Pakistan’s recent overtures to virtually cede the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region of the Northern Areas (NA’s) to its old and trusted Chinese friends have come across as a shocker, affecting the geopolitics of the entire Asian continent in particular and the world in general. So serious is the issue that the Indian Foreign Minister recently admitted in Parliament that the Indian Government was seized of the developments, and, in response, had begun strengthening infrastructure along the border.
One wonders about this sudden love for a region long neglected and kept suppressed. The obvious answer is that by increasing its `footprint’ closer to India, China will have a decisive say in any future conflict in the region. This anxiety was also echoed by the Northern Army Commander of the Indian Army, who, in a seminar in Jammu recently warned that “the Chinese are not only in the neighborhood, but are actually present and stationed along the line of control”.
The saga of Pakistan attempts to register complete control over POK and NA’s started immediately after the division of the sub-continent into two dominions of India and Pakistan. In 1952, Pakistan, in utter disregard to UN resolutions, imposed a new regime on POK, with stringent `rules of business’. One such rule ensured that the President of AJK would hold office during the pleasure of the All Jammu and Kashmir Council duly recognised by the Pakistan Government. The Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs, Government of Pakistan, was given the right to attend meetings of the Council of Ministers and tender advice on any matter under discussion. In effect, the “Advise” meant a diktat. POK was thus firmly riveted to Pakistan’s control, to be presided over by Pakistan’s Prime Minister.
Then Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, resulted in yet another bilateral agreement on Kashmir. The Tashkent Declaration was signed, only to be repeatedly ignored by Pakistan. After the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 and the resultant Shimla Agreement, a new Constitution was imposed on POK by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, which clearly stated that Pakistan is only in temporary charge of areas under its occupation. Successive governments have continued to violate almost all clauses of the Shimla Agreement, the most blatant being the covert terrorist operation being mounted on India and J&K from the soil of POK.
In 1993 came further changes; Blasphemy laws of Pakistan were extended to POK. The Northern Areas were dismembered, to be ruled directly through a chief executive appointed by Islamabad with a 26-member Northern Areas Council. Since then, its people have never seen elections or basic civil liberties. In March 1993, on being petitioned about the status of the Northern Areas, the AJK High Court took serious note of the unrepresentative and arbitrary administrative system and denial of fundamental rights in the afflicted and subjugated region. In its verdict, it directed the AJK government to immediately assume administrative control of NA’s. It also asked the Pakistan government to provide adequate assistance to the AJK Government, in attainment of the said objective. The court further directed establishment of an administrative set up, within the framework of the Interim Constitution Act.
Expectedly ,the Pakistan government appealed against this judgment in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The Supreme Court, in its verdict on 14 September 1994, stated that “Northern Areas are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of “Azad Kashmir”, as defined in the `Azad Kashmir Interim Constitution Act, 1974’. Thus, the separation of NAs from POK was partially legalised. While doing so, the Supreme Court also admitted that the Northern Areas were a part of Jammu and Kashmir, something that the Indian State has, till date, failed to exploit diplomatically.
The so called AJK Parliament, in rare gesture of defiance, decided to distance itself from Pakistan’s hegemonic designs to dismember Kashmir. A Resolution was unanimously adopted and passed, wherein the House noted with deep concern Pakistan’s role in imparting training to terrorists in camps in POK, supply of weapons and funds and assistance in infiltration of trained militants into J&K with the avowed purpose of creating disorder and subversion. The house also expressed regret at the pitiable conditions, violation of human rights and denial of democratic freedom to people in those areas of J&K, which continued to be under illegal occupation of Pakistan. On behalf of the people of India, the House demanded that Pakistan vacate those areas of the Indian State of J&K, which it had occupied through aggression.
In spite of such a strongly worded resolution, things have not changed much for POK or the Northern Areas, except for the cosmetic grant of autonomy to the NA’s in August 2009. On the contrary, the region has been blatantly and illegally handed over to the Chinese, who de-facto get an unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf while also registering their presence in the area which is a geostrategic hub for the Middle East, the Indian Sub-continent and the Central Asian Republics.
An estimated 11 thousand Chinese soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) have been seen in Gilgit-Baltistan, working on dams, expressways and railroads, extending the Karakoram Highway, working on a reported 22 tunnels in secret locations, Ostensibly these tunnels are said to be for the proposed gas pipeline from Iran to China, however, they could also be secret missile storage sites. PLA construction crews, who lived in temporary encampments till recently, are now building residential enclaves, clearly designed for a long term presence.
It is time for the international community, ably supported by India, to come forward and stop this illegal subjugation of a people by two conniving nations, especially so, since the areas form part of an international dispute.