India plays its cards in Gilgit-Baltistan

In his Independence Day Address from Red Fort on Aug 15, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted the plight of the people of Baluchistan in Pakistan to deflect public attention from the mess in Jammu and Kashmir state where his party is a coalition partner. Pro-independence Baluchis were impressed by Modi’s gesture and now hope India might set them free like it liberated Bangladesh in 1971. But nuclear-armed Pakistan will not allow that to happen this time and for India, the  best potential for mischief is the backward, neglected and disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi created quite a furor with his coy reference to Pak-occupied Kashmir (PoK), Baluchistan, and Gilgit Baltistan during his Independence Day speech on August 15:

In the last few days, people of Baluchistan, Gilgit, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me. The people who are living far away, whom I have never seen, never met – such people have expressed appreciation for Prime Minister of India, for 125 crore countrymen.

Indian Prime Minister Modi gestures as he addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India, August 15, 2016. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

The proximate cause of this statement was, I expect, Modi’s interest in deflecting attention from the unpleasantness in India-controlled Kashmir, which has seen sizable unrest and dozens of deaths in recent weeks, by highlighting the dismal and brutal sway of Pakistan over its subjugated regions.

His speech was followed by an avalanche of coverage pushing the theme in the papers and on YouTube.

Modi’s remarks occasioned instantaneous hyperventilating from the Indian hyper-nationalist segment, which itches to erase Pakistan as a South Asian power presuming parity with India by depriving it of its disaffected Pashtun and Baluch minorities, reducing it to a local Punjabistan Muslim rump, and establishing India’s sway as unchallenged hegemon throughout the region.

Modi also created considerable excitement among Baluch independence advocates who hope that India might pull a Bangladesh i.e. provide significant covert and eventually open support to separatists as it did to the rebels who detached East Pakistan as an independent nation in 1971.

Not likely, I think.  Nuclear-armed Pakistan would probably see any Indian gambit in favor of Baluchistan as an existential threat to be met by unleashing the horrors of its jihadi proxies against Indian targets, and India’s new-found friends in Iran would not look kindly upon anything that threatened to further destabilize its easterly province of Sistan and Baluchistan.

And there’s China, which has designated the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC, which terminates at the port of Gwadar in the province of Baluchistan, as the strategic keystone of its One Belt One Road outreach to Central Asia and Europe.

Among China hawks, PM Modi’s rather equivocal murmurings elicited enthusiastic crowing along the lines of “Mr. Modi, also sent a message to China that without India’s support, CPEC will remain a pipe-dream.”

Well, I dunno.  There’s a fair amount of CPEC concrete getting poured already.

But India does have another card to play other than extra-legally meddling in the security of Baluchistan.

The best potential for mischief is in the contested region of Gilgit-Baltistan, the mountainous area occupied by Pakistan up by the Chinese border.  The main CPEC arteries have to cross Gilgit-Baltistan to get to the Khunjerab Pass and enter the PRC’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region on their way to Kashgar.

Gilgit-Baltistan, or GB, is a disputed territory that is part of the Kashmir mess.  Populated by a mixture of Shia, Sunni, and Ismaili (followers of the Aga Khan) Muslims with rather tenuous links to the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, GB fell under Pakistan’s control along with western Kashmir in 1947.  Gilgit-Baltistan is now a territory administered by the federal government with very limited local autonomy.

Reportedly, the PRC is rather anxious for Pakistan to regularize, at least nominally, the status of Gilgit-Baltistan by decoupling it from the Kashmir dispute, possibly through some “popular referendum” jiggery-pokery that declares that the residents of GB desire full incorporation into the nation of Pakistan.

Pakistan, however, is resistant since splitting off a piece of disputed Kashmir would negate the diplomatic posture it has adopted for decades: insisting on a UN-supervised plebiscite of all of Kashmir, the Indian as well as Pakistan-controlled portions, one that it expects would, if ever held, deliver Kashmir in its entirety to Pakistan.

However, even if Pakistan tiptoes in the direction of full incorporation of GB for the sake of the CPEC, it faces another problem: the local hostility and suspicion generated by decades of callous manipulation and neglect by the federal government.

GB is a beautiful place, but not a particularly happy one. Its remoteness and anomalous political status relegated Gilgit-Baltistan to resentful backwater status, at least until the CPEC came along.

Sectarianism has become a miserable fact of life in GB thanks to the central government’s promotion of Wahabbi-based and madrassa-transmitted Sunni Islam even to the remote areas of Gilgit Baltistan, and a countervailing movement sponsored by Iran to protect the region’s Shias.  Provocations and the intermittent conduct of bloody pogroms have apparently become a fact of life for this bucolic region, where Sunnis, Shias, and Ismailis used to dwell in communal harmony.

Islamabad also overturned the previous ban on outside immigration to GB, apparently with the idea of stacking the demographic deck with Punjabis loyal to the Center as the region moves toward local elections and a semblance of self-government.  A frequent complaint is that Punjabi carpetbaggers monopolize the best commercial and political opportunities while the local youth remain mired in poverty.

