India’s Gilgit-Baltistan Problem – Part Two: What Can New Delhi Do?

13 July 2017 Vikas Kumar, FDI Associate Download PDF

Key Points

  • India has expressed concerns about Chinese “economic” activities in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in the past, too, but it has now publicly made part of its bilateral relationship with China conditional upon a satisfactory response to its concerns.
  • The Indian Government neither has a clear policy on GB, nor the means to intervene in GB. So, it is not clear if it is raising issues related to GB to collect brownie points at home, to divert attention away from the crisis in Kashmir, to raise the cost of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) or to bargain with Pakistan and China.
  • India is caught in an unenviable position vis-à-vis the CPEC. If it does not object it would be seen to be acquiescing to an expansionist China. If, however, it does raise objections, it could come across as powerless in the absence of follow up action.
  • A half-hearted engagement with GB would, however, not only weaken New Delhi’s bargaining power vis-à-vis Islamabad, but also worsen the predicament of the region’s indigenous people, whose rights are under threat due to Pakistan’s obsession with rolling out the CPEC at any cost.

Summary

Part One of this paper discussed the growing dependence of Pakistan on the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), which is also a vital node in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and noted India’s objection to Pakistan’s purported plan to make GB its fifth province. This part discusses the desirability and feasibility of potential Indian intervention in the region and suggests that the Indian Government does not seem to have done its homework on this matter. Even almost a year after the Indian Prime Minister drew the world’s attention to GB, there is little to no clarity on the broad policy objectives. It is unclear, therefore, if the government is merely using the issue to collect brownie points at home, to divert attention away from the crisis in Kashmir, to raise the cost of the CPEC or to bargain with Pakistan and/or China.

Analysis

India has perhaps never explicitly defined what constitutes Jammu and Kashmir in bilateral agreements with Pakistan, effectively allowing the latter to cannibalise the occupied territory. Pakistan has already “gifted” the Shaksgam Valley to China[1] and has drawn GB into an ever-tightening embrace, while allowing AJK some semblance of independence within a framework that promotes eventual integration as the only alternative. India re-asserted the centrality of GB to the so-called Kashmir dispute by refusing to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Co-operation because a key leg of the One Belt, One Road initiative, the CPEC, passes through GB and normalises Pakistan’s occupation.[2] If India had not lodged a strong protest, China and Pakistan would have used this as evidence of Indian acquiescence. Now that it has, they use Art 6 of the 1963 border agreement[3] to claim that the project does not affect the Kashmir dispute. While India has expressed concerns about Chinese “developmental” activities in GB in the past, it has now publicly made part of its bilateral relationship with China conditional upon a satisfactory response to its concerns.

Overlapping Territorial Claims

As shown in the maps above, China is a party to the Kashmir dispute and did not accidentally get involved while developing harmless infrastructure in Pakistan. In fact, starting in the 1960s, Chinese investments in and through GB have served only the purpose of enhancing China’s bargaining power with India by changing the balance of power in the Indian Sub-Continent in favour of Pakistan and keeping Jammu and Kashmir divided. China has always been opposed to the reunification of Jammu and Kashmir because it ‘will cut off China from Pakistan … re-establish a common Indian border with Afghanistan, providing a direct land link to the USSR [read Central Asia in the present context] … confirm India’s title to the J & K state of pre-Independence days, and therefore to Aksai Chin.’ So, the plea by China that it be allowed to continue its innocuous infrastructural projects as it has already committed itself to accepting whatever solution Pakistan and India arrive at through bilateral dialogue is not convincing.

India, too, is guilty of conflating all of the Pakistan-administered territories with Kashmir to the extent that it almost always refers to the territory under Pakistan’s control as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, overlooking the fact that parts or all of Gilgit, Baltistan and Jammu are also under Pakistani occupation. A few recent examples are in order.[4] In 2006, replying to a question in the Upper House of the Parliament, the External Affairs Minister noted that ‘Pakistan ceded 5,180 kms of Indian territory in Shaksgam valley in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir to China’ (emphasis added by author). Over the past two years, India has repeatedly raised the issue of human rights violations in Pakistan at the UN and, in each instance, it referred to the region as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. A more revealing example of the conflation of Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir in Indian policy circles is provided in a 2016 statement at the 33rd Session of the UNHCR: ‘We strongly reject Pakistan’s continued misuse of the Council to make tendentious references about internal matters pertaining to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. This stems from Pakistan’s territorial ambitions over Kashmir that has found concrete expression in repeated armed aggressions’ (emphasis added by author, also see a recent statement on 13 June 2017). Kashmir is, however, only a small part of Jammu and Kashmir. Also, Jammu and Kargil have faced repeated armed aggressions, whereas Kashmir has mostly suffered cross-border terrorism.

