gilgit Baltistan is a majority Shia area with a minority Sunni population.2 The area has been affected by sectarian violence since the 1980s.3 In recent years the Shia-Sunni divide has widened due to the increasing hostility of Sunni sectarian groups all over Pakistan. There is a great deal of unrest amongst the Shia population of the region who fear the outbreak of large scale violence in the region anytime. A Pakistan-based news organisation has discovered that a huge quantity of illegal arms and ammunition has been dumped in GB, and that these have been allowed to enter the region unhindered through security check posts manned by Pakistani personnel.4 Target killings have also become routine in this region where the law and order situation is dismal. It has been reported that cash and literature representing extremist views of different sects coming from Iran, the rest of Pakistan and the Diaspora are adding to the already volatile sectarian divide in the region.

    Pakistan’s tacit policy has been to ignore the genuine interests of the region’s Shia population and favour their gradual conversion to Sunni Islam. This process has been ongoing since the 1980s and, according to the residents of the region, it is being done in a very subtle manner. For example, there have been growing attempts to introduce forced demographic change of the region through encouragement provided to radical Sunni elements to settle in the area and also through the realignment of districts and tehsils to reduce the Shias to a minority. These forced changes have provoked the local population to protest, which in turn has led to bloodshed on many occasions. Unchecked as they are by the Pakistani authorities, radical Sunni elements have continued with their policy of repression in the region. Given the limited presence of the media in the region and with all the attention focused on unfolding events in the Jammu and Kashmir, the views and travails of the local people have largely gone unnoticed.

    There also prevails a sense of deprivation amongst the people in Gilgit Baltistan who look at Pakistan as an exploitator and usurper of their natural resources. The denial of basic constitutional rights has created a sense of bitterness and frustration, which has crystallized into a latent nationalist movement that could challenge Pakistan’s ability to hold the territory. Even socio-economic development has been very limited in the region, since it has been excluded from the budgetary process controlled by Pakistan’s federal government. Islamabad’s apathy towards all of PoK including Gilgit Baltistan has meant that these areas have been starved of funds. Despite the tremendous resource potential of the region, it remains poor and neglected.

    Moreover, given Pakistan’s disinclination to allocate the required funds to the local authorities, the people of the region look at even ongoing developmental activities with suspicion. They genuinely feel that the development of hydel resources will not benefit them and that the proceeds will only enrich the Pakistani state.5 Tourism being an important means of livelihood may receive some boost through the development of communications, but again the locals suspect that this will only enrich the big tourism operators in Pakistan and that their local conditions may not improve much. The locals further argue that the water resources developed by Pakistan with Chinese assistance will play a crucial role in Pakistan’s economy, but the royalty earned from these dams will not accrue to them. For instance, the powerhouse of the Bhasha dam has been deliberately constructed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in order to ensure the flow of resources to Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway being developed as part of the Sino-Pak strategic corridor has also stoked the fears of the local population, who feel that this will further tighten Pakistan’s hold and control over the region. That apart, the abysmal condition of the education and health services is another sore point in GB. The area does not have any university or professional college and adult literacy is reported at 14 per cent among males and 3.5 per cent among females.6 All this has evoked widespread resentment against Pakistani authorities who have not done anything to address even these basic issues.

    Against this backdrop, the prevailing rumours of Pakistan leasing out the region to China for 50 years, if true, may result in popular protests in the region. Such a move would also contradict Pakistan’s position on Kashmir, since it would run counter to its stated position that the final status of GB is linked to a solution of the Kashmir issue. If such a step were to be taken without taking into account the wishes of the people of the region, it would cause further popular alienation.

    India’s silence on GB has been remarkably consistent. Any news from the region—which India claims to be an integral part of its territory that has been occupied by Pakistan—hardly makes it to the pages of national dailies. Does this signify India’s acceptance of GB as Pakistani territory? India has not even given serious thought to filling up the seats reserved for the people of PoK in the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly; the least India could do in this regard is filling these seats with representatives from the Gilgit Baltistan Diaspora spread over in countries around the world. Many interlocutors from Gilgit Baltistan are now going to the extent of asking India to give up its silence on GB and own up the people as legitimate citizens of India. The issue deserves serious thinking on the part of the Indian government. A course correction coupled with a proactive policy of nurturing the growing pro-India constituency in Gilgit Baltistan is the need of the hour.