Introducing Gilgit Baltistan: A 21st century Pakistani ‘colony’ – Part 2

For Pakistan, a country that depends on Indus, India reclaiming G-B would be nothing short of a hydropolitical nightmare (even if one discounts the direct India Afghanistan land connection). So how is Pakistan pre-empting a situation like that?

| Updated: 03 February, 2023 8:36 pm IST
The affluent class – politicians, army officers, other business elites – take huge tracts of lands to build sprawling bungalows. From Imran Khan to Musharraf and Hamid Gul, it is a lengthy list.

From the Indian perspective, Gilgit Baltistan is that piece of puzzle which has the potential to alter New Delhi’s regional position with respect to the rest of Asia and perhaps, Europe as well. G-B not only provides a direct land route and access to Afghanistan (Wakhan Corridor) but also to Mackinder’s Heartland (central Asia), and thus to the rest of the Eurasian landmass.

Since this kind of an alteration can only result from a complete Indian takeover of the region, that act – if it comes to pass – would accomplish severing the Chinese access to Pakistan and thus to the Arabian Sea. That would be a major inconvenience for China in terms of a return to the extended sea route through the dreaded Malacca choke point – a logistical migraine, a significant additional expenditure for containers intended for west China, and a sore spot in the case of maritime tensions in the region. With the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf access gone, that might blind a major chapter of their ambitious BRI/Silk Road Project.

For Pakistan, a country that depends on Indus, India reclaiming G-B would be nothing short of a hydropolitical nightmare (even if one discounts the direct India Afghanistan land connection). So how is Pakistan pre-empting a situation like that?

Land grab

This has been going on since decades. Even Pakistani media has covered this extensively. Zia ul Haq enforced land grabbing across an industrial scale by violating an older revenue act, and running rough over the existing transfer and allotment legalities. This was during 1979-80. Since then, unclaimed lands, or lands in limbo (because of the orchestrated confusion), have all been claimed by the government as its own. Add Shaksgam Valley and the Chinese angle, and you have the picture.

Demographic alteration

Again, Zia ul Haq. “General Zia immediately after imposing martial law extended subjugating rules to Gilgit-Baltistan. General Zia’s support to Sunni parties in particular and groups and the existing power vacuum in Gilgit-Baltistan provided an opportunity for the ulemas to assert their role in public space. The impact of the aggressive Sunni Islamization drive initiated by General Zia fell substantially on the Shia-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan region. The importance given by Islamabad to the Sunni ulemas, and extremist groups, and to the politics played by the regional administrative officers appointed by Islamabad was largely responsible for fuelling sectarian clashes in the region. Besides, it was always in the interest of the army in Pakistan to keep Gilgit-Baltistan divided on sectarian lines to retain tight control over this strategically important area. The Islamization drive of General Zia was welcomed by Sunni leaders as they deem that Islam can protect their interests from the politics of Shia’s community.” (Read the full report here)

The result of this has seen a drastic reduction in the original population mix. The formerly Shia province (80% during 1947-48) has them at less than 40% now, with the single digit Sunni percentage now up to an astounding 30%. More land grabs have made way for pushing in more and more Sunni settlers from Punjab and Sindh. This has worked particularly well for Pakistan. G-B enjoys geographic contiguity with KPK. That enabled Pakistan to ensure smooth transition of the Afghan jihadis to set shop here during the 90s, right after the Afghan War. Since then, G-B has been used as a launch-pad for Islamic terrorism in India. And because jihadi outfits are always on the lookout for fresh blood, the Sunni settlers in G-B have provided a steady pool of recruits.

A natural by-product of land grab and demographic alteration in most Muslim societies is sectarian conflict. However, the G-B sectarian issue is a little different, for it is a state unleashed protracted violence on the non-Sunni population – a tactic that has probably been implemented intending to eliminate the Shias and other non-Sunni sects in the long run. There has been an explosion in the rate of violence against the local Shia residents since 1988 – the internet is full of essays and articles on the same.

Another interesting development that needs a mention here: Since the 9/11 attack and GWOT (Global War on Terrorism), or later entries such as FATF List etc and a resultant perfunctory interest of the West in combating Islamic terrorism, G-B has been converted quite conveniently into a safe haven for the ‘banned’ terrorist outfits. Since the province is not technically a part of Pakistan, plausible deniability remains the king. You can think of it as a Pakistani Guantanamo Bay – only here, they harbour their non-state friends and allies.

Present conditions

The local population has been rallying and demonstrating their frustration. Sunni settlers not just take away their jobs, but they destroy forests and other natural resources. The affluent class – politicians, army officers, other business elites – take huge tracts of lands to build sprawling bungalows. From Imran Khan to Musharraf and Hamid Gul, it is a lengthy list.

Funds allocated for G-B development are funnelled to the Pak Army. The Sunni terrorists, when not trying to infiltrate into India, spend their time terrorising the Shias. China has been paving concrete all along the province wherever they can. They too have a big number of Chinese citizens – workers at the CPEC – who have settled there. All that the locals are left with are power-cuts, a reduction in subsidized food, higher taxes, and zero political representation or development.

That the garrison-state of Pakistan is incapable of building and sustaining a coherent, functional nation-state is something that we all know by now. What remains to be seen is how G-B reacts when the levee finally breaks. What would they want? Would they go the Balochistan/FATA way? Would they behave differently? What factors would determine their behaviour? Is there some semblance of a formation of representation?  Is anyone trying to find that out?

Click here to read Part-1 of the series on Gilgit Baltistan

(Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical analyst and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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