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A 10-Point Plan to Turn Gilgit Baltistan into a Zone of Development

This is the third and final of a three-part article on Gilgit Baltistan and India. Part 1 | Part 2

In the first part of this article, I argued that any attempt by the Modi government to forcibly wrest Gilgit Baltistan (which has been under Pakistan’s control since 1947-48) would surely trigger a catastrophic and unwinnable two-front war with both Pakistan and China.

In the second part, we explained how, and why, Gilgit and Baltistan defied Maharaja Hari Singh and joined Pakistan. We also showed how the leaders of India’s freedom movement, including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel himself, were not very insistent on the region joining the Indian Union.

In this third and concluding part, we shall argue that Gilgit Baltistan, instead of remaining a flashpoint, can become a hub for India, Pakistan and China coming together in a new bond of win-win-win cooperation. Of course, for this to happen, the genuine security concerns of the three countries and development aspirations of the local people will have to be properly harmonised.

While addressing Indian troops at Nimu in Ladakh on July 4, Prime Minister Narendra Modi rightly said, “The era of expansionism has come to an end.” He was also absolutely right in saying one more thing: “This is the era of development.”

Therefore, the only relevant question is: Can Gilgit Baltistan become a catalyst for the development both of itself and also of all the regions and countries in its neighbourhood — Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, China and Central Asia? Yes, it can. Indeed, the very fact that has made India take Gilgit Baltistan more seriously in recent years — namely, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that passes through this region — can be turned into a harbinger of co-development of the three countries and of South Asia as a whole.

India has opposed CPEC, and the BRI, principally because this 3,000-km-long corridor, which seeks to link Kashgar in China’s western province of Xinjiang with Gwadar port in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, enters Pakistan through Gilgit Baltistan. As we have shown, India’s protest that this violates its sovereignty and territorial integrity stands on weak grounds. Nevertheless, India security concerns in the region are genuine for three reasons. First, because of strong and rapidly growing China-Pakistan relations. Second, because the China-Pakistan corridor runs very close to India’s two newly created Union territories – the UT of Jammu and Kashmir, and the UT of Ladakh (in which Gilgit Baltistan is now included). Third, because the corridor ends at Gwadar port, which, India rightly apprehends, could be used by China for its naval dominance in the Indian Ocean.

Just as India has legitimate security concerns, so does Pakistan. Pakistan’s anxiety is understandably roused by hawkish voices in the Indian government and military establishment declaring India’s determination to “reclaim territories (PoK and Gilgit Baltistan) illegally occupied by Pakistan”. Furthermore, many Pakistani observers have noted that India building a strong road and logistical infrastructure in Ladakh along its side of the LAC, combined with the continued presence of its army on the nearby Siachen Glacier, could be a preparation for Indian military’s incursion into Gilgit Baltistan.

Similarly, China too has legitimate security concerns in Gilgit Baltistan. To understand this, one must first know why CPEC is so crucial for China. The Chinese government is investing billions of dollars on this corridor because it will provide access to the Indian Ocean at Gwadar. This sea access will serve as an alternative route for China’s exports and imports in case the crucial Malacca Strait near South China Sea, through which 40% of its exports and 90% of its oil imports currently flow, gets blocked due to the intensifying US belligerence in that area.

China is also understandably concerned by growing military and strategic cooperation between India and the US. Beijing believes the sole aim of the US-led Quadrilateral Alliance (in which India, Japan and Australia have come together) is to contain China’s rise. Some influential Americans have said the US might have to militarily assist India in Jammu and Kashmir to ward off the combined threat from Pakistan and China. For example, even though Steve Bannon is now disgraced in a corruption scandal, this one-time close advisor to US President Donald Trump had very recently (June 4) said in an interview to the Straits Times: “China and the US are not in a cold war but a hot war. It is a hot war right now and it is going to get a lot hotter…This kinetic war is going to happen in the South China Sea and on the border of China, Pakistan, and India.”

Thus, we have a situation where all three countries – India, Pakistan and China – have legitimate security concerns. In addition, with China claiming Aksai Chin to be its own, all three also have territorial claims in the region. History has amply shown that nation-states tend to act irrationally, and develop a militaristic mindset, when they feel insecure, and when that insecurity is compounded by their unwillingness to understand similar concerns of their neighbours.

Can these concerns and claims of the three large countries be settled through military action?

  • Can any government in New Delhi take back PoK and Gilgit Baltistan by defeating Pakistan in a war?

