Mehtab Karan Singh
There is positivity in the air so far as relations between India and Pakistan are concerned. Concerted efforts to resurrect the broken relationship are being made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. These are bearing encouraging results, despite the political constraints imposed on the Sharif by the Pakistan Army.
All eyes are now on the foreign secretary level talks slated to be held as Islamabad in mid-January 2016. It is anticipated that the talks will kick start the stalled process of composite dialogue and a serious effort will be made to look at all issues.
Kashmir is bound to figure predominantly is all dialogues being held between India and Pakistan. While Pakistan will talk of the “aspiration of the Kashmir people” India also needs to take up the issue of the “sad plight of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)” very seriously.
Special attention needs to be paid to Gilgit-Baltistan, an Indian territory under forcible occupation of both Pakistan and China.
India has every reason to be concerned since the perfidious presence of the Chinese People Liberation Army (PLA) in the region and the influx of the Taliban pose serious threats to Indian security.
Pakistan has misused the UN resolution on Jammu and Kashmir to declare Gilgit-Baltistan a disputed territory; re-designated the region as Northern Area and exercised control over it through political agents. The word Gilgit-Baltistan is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution of Pakistan.
In the last six decades plus, Gilgit-Baltistan has been given only cosmetic rights of self governance. Actual power is vested upon the federal government and exercised through the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas. The demand for a full fledged Provincial status has also not been met by the federal government.
The Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly was formed on the basis of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order, 2009. This order has no legal sanctity since it is a mere executive directive signed by the oppressive Ministry of Kashmir Affairs & Northern Areas. It has not emanated from the federal National Assembly and the Senate. Since the power to amend the order continues to remain with the Ministry that has signed it, the process of revocation has been kept open.
The exercise in futility becomes even more infuriating when seen against the backdrop of the fact that the so called “province” is represented neither in the National Assembly of Pakistan nor in the Senate.
A trend was set in the very first election of the Legislative Assembly, whereby, the party in government in the country secured a majority through blatant rigging. It was no surprise that PPP sailed through the first election with a clear majority. In the recently conducted election it is the Nawaz Sharif led PML (N) that has secured a majority to form yet another puppet government. It has won the election by a massive margin of 22 out of the 33 seats, giving a reasonable idea of the level at which the rigging was carried out.
India has many reasons to remain concerned about the situation that is developing in Gilgit-Baltistan. Beyond the historic contours of the dispute, what is of significance now is Pakistan involving China in its nefarious design to colonise and subjugate the strategically sensitive region. By involving China, Pakistan is making the country a part of the Kashmir dispute, something that India needs to be wary of. This move by Pakistan will have implications of instability in the entire South Asian region.
In yet another serious development during the last few years, fundamentalist organisations have established their presence in the territory. They are targeting the indigenous Shia population and blatantly working towards affecting a change in the demographic change by settling Pathans and Pushtuns over there. The resultant situation is killing the tourist industry, which is the life line of the region thus adding to the misery of the people.
Sadly, successive governments in India, since independence, have chosen to remain silent spectators with regard to the oppression and atrocity that is being heaped on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan by Pakistan.
India has failed to take credible steps to establish its historic right over the region and demand its return. While the civil society in India debates the issue through seminars and an odd article in newspapers here and there successive governments (mostly Congress led) have chosen to maintain a deafening silence.
India should insist on greater accessibility to the region and its people. If India has given a free hand to Pakistan to engage with separatists like the Hurriyat Conference it would not be out of place to demand reciprocation from Pakistan, not only with respect to Gilgit-Baltistan but in POK.
Internally, there are many long standing issues that the government of India should have addressed but has failed to do so. Filling up the seats reserved for the people of Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (POJK) in the Jammu and Kashmir State Assembly is one important aspect. Representatives from Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir Diaspora spread over countries around the world can form part of the legislative assembly. India must provide reservations in its universities and professional institutes to students from the occupied territories; opening the health sector for their benefit of the people would be a good humanitarian gesture.
Many activists from Gilgit-Baltistan are asking India to give up its silence and own up the people as legitimate citizens of India.
An ostrich like approach by India will have disastrous implications. Further procrastination would signify India’s acceptance of Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistani territory? 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. PM Modi has the stature and the will to change the narrative, all hope is now vested upon him and his government.
(Mehtab is a US based Engineer with interest in the region)