BA V22, No2, 2021


Changing contours of a border state

Tukde tukde Jammu & Kashmir

Pushp Saraf

Dusting off whatever is left of the family archives I have come across a copy of “Gilgit before 1947” written by the late Brig Ghansar Singh Jamwal, who was betrayed by his own troops as Governor of the highly picturesque mountainous region leading to his arrest and the illegal occupation of the territory by Pakistan with the British connivance. The copy has been personally signed by the author on January I, 1984 (printed in 1983) and includes an unattached page carrying a handwritten announcement by him in print: “This book has been compiled by a man of 95 years more keen to leave an authentic record for posterity than winning literary laurels.” The 57-page book needs to be read with this in view. Its substantive contents are an extraordinary collection in our archival material much of which has been gifted by the family elders to the University of Jammu long ago with another big chunk collected by the State administration in recent years.

As a first-hand account of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), as the region is called currently, in a critical period of the sub-continent’s history the memoirs of Brig Ghansar Singh is of contemporary relevance. A major political and diplomatic war between India and Pakistan is already building up over the latter’s moves to formally absorb the territory, a part of Jammu and Kashmir as it had existed in 1947, in its Constitutional framework. It is considered only a matter of time before Pakistan grants G-B the status of its “provisional fifth province” to considerably bring it on a par with its four provinces namely Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Islamabad has more than once announced its intentions in this regard and has done elaborate paperwork (Next article “What next after polls in Gilgit-Baltistan”).

Brig Ghansar Singh, working as Brigadier-General Staff of the J&K State Forces in the princely rule, was appointed Governor by Maharaja Hari Singh in July 1947. He was to take over from the British Political Agent, Lt Col Roger Bacon. The British had been given the area on lease for 60 years but with the termination of their rule in India it “automatically” returned to J&K and became part of India by virtue of the undivided State’s accession with the country on October 27, 1947. As the Governor, Brig Ghansar Singh managed to complete take-over formalities but before he could fully assert his authority he faced a mutiny (he has used the expression “revolution”) and was arrested in what turned out to be a well-planned conspiracy hatched by the British officers “leading to the fall of Gilgit”. In his own words: “The British officers had planned a scheme to discredit the State Administration and to bring about Pakistan.” According to him, “the general impression was that the British officers did not like the changeover … the Gilgit public, however, was highly pleased with the transfer of power and they welcomed the change, but were surprised to find that I had come alone”.

A perusal of his book leaves little doubt that the Brigadier’s Mission Gilgit was doomed right from the beginning. Immediately after his appointment he faced palace intrigues especially by the Maharaja’s Prime Minister Ram Chander Kak who was “not interested in my appointment”. The author’s lament was loud and clear: “I was pushed away by the responsible officers of the State without equipping me with the necessities of administration.” That explains why he had to “come alone” to G-B. His “general impression” was soon confirmed when he encountered demands from the ranks in the Gilgit Scouts (a force raised by the British on behalf of J&K) and personnel in the “whole civil administration” for, among other things, raise in wages. The soldiers and employees categorically told him that if their demands were not met they would “serve Pakistan.” Adding to his woes was an army company (6th Kashmir Infantry) sent as a replacement from Srinagar which shouted “Pakistan slogans” on the way to Gilgit. He brought the issue to the notice of the authorities in Srinagar but drew no response. In between, “Mohammedan officers of J&K State Forces contacted Scouts officers to establish Pakistan in Gilgit”.

Given this situation, Brig Ghansar Singh made up his mind to stand up till the last breath: “With full knowledge of the events and lack of cooperation on the part of the J&K authorities in Srinagar I prepared myself to lay down my life along with my colleagues for the sake of the State which our forefathers had once extended to that part of the country. I had a very good occasion to slip away but as my other colleagues and non-Muslim public could not be evacuated I decided to die on the spot along with them”.

Border Affairs

  • Editorial : Tukde tukde Jammu & Kashmir
  • What next after polls in Gilgit-Baltistan
  • China-India crisis : Emerging factors
  • Afghanistan : A silver lining in the midst of voilence
  • Pakistan : Blowing hot and cold
  • Bangladesh : Extremists spark a backlash
  • Response : Sixth Schedule for Ladakh

Arrest after Accession
He was arrested four days after the Accession. “On the night between 31 October 194 7 and I November 194 7 at 2 a.m. about I 00 Gilgit Scouts led by Major Brown, Lt Hidar Khan and Sub-Maj Babur Khan surrounded my house … I got revolver and slipped to the other room … I went up to my office room and outside I saw a lot of soldiers surrounding the bungalow. One round was fired in the air to frighten them away. They started firing in reply,” the Brigadier has recounted (Major William Alexander Brown commanded the Gilgit Scouts. Accompanying the Brigadier inside his house at that moment were his driver and orderly).