  • Can the rulers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi realise their dream of securing ‘azaadi’ (independence) for Kashmir or merging it into Pakistan (“Kashmir Banega Pakistan”) by defeating India in a war – or by sponsoring terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere in India?

  • Can India retrieve Aksai Chin by defeating China in a war?

  • Can China defeat India in a war and occupy Arunachal Pradesh, which borders the eastern sector of the LAC and which China, baselessly, claims to be its own?

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic NO! War, involving three countries that are nuclear-armed, cannot settle any of these inter-connected issues. What can resolve them with win-win benefits to all is mutual cooperation for collective development and progress.

How can this be achieved? Here are some ideas and suggestions for the consideration of the governments, political establishments and thought leaders in India, Pakistan and China – and also the international community.

  1. India, Pakistan and China should begin a trilateral dialogue for dispute-resolution, cooperation and common development. The problems in Jammu and Kashmir have become trilateral in nature, especially after the India-China standoff at the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Therefore, the solutions to these problems, acceptable to all concerned, can only come out of a trilateral dialogue. Of course, a three-nation dialogue does not preclude India-Pakistan, India-China and Pakistan-China bilateral dialogues.

  2. The most important component of any trilateral dialogue must be a firm and solemn commitment by the three countries that none of them shall pose a security threat to the other.

  3. As has been elaborately argued in this series, India has no historical, legal or practical basis to insist on the ‘recovery’ of Gilgit Baltistan. It should accept Pakistan’s de facto control over this area. Pakistan also has no historical, legal or practical basis to claim Kashmir to be its own. It should accept India’s sovereignty over the side of Kashmir that is under India’s administration since 1947, just as India should accept Pakistan’s de facto sovereignty over the side of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s uninterrupted control and administration for the past 73 years. Neither side can alter this status quo now. After all, India and Pakistan accepted the division of Punjab and Bengal at the time of partition. There is no reason why they should not do the same in the case of Kashmir.

  4. However, in deference to the legitimate aspirations of the people of Kashmir on both sides, and also to end the horrific conflict in Kashmir and prolonged suffering of Kashmiri people, India and Pakistan should agree on the following:

  • Converting the LoC into a “soft border” (thus making it “irrelevant”);

  • De-militarising both sides of Kashmir, ending gross violations of human rights, and ensuring the honourable return and rehabilitation of displaced people, regardless of their religion, such as the Kashmiri Pandits;

  • Enabling free trade and free movement of people;

  • Guaranteeing maximum self-governance, and even joint governance on relevant subjects;

  • An India-Pakistan joint mechanism to make this fair and innovative solution work.

These were the underpinnings of the Musharraf-Manmohan Singh formula, on which a large degree of consensus had been reached. This plan, under a different name and with mutually acceptable modifications, has the best chance of ending the Kashmir dispute.

  1. If — and it is a big IF — India and Pakistan can make this peaceful and innovative solution to the Kashmir dispute work, the next natural step would be for them to make the border in Punjab and Sindh also more and more porous, enabling smooth trade, people-to-people travel and cultural exchanges between the two countries. The same should be done to make the menacingly fenced-up border between India and Bangladesh also irrelevant. This is the way to undo the negative effects of the blood-drenched partition of the Indian subcontinent, and move towards the social, economic and cultural integration of South Asia, on the lines of the European integration.

  2. Even before India gives up its sovereign claim over Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan should declare it as the nation’s fifth province — alongside Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — by introducing necessary constitutional measures for this purpose. Indeed, as per recent reports, Pakistan has decidedto make Gilgit-Baltistan a full-fledged province.

India has already effected a major material change in the status of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir by amending Article 370 of its constitution and by bifurcating the state into two Union territories. This Indian action is almost surely not going to be reversed in future by a non-BJP government. Therefore, there is no reason why Pakistan cannot bring about a constitutional change to make Gilgit Baltistan its fifth province, which has been a longstanding demand of the people of this region. Certainly, the time has come for Pakistan to acknowledge and respect their choice of being its full-fledged citizens.

  1. A major reason for Pakistan to keep the status of Gilgit Baltistan ambiguous and liminal, while at the same time exercising administrative control over it from Islamabad (and, in the process, denying the people of this region their legitimate democratic rights) is that Pakistan regards this as a part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The rulers in Islamabad-Rawalpindi think that granting provincial status to Gilgit Baltistan would weaken Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir under the UN resolutions.