With its usual clumsiness, the Pakistan government martyred a GB activist, Baba Jan, sentencing him to life imprisonment for leadership of a demonstration cum government shooting cum riot protesting the indifferent federal response to a fatal landslide and flood that killed 19 and displaced thousands, and then blocking his attempts to run as candidate for the local assembly despite his incarceration.

An indication of the sophistication of federal government political co-option strategies is provided by an account that after Baba Jan and four other activists were bootstomped and had their fingers broken and wax dripped on their genitals…

…the activists were also asked to stop struggling for the rights of the oppressed and join any one of the mainstream parties, the PPP, the PML-N or the MQM!

Ditto, apparently, for the local politicians, if Baba Jan’s partisans are to be believed:

… Local members of all the mainstream parties have approached Baba Jan with offers of pardon and high privilege, if only he apologized to the authorities for his stubborn resistance — and joined their party.

Abusing Baba Jan and the other activists has not eliminated the sense of grievance in GB.

Perhaps not coincidentally on the day of Modi’s speech, the Awami Action Committee (AAC) called a shuttersdown or general strike in GB’s two largest towns.  The action was triggered by long-standing dissatisfaction against the federal government including, but not limited to, the fact that the locals believe they are getting jobbed out of their proper share of the CPEC bonanza.  It appears to have been widely honored, not just by shopkeepers but also by professionals such as lawyers, who shut down the BG high court.

The AAC, which has managed to set itself up on a refreshingly pan-sectarian foundation, was originally formed in 2014 to protest federal government attempts to phase out a subsidy of wheat at the behest of the IMF—which residents regard as an entitlement legally owed them by virtue of their status as occupants of a disputed territory.

The AAC’s grievances this year give a pretty clear picture of the state of play in GB and a growing localist movement seeking formal recognition of fundamental political and economic rights:

The speakers at the event also rejected the Mining Concession Rules, 2016, and alleged that the law had deprived the people of Gilgit-Baltistan of their own resources and shifted their ownership to federal ministry of Kashmir affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan. “GB has the potential to generate cheap hydropower, but the federal government is reluctant to initiate the projects, due to which GB people are facing 12 to 14 hours power outages daily,” a participant noted.

The protesters said that the subsidy on wheat was the right of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, and that the federal government’s decision to cut the subsidy and decrease wheat supply had caused shortage of wheat in the remote areas. The speakers strongly held that the laws which had no backing of the Gilgit-Baltistan people should not be implemented.

The Pakistan government is freaked out by the prospect of journalists reporting from GB, so local coverage is hard to come by.  Indian media made its best efforts to paint the situation in GB as a mirror of the brutal Pakistan occupation of Kashmir, reporting the alarming but unconfirmed allegation that Pakistani authorities had detained 500 youth during the strike — a huge number in the sparsely populated territory — and describing the situation in GB with a touch of anticipatory schadenfreude:

The Awami Action Committee of Gilgit-Baltistan has called for an indefinite strike in the entire area unless and until Pakistan withdraws its security forces and also rollbacks China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

This account in Pakistani media seems somewhat more circumstantial and probably more accurate concerning local hopes for a ride on the CPEC gravy train:

Addressing the rallies in Gilgit, Sultan Rais, Chairman Awami Action Committee GB, said that CPEC will pass through 600 kilometers area of Gilgit-Baltistan but it is unfortunate that they are not getting even a single industrial zone or any development project.

“We are not opposing the CPEC.  People want that at least they should be informed about the project, be taken into confidence so that they could get to know what all benefits they will get from this project,” he said.

The AAC could draw encouragement both from Modi’s remarks on Indian Independence Day, and also from the eagerness of the opposition PPP party to score political points against the ruling PML-N by questioning its handling of the CPEC and promising a higher priority to GB interests.

An interesting punctuation point to the situation in GB will be provided by a by-election in the Hunza district (site of the fatal landslide) on August 29.

Baba Jan was trying to run; another activist will run under the banner of the Awami Workers Party in his stead; and will compete against candidates of the national PML-N and PPP parties, turning the poll into something of a referendum on central government policies or the efficacy of big party vote fixing and vote banks.

As a matter of practical logistics, apparently Gilgit-Baltistan looks south to Pakistan as a source of commerce and detested Punjabi encroachment; to the west for links with ethnic-Pashtun regions; and not too much to the east, to Kashmir or India, which yearns to clasp the people of GB to its bosom.

In fact, one of the most interesting elements of the recent demonstrations was a march north, to the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Pass, to make the wishes of the people of GB known to the dispenser of CPEC goodies and source of maximum leverage over Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China.

It seems to me that this would be a rare opportunity for the PRC to show the smiling soft-power face of Chinese strategic outreach.

With Pakistan’s army promising to turn the Baluchistan section of the CPEC into a fortified lager patrolled by 15,000 troops, Gilgit-Baltistan may be the PRC’s best chance to lean on the federal government and use GB as a showcase to demonstrate its much-advertised “win-win” foreign policy to Pakistan’s localities and the world.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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