A rare direct reference to GB is found in Prime Minister Modi’s 15 August 2016 speech: ‘For the past few days the people of Baluchistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the way their citizens have heartily thanked me … it is respect of my 125 crores countrymen and that is why owing to the feeling of this honour, I want to heartily thank the people of Baluchistan, the people of Gilgit, the people of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for having an expression of thankfulness.’ Note that GB is referred to as Gilgit and also that, at an All Party Meeting on 12 August, the Prime Minister highlighted ‘the atrocities committed by [Pakistan] against people in Baluchistan and PoK [Pakistan Occupied Kashmir].’ A media briefing by the External Affairs Ministry, which responded to questions on the Prime Minister’s speech, referred to ‘Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, including Gilgit Baltistan.’ Just a few months later, however, the Ministry’s response to a parliamentary query referred to only Gilgit. The omission of Baltistan could be justified because Gilgit can be treated as shorthand for GB and Gilgit, rather than Baltistan, is crucial for the CPEC. The omission, however, reveals a deeper lack of clarity in Indian policy towards GB. Baltistan, unlike Gilgit, is culturally and ethno-linguistically closely associated with Ladakh (particularly, Kargil), in Jammu and Kashmir. If India is really keen to intervene in GB, Baltistan is where it should begin. In other words, there is no flattering explanation for the routine omission of Baltistan. Moreover, if India has not yet adopted a standard nomenclature to refer to the disputed territory, it is unlikely to have a clear policy on GB, either.[5]

The Indian Government’s capacity to effectively intervene in GB is also suspect. The government that has, after decades, managed to publicly admit operations along and just across the line of control will need a lot more preparation if it has to operate anywhere close to the main population centres of GB, which are at least 50 kilometres away from the line of control. Also, even if it is assumed that diplomatic demarches will force Pakistan and China out of GB (and AJK), it is quite likely that the people would demand freedom from India as well. It would be naïve to believe that alienation from Pakistan means affection for India. In fact, there has been a longstanding demand among sections of GB’s population for the region’s merger with Pakistan. Even if a majority in GB chooses to join India, New Delhi would have to deal with extremist organisations and Punjabi settlers left behind by Pakistan. India would also face an entirely new set of challenges, as, after the return of GB, it will share a border with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Afghanistan. More importantly, irrespective of whether one believes that a stable Pakistan is in India’s best interests, one would still like to ask if the government has thought through the consequences of the possible destabilisation of Pakistan if and when GB (and/or Balochistan), exits Pakistan.

Last but not the least, a serious intervention in GB requires massive investment of resources for which the Indian Government will have to educate the people and build an informed public consensus in favour of a major policy re-orientation. The need for educating people is all the more important given the lack of awareness regarding GB in India. The government has so far not tried to mobilise public opinion and has effectively left the task to individual commentators and right wing organisations, who give a communal colour to this complex historical problem. It is possible, however, that the government has only a short-term interest in GB. In any case, both the desirability and the feasibility of intervening in GB are suspect.

An Unenviable Position

Last year it seemed that the increasingly assertive stand of the Modi Government on GB (and Balochistan) was part of an emerging combination of sub- and non-military strategies to deal with Pakistan. Even almost a year after the Prime Minister drew the world’s attention to GB, there is, however, little to no clarity on the broad policy objectives of his GB detour. It is not clear, therefore, if the government is merely using the issue to collect brownie points at home, to divert attention away from the crisis in Kashmir, to raise the cost of the CPEC by introducing uncertainty into the environment or to bargain with Pakistan and/or China.

In hindsight, it seems that India is raising a variety of issues to embarrass Pakistan – GB, Balochistan and river water sharing – without being able to consistently pursue any of them due to a lack of political will, strategic clarity or diplomatic capacity. That will not only fail to corner Pakistan, if indeed, that is the intention, it will also reduce the long-term bargaining power of New Delhi vis-à-vis Islamabad by debasing the diplomatic value of those issues. It might even hurt the intended beneficiaries of India’s intervention. More specifically, a half-hearted engagement with GB will neither solve India’s Kashmir problem nor help the people of GB. In fact, it would only worsen the predicament of the region’s indigenous people, whose land rights and culture are under threat due to Pakistan’s obsession with rolling out the CPEC at any cost. India is now caught in an unenviable position. If it does not object to the CPEC it would be seen to be acquiescing to an expansionist China. If, however, it does raise objections, it could come across as powerless because it is unable to follow up on its claims.

*****

[1] The divergence of opinion between India and Pakistan in this regard involves three points: legality, public consent, and magnitude of territorial realignment. In light of UN resolutions, Pakistan has no locus standi to enter into such an agreement. Also, Pakistan did not consult the local people before signing the agreement. Both these facts are not seriously contested within Pakistan, which maintains that the agreement is provisional and shall be revisited if and when the Kashmir dispute is resolved (Art 6 of the 1963 Boundary Agreement between Pakistan and China). At the same time, however, Pakistan maintains that China ceded territory (750 sq. kms) to it, contrary to the Indian claim that Pakistan ceded territory (5,180 sq. kms) to China.

[2] The Chinese Ambassador to India fleetingly offered to rename the CPEC to allay India’s concerns!

[3] Art 6 states that: ‘The two Parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and 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, provided that in the event of that sovereign authority being Pakistan, the provisions of this agreement and the aforesaid Protocol shall be maintained in the formal Boundary Treaty to be signed between the People’s Republic of China and Pakistan.’

[4] See Simla Agreement (1972) and Lok Sabha Resolution on Jammu and Kashmir (1994) for earlier examples.

[5] Similarly, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has not yet adopted a uniform spelling of “Balochistan”.

About the Author

Vikas Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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