Pakistan should realise that there will never be a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir as per the UN resolutions, since so much water has flown in all the rivers of the region. Even the demography has undergone significant changes in different parts of the former princely state. Besides, there is very little support in the international community for the idea of a plebiscite. Therefore, the sooner Pakistan accepts this reality – and gives up its obsession with demanding a plebiscite – the better it is both for itself and for India-Pakistan normalisation.

Asma Khan Lone, who is a native of Gilgit and author of the forthcoming book ‘The Great Gilgit Game’, opines: “There is no social or political connect with India in Gilgit-Baltistan. Yet, even under Pakistan’s administration it remains in a state of marginalised liminality, devoid of fundamental and constitutional rights. Much of this is due to its unresolved political status as part of the Kashmir issue. In the interim the region needs to be provided constitutional guarantees and be legally empowered to safeguard its indigenous rights and privileges.

An amicable settlement of the status of Gilgit Baltistan as part of the larger Kashmir dispute needs to be arrived at, more so as the region undergoes geo-political shifts as part of the evolving Great Power competition.”

  1. A via media for Pakistan to declare Gilgit Baltistan as the nation’s fifth province is to make this constitutional change provisional in nature – subject to the final and holistic settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. There is a longstanding precedent for doing so on a provisional basis. When Pakistan ceded 5,180 sq km of Shaksgam Valley to China in 1963, as part of the boundary settlement between the two countries, Article 6 of the agreement stated: “The two parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir disputebetween Pakistanand India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the boundary as described in Article Two of the present agreement, so as to sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement.”

  2. The bane of governance in this entire region — be it India, Pakistan or China (in the Tibet Autonomous Region) — is excessive concentration of powers in central government. Given the extraordinary religious, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the people living in this region, it is extremely important to ensure genuine democratic autonomy, people’s effective participation in the affairs that impact their lives, protection of the rights of minorities, and strict action against majoritarian chauvinism.

  3. India should join CPEC and BRI as an equal partner, and, together with Pakistan and China, make Gilgit Baltistan the starting point of a grand connectivity and cooperation initiative linking and benefiting all of South Asia. Physical and digital connectivity, along with the connectivity of markets and social sector projects, is the surest way to create new inter-dependencies among communities and countries. Such inter-dependencies are the best guarantor of peace and dispute resolution. There is practically no limit to what India, Pakistan and China, along with other countries in the South Asian and Central Asian region, can achieve by way of shared prosperity and progress through connectivity and cooperation.

Conclusion

The Himalayas are the heavenly abode of Gilgit Baltistan. Since time immemorial, the Himalaya Sphere and the mighty river civilisations it engendered — the Indus and Ganga on the India-Pakistan side and the Yangtse and Huanghe on the Chinese side — have proclaimed the unity of humanity. Indeed, unity of everything in the universe has been the profounder wisdom of all the sages who meditated in the Himalayas. As passionately explained by Prof Tan Chung in his book Himalaya Calling: The Origins of China and India, there is undeniable resonance between the Indian spiritual goal of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ (the whole world is one single family) and the Chinese spiritual goal of ‘Tianxia Datong 天下大同’ (grand harmony of all-under-Heaven).

Therefore, it is time for India, Pakistan and China to rediscover this civilizational wisdom and strive for “expansionism” of a different kind — expansion of the minds and hearts in South Asia. After all, Gilgit Baltistan is the region, full of some of the world’s tallest mountains and stunningly beautiful valleys, which served as the pathway for prosperity-promoting traders and peace-preaching saints, monks and dervishes along the ancient “Silk Road”. The hope that it can yet again become such a pathway in modern times is sustained by the following memorable words of India’s national poet and global citizen Rabindranath Tagore.

“The most memorable fact of human history is that of a path-opening, not  for the clearing  of  a  passage  for  machine-guns,  but  for  the  helping  the realization  by  races  of  their  affinity  of  minds,  their  mutual  obligations  of  a common humanity.”

Such a rare event did happen and the path was built between our  people  and  Chinese  in  an  age,  when  physical  obstruction  needed  heroic personality to overcome it,  and  the  mental barrier a moral power of uncommon magnitude. The two leading races of that age met, not as rivals on the battlefield, each claiming the right to be the sole tyrant on earth, but as noble friends glorying in their exchange of gifts.

The article was first published in The Print

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