Pakistan’s issuance of a new map, which includes much of Kashmir and Junagadh, even as it observed Youm-e-Istehsal (Kashmir Siege Day) prompted a quick response from India’s ministry of external affairs, which called it “an exercise in political absurdity”. But there is something that was almost missed in all the hullabaloo. For the first time, a Pakistani map includes Gilgit-Baltistan as part of ‘Kashmir’, something that India has been claiming since the beginning of the dispute. That’s peculiar, to say the least, and may just mean an opportunity for India if played right.
In a recent interview, veteran Pakistani diplomat Khurshid Kasuri pointed to ‘reckless statements’ by India on reclaiming Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as the reason for Chinese aggravation at Ladakh. The possibility that Pakistan has Beijing’s blessings in producing the map is, therefore, entirely likely, especially given similar border claims by Nepal recently. The trick, however, is to turn all these calculations on their head by using this map in negotiation-counters to solidify India’s claim to the whole of Kashmir, including Gilgit-Baltistan.
Games with Gilgit-Baltistan
Several areas of PoK were indeed under the control of Maharaja Hari Singh, under differing arrangements with ‘Mirs’ or kings of Chitral, Hunza and Skardu among others. Pakistan denied this entirely, and once it established its foothold in the area in 1947, it refused to move despite a UN Security Council Resolution asking it to do so. This area, abutting Afghanistan, China, and then-Soviet Union, was strategic enough for the British to become part of the ‘Great Game’. The newly formed Pakistan was quick to realise this, and it secretly signed the Karachi Agreement of 1949, which took a small rump of area to create the notional ‘Azad Kashmir’, with some 75 per cent of an estimated 78,000 sq km territory innocuously called the ‘Northern Areas’. Decades later, Pakistan renamed it Gilgit-Baltistan.
Even today, Gilgit-Baltistan remains in a legal limbo. The Constitution of Pakistan doesn’t identify it as a ‘territory’, and it is also excluded from the section on fundamental rights and definition of the State. That translates into no rights, barring what Islamabad grants the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan from time to time; they carry Pakistani passports but can’t vote in national elections.
As one of the most underdeveloped areas in the world, unhappiness among the residents has been simmering. This has led to protests on four planks. One was by way of intermittent demands for independence by various groups, including the Balwaristan National Army, which were brutally suppressed. Second is the demand for re-unification with ‘Azad Kashmir’, which was opposed even by the Kashmiri separatists on the ground that it would ‘dilute’ the Kashmir issue. Third was to demand connectivity with India through traditional routes via Kargil, and thus offer an alternative route for trade from the single tortuous and lengthy road link to Pakistan.
The ‘Kashmir’ conundrum
Recently, however, there has been a fourth trend that has its origin in a committee formed in 2015 by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to decide on the future of the area. That committee, headed by veteran diplomat Sartaj Aziz, recommended that the area be accorded a full provincial status after suitable amendment to the Constitution. The Supreme Court in January 2019, however, reserved judgement, with the court-appointed amicus curiae noting that such a move would ‘weaken’ Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir. Gilgit-Baltistan, therefore, has remained in a constitutional vacuum, even as its land was usurped for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Islamabad’s ‘dog in the manger’ attitude towards Gilgit-Baltistan has been evident in the dialogue process since the Simla Agreement and the Composite Dialogue, which was held between 1997-1998, when there was a blanket refusal to even discuss PoK. All changes were to be on the Indian side. Backchannel talks, which took place in 2005-2008, also found that the Pakistanis were against linking Gilgit-Baltistan to the ‘Kashmir issue’, preferring to talk of ‘self governance’, said to be prevailing in so-called ‘Azad Kashmir’.
Neither was ‘withdrawal of troops’ from urban centres seen as being applicable. Even General Pervez Musharraf’s famous “four step formula” kept Gilgit-Baltistan out of the loop. People’s movement and trade between PoK and Srinagar was fine, but a proposal to allow opening of the road through Kargil to Gilgit was flatly turned down.
But now, it seems that this domestic and bilateral positioning has been turned on its head. The new map of Pakistan undoubtedly shows the whole of Kashmir as one entity, a position that almost agrees with India’s 1994 Parliamentary Resolution, which sees the area in terms of the original map of Kashmir. This sudden reversal could arise from two aspects.
First, the map could be merely a public relations exercise. But Pakistani officials must know about the possible dangers, such as demands for independence by its occupied areas, as well as India restating its claims to PoK.
That’s why there’s the second, rather interesting, aspect to the multicoloured map. While it clearly delineates other borders of Kashmir, including the Line of Control (extended unilaterally), it carefully leaves out the Ladakh border. Islamabad clearly doesn’t want to trip up on competing claims with China there. Nor does it include China-occupied Aksai Chin, but could include the 5,180 sq km ceded by Pakistan to China. Pakistan would calculate that Delhi would need to factor this in before making its claims.
Pakistan’s brash map-making, bereft as it is of any historical buttress, may just have given India an edge. What they demand in Kashmir, now has to apply logically to the whole of the former state of Jammu and Kashmir. Let the talks begin.
Tara Kartha is a former director of India’s National Security Council Secretariat