In the morning of November I, two officers approached him to convey the Scouts’ demand to surrender or else “all non-Muslims would be shot dead … I agreed”. “People from surrounding villages” gathered and protested but were threatened and duped into believing that “the Governor” had given hand-grenades to all non-Muslims “for the destruction of Muslim houses”. On November 3, 1947 Maj Brown hoisted the Pakistan flag. Brig Ghansar Singh was not invited to the ceremony. He was instead asked to sign a telegram “charge of Gilgit as handed over to Gilgit Government etc” and his resistance was overcome once again with threat to kill all non-Muslims. Communal passions were whipped up as was evident from the following observations made in the book: messages poured in “to either shoot all kafirs or convent them” (Kafirs refer to non-believers); “Hindus and Sikhs were all converted”; “for a few days such converts were well fed and entertained” and “there were three or four Sikhs living with our civil officers who were not converted.” After a long traumatic spell in confinement the Brigadier was set free on January 15, 1949.

The Brigadier’s conclusion was that Pakistan took the natives of Gilgit for a ride: “Gilgit people in the beginning were given the impression that they will rule Gi/git when Pakistan is established. They will be free from any foreign domination. On the establishment of Pakistan, people found that the governing machinery is all from Peshawar and the State Government is replaced by Pathan Government After comparing administration of both the Govt they have realised their blunder in supporting the revolution and in this area we have still sympathisers for the State administration.”

Oppression in Gilgit
His unambiguous observation has been proved right by subsequent events as well. For decades after unlawfully capturing the area Pakistan remained suspicious of the region’s J&K antecedents and deprived its natives of basic human and political rights. It suppressed its Shia majority even by pushing in Sunni extremist outfits at one time. It remote-controlled G-B from Islamabad, the Federal Capital, which it does even today even while granting the local population some freedom in recent years to democratically manage their affairs. There has been change in Pakistan’s approach during the last about 15 years somewhat loosening its grip step by step to allow the people to elect a governing apparatus. It has been emboldened by gradually increasing popular response especially in the latest November 15, 2020’s Assembly polls and is set to carry out its plan of formally usurping the territory as its “fifth province” with representation in the National Assembly and other Constitutional bodies which it has denied so far. Pakistan’s political class as a whole, the judiciary, powerful army and the media are on the same page in this regard. Their stance in fact has become all the more aggressive after the Central Government split and downgraded J&K on August 5, 2019.

India thus has a major challenge on hand. The Union Government’s response to Pakistan’s moves in and about G-B has been mostly rhetorical confined to strong words of condemnation. In the meantime it faces another challenger, China, in the region. Pakistan has opened G-B for China which was first permitted to acquire a part of it adjoining its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) under a written agreement in 1963 and then allowed to choose it as a gateway for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). According to some reports China actually is prodding Pakistan to end the ambiguity about G-B’s status by making it a province as a guarantee for saving its investments.This view is at variance with the 1963 accord which has subjected the Chinese acquisition of 5180 square kilometres of land “to the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India.”

This writer as a member of the first and the only Indian journalists’ team to visit G-B in 2004 was witness to China’s palpable influence in the region. Our group had also got an opportunity to travel on the Karakoram Highway known as the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway which is described as the Eighth Wonder of the World because of its location in a high and tough mountainous terrain. Since then the Chinese presence has gone up manifold.

Two intruders join hands
Pakistan has resisted all demands for including G-B in another major chunk of J&K it has under its illegal occupation which it governs as “Azad” Jammu and Kashmir. As a result J&K has been divided into three administrative entities across the Line of Control (LoC) – two managed by Pakistan and one by China. We in this country know the entire region under Pakistan’s unlawful possession as the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The so-called “Azad” J&K with a nominated “President” and an elected “Prime Minister” and the Supreme Court (separate from the apex court of Pakistan) as well as the High Court has Muzaffarabad as its capital. G-B’s Capital is Gilgit; it has limited judicial and legislative dispensation which, as pointed out earlier, is likely to be further empowered. Together both “AJK” and G-B are under the effective control of Pakistan’s Ministry for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit­Baltistan which toys with the occupants of high-sounding offices in “AJK” at will. (Redrawing the map after dividing J&K State into two UTs the Union Government has included “AJK” in J&K and G-B in Ladakh).

China governs an area of 5180 kilometres of G-B as a constituent of Taxkorgan and Yecheng counties of the XUAR. It has another part of J&K under its control separated by what is known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which is presently a flashpoint between Indian and Chinese forces. A year before the 1963 agreement with Pakistan, China had inflicted a full­fledged war on an unsuspecting India grabbing 37555 square kilometres of Aksai Chin in Leh district. China administers this area as part of its Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions (mostly Hotan county in Xinjiang). China had infiltrated into the territory way back in the 1950s and used 179 kilometres of it to complete a I 200-kilometre long road linking Xinjiang and Western Tibet. China carried out the exercise without India knowing it in time. It is a matter of record.

The contours of J&K changed again in 1971 following the India-Pakistan war.The Jammu region suffered the loss of Chhamb village while India retained the territories it had gained in the Kargil sector where the war erupted again in 1990 with India showing exemplary military and diplomatic restraint to maintain the sanctity of the LoC after pushing the Pakistani invaders out.

On August 5, 2019 the Union Government wrote the epitaph of the J&K State by splitting it into two union territories of J&K and Ladakh. The J&K State as it had existed at the time of the Accession in 1947 is as a consequence presently divided into six separate administrative units among three countries. Legally and logically India ought to have been the sole occupant. Stung by India’s August 5, 2019 actions Pakistan has accelerated its pace for the total control of G-B in retaliation. For its part China too has decried the Indian move evidently in a bid to project itself as a key player in J&K on the strength of its earlier possessions and the projects in G-B. It is simultaneously trying to gain more land in Leh as a consequence of which there is standoff between two forces in the trans-Himalayan region at this writing.

Fissiparous tendencies
It seems that the process of disintegration will not stop here. This is indicated by the December 22 results of the District Development Council (DDC) elections in the UT of J&K on both sides of the Pir Panjal.The overall outcome suggests a rejection of the Union Government’s decisions to knock the teeth out of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution guaranteeing special status to J&K and divide the State into two UTs.The sentiment in this regard is overwhelming in Kashmir, one of the two provinces of the UT, and quite powerful in the hills of Jammu, the other province. The anti-Muslim actions and utterances of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in the rest of the country and their followers in the plains of Jammu have found a resounding echo in the Muslim-majority areas. Regional political parties under the joint banner of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) have spoken up in the face of the indiscriminate use of draconian laws like the Public Safety Act (PSA) and got a majority of seats in the Valley and substantial number of them in the Jammu region. Only six districts of the Jammu region out of the total 20 in the UT have strongly voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party which is interpreted as support for the party-led Central Government’s decisions. Unlike the BJP, the PAGD and its constituents have, as always in the past, contended with the secessionist elements on their home turf although almost all separatist leaders are behind the bar.

The voting pattern once again confirms acute polarisation on religious lines. This is interpreted as the two regions of Kashmir and Jammu drifting apart which may not be true. In reality, society is divided and sub-divided. Sections of the uprooted Kashmiri Pandit community have been seeking a separate UT for them within the Valley. The Jammu region is worse placed. On the one hand, there is slogan of “a separate Jammu state” being raised in its plains. There are on the other hand visions of “Pir Panjal range” and “the Chinab Valley” evoked in different corners of its vast hilly track.

Uncertain future
An ideal situation will be to get the better of fissiparous tendencies. This is easier said given the BJP’s aggressive politics in the name of Hindutva to the extent of ridiculing its political rivals as a “gang”. Resultantly all regional parties and the Congress, which has done better in the DDC elections than expected, find themselves pushed to the wall invariably crying foul for being denied the freedom of movement according to their choice after having been ignored in the decisions abrogating J&K as a State along with Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution. The constituents of the PAGD have even while seeking exclusivity stood for India. More often there have been alliances between them and the national parties. The Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah accord of 1975 stands out as a high point.

With the separation of Buddhist Leh and Shia-majority Kargil, both of which are part of the Ladakh UT, J&K has lost its shine both as “mini-India” for being home to all main religions and “the crown of the country” because of its location on top of the country’s map.

The future is uncertain. There continues to be intrusions from China and Pakistan. Border talks with China are on.Votaries of peace between India and Pakistan have always been active. Suggestions have been mooted for the conversion of the LoC into International Border and Gilgit-Baltistan, rich in flora and fauna, into a big environmental park for the sake of peace between the two countries.
In addition there are tensions at home. The possibility, therefore, that J&K will once again assume its original form is bleak. Its condition reminds of Mohammad Rafi’s famous song “Ek dil ke tukde hazar hue .. Koi yahan gira koi wahan gira.” (My heart is shattered into a thousand pieces …. these broken pieces are scattered here and there”).